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Daniel Charles

Take a walk through the grocery story, and the packages are talking to you, proclaiming their moral virtue, appealing to your ideals: Organic. Cage-free. Fair Trade.

When I dug into the world of eco-labels recently, I was surprised to find that some of the people who know these labels best are deeply ambivalent about them.

John Draper and I are sitting in the cab of a tractor on the research farm he manages for the University of Maryland, alongside the Chesapeake Bay. Behind us, there's a sprayer.

"So, away we go!" Draper says. He pushes a button, and we start to move. A fine mist emerges from nozzles on the arms of the sprayer.

We're spraying glyphosate, killing off this field's soil-saving "cover crop" of rye before planting soybeans.

Farmers have been using this chemical, often under the trade name Roundup, for about four decades now.

The company Calyxt, just outside St. Paul, Minn., wanted to make a new kind of soybean, with oil that's a little healthier — more like olive oil.

As it happens, some wild relatives of soybeans already produce seeds with such "high oleic" oil — high in monounsaturated fat. It's because a few of their genes have particular mutations, making them slightly different from the typical soybeans that farmers grow.

This past week in San Francisco, food writers and environmentalists gathered to taste some breakfast cereal.

This particular cereal had an ingredient — the milled seeds of a little-known plant called Kernza — that's the result of a radical campaign to reinvent agriculture and reverse an environmentally disastrous choice made by our distant ancestors.

There was a moment, about 20 years ago, when farmers thought that they'd finally defeated weeds forever.

Biotech companies had given them a new weapon: genetically engineered crops that could tolerate doses of the herbicide glyphosate, also known by its trade name, Roundup. Farmers could spray this chemical right over their crops, eliminate the weeds, and the crops were fine.

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