Here's a continuing look at how agriculture changed in the late 1990s. It's part of a four-part series by the author, who has covered agriculture for 30 years.
The first time I saw Roundup Ready soybeans in a test plot there were just four rows of them. There were no weeds, compared to weeds in other treatments. But that little plot hardly screamed 'deal breaker.' Yet that's exactly what Roundup Ready soybeans would become, shooting Roundup herbicide to the top, and then glyphosate generics to follow, and actually forcing some companies to change how they did business.
Today the vast, vast majority of soybeans grown in the U.S. are Roundup Ready, with glyphosate sprayed at some point over nearly all of them. Some are Liberty Link, which can be sprayed with Ignite, another broad spectrum herbicide. Fewer still are non-GMO beans, the conventional beans that still require conventional herbicides because they would die if sprayed with glyphosate or Ignite. They're primarily grown by people with special markets, often where soybeans go directly into the food chain, or by those who simply oppose technology.
Compared to the tractor, Roundup Ready soybeans were adapted in lightning speed. Tractors appeared in the teens, and several widely sold models came out in the 1920s. But even by the 1940s, many people still farmed with horses. It wasn't until after World War II that the use of tractors took off, a some 30-year adoption span.
Roundup Ready beans didn't come without some baggage, namely strict enforcement by Monsanto of their rights and prohibition of farmers to raise their own seed. Well within their rights, it was still a hard sell to farmers used to storing, bagging and cleaning their own seed. Resistant weeds also started to develop. The list has grown, and is partly responsible for the shift to include other chemistries, residual herbicides, in a program approach today.
At the same time, Bt technology got off the ground, first for corn borer, then for other insects. The earliest event wasn't foolproof, but improved events placed in better hybrids convinced farmers that Bt corn was the real deal. It took off more quickly in areas where corn borer was a more consistent problem than it is in Indiana, but it was clear this was no fad. The die had been cast for investment in biotechnology that would lead to many more traits.