A few months back, alarming news reports like this ABC news video surfaced about the rise of superweeds.
But the sensational story failed to focus on the most important point: these menacing superweeds are found in fields where GM crops are planted.
This situation is rife with irony.
The biotech companies that produce the GM seeds and the pesticides that go with them tout technological farming as the only viable alternative to feed a growing population of which fewer and fewer of people are farmers. There have even been accusations thrown around that organic farming advocates just want to return farmers to the “dark ages.”
Yet, these weeds, which kill crops, stop combines, break equipment and make it impossible to harvest, are causing farmers in especially hard hit areas of the south to resort to hand-management of weeds and good old fashioned people-powered harvesting.
The very crops that promised to save farmers on labor in exchange for shelling out more money for chemicals and seeds are actually threatening to return farmers to those so-called “dark ages”.
Blaming the Victim
In the news report above, Monsanto, the company that manufactures the herbicide Roundup, which is no longer killing the weeds, blames the superweeds on “over application” by farmers.
It only stands to reason that a farmer, in order to combat ever larger, faster growing, and more tenacious weeds, would use the only ammunition available to him or her: more poison.
Back in 2008, an article in Business Week noted that superweeds are a real nuisance for farmers, who have to work harder to tend their fields and spend more on buying and applying herbicides.
The same article noted that the increase in Roundup-resistant weeds is a very, very good thing for Monsanto. In fact, the article reports on an investor conference in which EVP Brett Begemann told investors that the company would raise its 2008 earnings guidance, thanks in part to better-than-anticipated Roundup sales. In the company’s first fiscal quarter of 2008, sales of Roundup and other chemicals jumped 47%.
New Report Measures Pesticide Use
This jump in sales corresponds to a dramatic increase in actual pounds of pesticides applied.
How much? A report, released in November by The Organic Center quantifies this. Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use in the United States: The First 13 Years relies on USDA data to measure the amounts of pesticides applied to genetically modified corn, soybean, and cotton fields over the past 13 years of commercial use (1996-2008).
As expected, in the first years, pesticide use was lower in the resistant crops, but usage has spiked over the past few years. The primary cause is the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds. The data measures all pesticides including insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Though insecticide use has decreased, herbicide use more than makes up for that decrease. And there is some evidence that insecticide-resistant insects are emerging.
Over the past 13 years Bt (insecticide resistant) corn and cotton have delivered reductions in insecticide use totaling 64.2 million pounds, as compared to likely use if the crops had been conventional. On the other hand, herbicide resistant crops have resulted in a whopping increase of herbicide application totaling 382.6 million pounds over the same time period, with 45% of this increase taking place between 2007 and 2008. This sharp sudden increase is due to the emergence of superweeds.
Resistant horseweed is the most widely spread and extensive Roundup-resistant weed. It was first found in Delaware in 2000 and now infests millions of acres in the South and Midwest. Some farmers are resorting to ever stronger and more toxic herbicides including 2,4-D, which is one of the components of Agent Orange.
The Silver Lining
The report says that in 2009, plantings of Roundup Ready soybeans are slowing as farmers turn toward conventional crops. Demand for conventional soybeans is outstripping supply in several states. Reasons given by farmers include resistant weeds, increasing GM seed prices, higher sales prices for non-GM soybeans, lower than expected yields, and the cost savings farmers realize when they can save seeds from year to year, which is illegal with GM seeds.
Industry’s answer to superweeds is simply to engineer the crops to withstand higher doses of chemicals or different chemicals altogether. The report tells us of “next-generation” resistant crops that will likely be sprayed with two or three times the amount of herbicides typically applied today.
Are the superweeds simply an evolutionary response to high doses of chemicals or have they picked up resistant traits through gene transfer from the very crops they are infesting? Way back in 2001 scientists thought it was possible that weeds could pick up traits from the GM crops engineered to withstand high doses of pesticides, creating a new class of superweeds. There’s no guarantee that’s what is happening here, but it seems likely. We already know that gene drift occurs between GM and conventional crops.
This is the latest installment in Vanessa Barrington’s weekly column, The Green Plate, on the environmental, social, and political issues related to what and how we eat.