The disappointing reality of genetically modified (GM) crops has begun to belie the promises made by their makers … primarily Monsanto.
This is one reason among many that we decline to offer GM foods in our store.
Sadly, it is becoming harder to ensure total absence of GM ingredients in a world increasingly dominated by GM crops, whose pollen can end up almost anywhere.
Our anti-GM position has as much or more to do with sustainability – and fear of concentrated agribusiness power – than with food safety.
In fact, for Monsanto and other biotech firms, food safety fears are something of a useful red herring in the GM debate, because billions of people have eaten GM corn, soy, and canola oil daily for several decades without any apparent harm to human health.
Sadly, U.S. law does not require close post-approval monitoring of GM foods' health impacts by the FDA ... and subtle negative effects might be hard to detect.
Safety concerns aside, the GM farming system concentrates power in a few firms and maintains farmers' reliance on a petroleum- and toxin-based agriculture model that's inherently unsustainable ... and certainly unsafe for consumers, farmers, and farm workers.
We covered two problems in recent articles … see “GMO-Linked Herbicide Begins to Backfire” and “Natural Pesticide from GM Crops Found in Fetuses”.
Now, as reported in Missouri's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, cotton farmers are finding that the Roundup® herbicide designed for use with their Monsanto-produced “Roundup Ready®” GM cotton crops is failing to do the job.
The promise of Roundup
So-called Roundup Ready GM crops were engineered to be resistant to Roundup – whose active ingredient is a newer agrichemical called glyphosate.
The idea, in addition to locking farmers into a profitable reliance on Monsanto, was to allow them to kill weeds with less mechanical tillage – which damages soil – and less risk to the crops being protected.
Roundup Ready soybeans were first marketed by Monsanto in 1996, followed by alfalfa, corn, cotton, spring canola, sugar beets, and winter canola.
Mostly in the form of an ingredient in Roundup® herbicide, glyphosate has become common on American farms over the past 15 years.
Its rapid rise produced unprecedented crop yields … as well as higher profits for farmers and Monsanto.
Compared with older herbicides, glyphosate is less toxic in many respects – though unexpected negative effects continue to emerge.
And according to a Monsanto-funded survey of some 1,200 farmers, “Growers in all cropping systems increased their use of conservation [i.e., less-damaging] tillage after adopting Roundup Ready crops. The scientists concluded that these data demonstrate that growers are willing to adopt conservation tillage when they can effectively control weeds.” (MT 2009)
So in theory, planting of Roundup Ready GM crops should be better for the environment even as it allows farmers to apply as much as needed without risk of harming these GM crops.
But, as the Post-Dispatch wrote, “reliance on glyphosate has led to an explosion in weeds that are genetically adapting to withstand its application. These weeds adapt faster and more vigorously than their [less-resistant] cousins, choking fields and clogging irrigation ditches so badly water can't pass through.” (Gustin G 2011)
And alarming news out of cotton country suggests that the promise of Roundup Ready crops is already being broken, thanks to weeds' rapid ability to adapt, via natural selection … that is, survival of the fittest.
A promise broken … by nature's failure to cooperate
According to a July 17, 2011 report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “[Cotton] Farmers in the state's south are resorting to some old-fashioned tactics. Weeds in cotton fields have gotten so tenacious — some with stems 4-inches around — that farmers are paying itinerant crews to chop them down by hand.” (Gustin G 2011)
The paper quoted Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau, who said, “In the Bootheel they're hiring people to go out there with hoes. I swung a hoe for 15 years, and I fail to see the romance in it.” (Gustin G 2011)
The problem, says the report, is that weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Monsanto's Roundup, sold generically as glyphosate, forcing farmers to use other herbicides or “multiple modes of action”, including increased tillage and hand weeding.
But farmers told the paper that these tactics aren't working either, “and there appears to be little relief on the horizon. In Missouri, herbicide dealers have sold out of Cobra, one of the herbicides most widely used in tandem with glyphosate.” (Gustin G 2011)
As Aaron Hager, a weed scientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign told the Post-Dispatch, “Are they running out of options? The simple answer is yes.” (Gustin G 2011)
Farmers across the Midwest and South are increasingly using multiple herbicides to kill weeds … combinations that include the older, more toxic herbicides that glyphosate was supposed to replace.
Brett Lorenzen, a legal analyst with the Environmental Working Group, made the obvious point: “It's rather ironic that we were sold glyphosate as an alternative to these older pesticides, and now farmers are using them again. But that's part of the pattern of the pesticide industry.” (SLPD 2011)
In some areas of Missouri, certain weeds are resistant to three herbicides, while in Illinois, some weeds have become resistant to four chemicals.
In response, Monsanto has slashed prices, offered rebates to farmers and given them incentives to buy other herbicides … even those of its competitors.
Failure of Roundup was foreseeable … sustainable farming is the answer
Sadly, all of this was quite predictable. Monsanto and its competitors have known about glyphosate resistance since the mid-1990s, when crops genetically engineered to withstand its application first hit the market.
The companies should have more clearly warned about over-reliance on glyphosate sooner.
Government-required labels urged farmers to use other herbicides in conjunction with glyphosate, but these suggestions were tucked away in fine print.
And not nearly enough has been done by universities and government to develop and help farmers adopt organic – or “chemical-light” integrated pest management (IPM) techniques.
Just as important, farmers who adopt sustainable methods should be given financial incentives to help keep them reasonably competitive with farmers who use conventional, ultimately unsustainable techniques, including toxic chemicals and excessive tillage, which leads to soil depletion and erosion.
And over time, unsustainable farming should be phased out, with financial support for the transition, and allowance for temporary use of synthetic, toxic chemicals to prevent widespread bankruptcies of farms and/or food shortages.
We already spend billions supporting an unsustainable, toxic system. Instead, America should just shift that spending to support smarter, healthier approaches to agriculture.
Monsanto Technology LLC (MT). Roundup Ready® Crops Have Major Positive Impact on Tillage Practices*, 2009. Accessed at http://www.monsanto.com/weedmanagement/Documents/Benchmark-TillageSummaryRept2.pdf
Monsanto Company. Roundup Ready System. Accessed at http://www.monsanto.com/weedmanagement/Pages/roundup-ready-system.aspx
Gustin G. Resistant weeds leave farmers desperate. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 17, 2011. Accessed at