For the past 40 years, conventional farmers have been using chemical herbicides to kill weeds in their fields. It was touted as being easier on the farmer and the environment than the more traditional methods of tilling. Today, scientists are facing the grim reality that this chemical shortcut has now created a problem much larger than ever foreseen.
The selection pressure created by these chemical applications has lead to rapid evolution of weed species that survive chemical herbicides. Weed Science released a new series of studies this month which find at least 21 weed species have become resistant to the world’s most popular herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). A growing number can survive multiple herbicides. Some of the stronger varieties, such as pigweed, grows three inches a day and is tough enough to damage farm machinery.
“The herbicide resistance issue is becoming serious,” said expert, William Vencill, “It is spreading out beyond where weed scientists have seen it before.” In 3 years, glyphosate-resistant crops have spread by more than 450% and infested more than 11 million acres of US farmland in 2010. In that same year, Congress held hearings to discuss possible solutions to the issue. No solution was found because of a determination to fix the problem using the same technology that caused it.
Of particular concern is the degree to which the US has plunged headfirst into glyphosate reliance. Genetically-modified organisms (GMO) engineered to tolerate glyphosate account for roughly 90 percent of soy, canola and corn in the United States. These patented GMO seeds are typically twice the price of non-GMO varieties and are dependent on the use of glyphosate.
Information released by Wikileaks earlier this year revealed that the US has been actively lobbying other countries in efforts to increase GMO adoption, even going so far as to penalize countries that did not comply. To understand this, one need simply look at the long list of former biotech industry executives who now hold US government regulatory positions.
During the 2010 congressional hearing, Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety, called the glyphosate-resistance issue just the latest failure of the USDA on biotech issues. “The history of USDA’s oversight of genetically-engineered crops is littered with failures,” said Kimbrell, calling for more oversight of biotech firms by the government. “Numerous government assessments have found USDA’s oversight severely lacking.”
In May 2011, the USDA went so far as to allow biotech companies to conduct their own studies on whether or not to approve their own products.
Originally marketed as an “environmentally-friendly” herbicide, Roundup has been associated with a deformities in a host of laboratory animals. Other studies have linked it to birth defects in humans.
The route these biotech companies are taking is obviously unsustainable. Monsanto’s only current solution is to advocate prevention by diversifying chemical application and crop rotation, but this is only delaying the inevitable. Any one of these issues alone is reason to question the continued use of this technology. Other varieties of GMO crops are raising flags as well, as the toxin produced in Bt corn is now showing up in the blood of pregnant women and fetuses.
Associated health risks aside, proponents and manufacturers of GMO crops state they are working to solve the world’s hunger problem. As it becomes more and more expensive for farmers to manage these weeds infesting their fields, we could see yields drop and food costs climb. If this happens, and all indicators point towards that unfortunate outcome, then we will see GMOs exacerbating the problem they were supposedly designed to fix.