Letter from Washington — From the September 2015 issue

Weed Whackers

Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species

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The official White House biography of Peter Raven listed him as the director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and noted that he held a professorship at Washington University in St. Louis. That description failed to convey the full reach of his power and prestige as America’s leading botanist. Wade Davis, an ethnobotanist at the University of British Columbia, describes Raven as a “total force of nature. He took a staid Midwest botanical garden and put it on steroids, turning it into the greatest institution of its kind on earth.” A former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Time magazine Hero for the Planet, chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, Raven was (and is) a hugely influential figure, with a network that extends through academic, government, and corporate bureaucracies.

He originally made his name in scientific circles with a 1964 paper, “Butterflies and Plants: A Study in Coevolution,” written with Paul Ehrlich, a biologist later famous for the dire (and largely unfulfilled) predictions sketched out in his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb. Like Ehrlich, Raven tended to express a gloomy view of the planet’s prospects. He regularly lamented the wholesale loss of our biodiversity, brought about by the accelerating extinction of plant and animal species. “We’re over the mark anyway in preserving the world’s sustainability,” he told me in a recent conversation. “We’ve passed the point at which we can really do that effectively.”

Raven’s panel set to work and released its report, Teaming with Life: Investing in Science to Understand and Use America’s Living Capital, in March 1998. The report took a bearish view of the ecological future, sounding an apocalyptic note on the first page:

Collectively, all human beings, including Americans, are playing a crucial role in the sixth major extinction event to occur in the course of more than three billion years of life on Earth. . . . During the history of the United States, more than 500 of its known species have been eliminated (half of these since 1980) by various causes, including destruction of habitat by human activities or invasive species.

Although the document repeatedly stressed the virtues of biodiversity, it showed little sympathy for “invasive species such as killer bees, zebra mussels, fire ants, and the Mediterranean fruit fly,” which were supposedly devastating the natural environment and posing “threats to the health of our human population.” The zebra mussel, receiving no thanks for its heroic pollution-control efforts, was singled out for obloquy, having “cost more than $5 billion just to clean out pipes clogged by extremely densely clustered populations.” (A decade later, a careful study by a team of Cornell scientists assessed zebra-mussel damage at one twentieth of that amount over fifteen years.)

Amid the gloom, however, the report identified a ray of hope: genetically modified organisms (GMOs). “It is anticipated that the U.S. market for seeds of genetically modified crops will grow to $6.5 billion during the next ten years,” it noted, “and the annual production value of the plants derived from those seeds will be many times that amount.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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