We haven’t seen anything yet ….
According an article in the Wall Street Journal,1 at least nine weeds in the USA have developed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, which is sold by the US biotech giant Monsanto under the Roundup trademark. These weeds have spread to millions of acres in more than 20 states in the midwest and the south. Dupont, another of the world’s big biotech companies, believes that by the middle of this decade at least 40 per cent of the land planted with maize and soya in the US is likely to harbour at least some superweeds resistant to Roundup.
This means that Roundup Ready soya, which was genetically modified by Monsanto to be resistant to Roundup, is increasingly ineffective. One farmer from Arkansas told the newspaper that Roundup no longer controls pigweed, which is running rampant on his fields. The weed can grow six feet high “on a stalk like a baseball bat”, he said. As these stalks damaged his farm machinery during the last harvest, he had to resort to practices from his father’s day to control it, employing a crew of 20 labourers to attack the weed with hoes. As even this was only partially effective, he also used paraquat, an older and highly poisonous herbicide, to eradicate the weeds.
All this is great news for the biotech companies, even paradoxically Monsanto. “The herbicide business used to be good before Roundup nearly wiped it out”, said Dan Dyer, head of soya research and development at Syngenta. “Now it’s getting fun again.”
The “fun”, of course, is the chance to push ahead with new research to genetically modify crops to be resistant to other herbicides apart from glyphosate.
Although the companies are tight-lipped about their plans, some information is available. Dow Agro-Science is developing GM maize that will be resistant to the powerful herbicide 2,4–D, which it manufactures. It should be on the market by 2013. Syngenta is field-testing soya that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to a relatively new herbicide that it makes, called Callisto. Monsanto is also developing a new soya, resistant to the herbicide dicamba.2
Sales of Roundup are unlikely to fall with the arrival of these new GM crops, as glyphosate will remain a central part of the farmer’s arsenal. According to the Wall Street Journal, “most companies developing crops tolerant of other herbicides want to build them on a Roundup Ready platform, so to speak – putting their new herbicide-tolerant genes into crops that already carry tolerance for Roundup.”
Although this is little discussed in the mainstream press, one cannot help wondering where this technical merry-go-round is going to end. The big advantage of the first generation of GM crops was supposed to be that, by allowing farmers to use Roundup, a relatively benign herbicide, at a key moment in the growing season, both the quantity and the toxicity of the herbicides the farmers used would decline. This was not the case, as sales of herbicides did not fall significantly. But now, with the second generation, a cocktail of more lethal herbicides will be used from the outset, which clearly implies a step-change in the use of herbicides.
This clearly presents a grave risk to human health, the ecosystem and neighbouring farmers. For instance, grapes are highly sensitive to 2,4–D, and one wine-maker from Texas told the Wall Street Journal that he would go under if 2,4–D-resistant cotton were to be adopted by nearby farms. “A neighbour could take me out in one night”, he said.
Despite the lip-service paid to the alleged “environmental friendliness” of GMOs, it has been clear for some time that what big commercial farmers really like about GM technology is that it permits no-till farming, which means that they can reduce labour costs. And, as the Wall Street Journal points out, this advantage is one that they are anxious to retain: “Farmers have no wish to return to labor-intensive methods. The success of expensive seeds that are Roundup-tolerant shows growers will pay a steep premium to control weeds chemically.”
Ecologists are fighting back, though few are hopeful of their chances of securing more than sporadic victories. One case in point concerns 2,4–D, one of the chemicals used in the manufacture of Agent Orange, the main defoliant used by the US military in the Vietnam war. In 2008 the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the Environment Protection Agency for 2,4–D to be banned, citing research that shows that it disrupts hormones in trout, rodents and sheep. Dow is rebutting these claims. A decision is expected later this year.
1- Scott Kilman, ‘Superweed outbreak triggers arms race’, Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2010, http://www.gmwatch.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=12263
2- See GRAIN, “12 years of GM soya in Argentina – a disaster for people and the environment”, Seedling, January 2009, http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=578