It was the talk of the cotton belt last year, a hype that blew like a lush wind from Arizona to North Carolina. After a decade of high -- priced research, Monsanto Company was finally coming to market with a genetically altered cotton seed that would produce its own "natural" bug killer right there in every fiber of the plant. In the equipment sheds and ginning plants of central Texas, the seed was said to be a marvel of man over nature, the perfect child of a new science that would forever change agriculture.
This superseed -- the offspring of Monsanto's union with one of the oldest seed companies in the country, Delta and Pine Land of Mississippi -- would reduce the need for airplanes dusting costly pesticides on the cotton fields below, at least for the bollworm and the budworm. Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a toxic bacterium long used topically by organic farmers, was now part of the plant's genetic makeup. Rain couldn't wash it off. Sun and wind wouldn't break it down. The unsuspecting caterpillars would never know what hit them. After a few innocent bites, a dose of hidden toxin would rend the pests' stomach walls like razor blades, killing the bugs within three days.
In early 1996, St. Louis-based Monsanto gathered together farmers at lunch meetings throughout the cotton belt and pressed the gospel of Bt cotton. Gary Conn, a fourth-generation cotton farmer who leases more than 1,000 acres in the Brazos River Valley, the most fertile farmland in the Lone Star state, wanted to believe in the new technology.