A fundamental change occurred when the first genetically engineered crops went commercial in 1996. Farmers who planted GE crops that were altered to withstand continued application of herbicide glyphosate began to rely on a single system for weed management — the use of glyphosate, sold under brand name Roundup and manufactured by Monsanto. As Dr. David A. Mortensen of the Pennsylvania State University noted in his testimony before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on July 28, 2010, “[i]n evolutionary terms, widespread and persistent glyphosate use without diversity in weed control practices is a strong selection pressure for weeds able to survive glyphosate.” (“Mortensen Testimony”). In other words, get ready for the invasion of superweeds.
Fast-forward fourteen years later and farmers around the world are dealing with superweeds, the number of which went from zero in 1995 to 19 in June of 2010. These superweeds grow fast, big and wide in a matter of days. Pig weed, for example, is a superweed that “grows up to three inches a day, and at its base it’s as thick as a baseball bat. It kills crops and destroys heavy machinery, keeping farmers from bringing their combines and cotton pickers into the fields.”
Welcome to today’s farming where farmers are facing a dramatic rise in the number of weed species that are resistant to glyphosate and a concomitant decline in the effectiveness in of glyphosate as a weed management tool. “North Carolina Weed Scientist, Alan York, has called glyphosate resistant weeds ‘potentially the worst threat to cotton since the boll weevil” due to extraordinary levels of dependence on glyphosate.’” (Testimony transcript of Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of Center For Food Safety before Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, July 28, 2010, p. 4) (“Kimbrell Testimony”). Even scientists who actively support GE crops cannot deny that the invasion of superweeds is a major problem. (See the testimony transcripts of Prof. Michael Owen, PhD of Iowa State University, as well as the testimony transcript of Dr. Steve Weller of Purdue University.).
But that’s not the end of the story. As Dr. Mortensen reports, not only is the number of species evolving resistance to glyphosate increasing at rate of 1-2 species per year, and that’s by conservative estimates, but there is a dramatic increase in acreage infested with glyphosate resistant weeds. In a period of three years, between 2007 and 2010, for example, the number of reported sites in the United States infested by glyphosate resistant weeds has increased nine-fold, while the maximum infested acreage increased nearly five-fold.
The news gets grimmer because not only is the number of weeds resistant to glyphosate increasing but farmers are also forced to return to weed management practices that were supposed have been eliminated with the use of glyphosate. Oops. As crops become resistant to glyphosate, harsher herbicides, such as triazines, 2,4-D and dicamba are being tank mixed with glyphosate to eliminate problems with glyphosate resistant weeds. (Kimbrell Testimony p. 5). And not unexpected, farmers are already seeing resistance to multiple herbicides. Farmers also have to return to tillage, a more labor intensive and soil-damaging practice of weed management. (Mortensen Testimony p. 2). Superweeds invasion is costly in other ways as well. USDA’s Agricultural Research Service estimates that up to 25% of annual U.S. pest (weed and insect) control expenditures are attributable to pesticide resistance management, that’s 900 million dollars each year. (Mortensen Testimony, p. 2).
But where should the blame for the superweed invasion lie? Should we look to farmers, as Professors Owen and Weller suggest, to tackle this weediness? Are the seed and herbicide producing companies to blame? Or are the policies of the United States’ regulatory agencies responsible for the superweeds invasion?
In light of the fact that companies such as Monsanto, spent years erroneously advising to farmers to exclusively use ever-greater quantities of Roundup to control the weeds in their fields, and in light of the fact that USDA’s Health and Plant Inspection Services (“APHIS”) approved GE crops without engaging in a serious environmental review and deregulated them without post-commercial supervision, blaming the farmers would be disingenuous. Farmers may be the players in the system but before we hurl accusations at them let’s look at how the system encourages them to engage in farming methods that engender superweeds.
It has been widely reported how USDA employs many industry insiders to regulate those same industries. (See many of our articles on this topic here.) It may be the number one reason why the regulations and the agency’s interpretation of its role is so limited. For example, Andrew Kimbrell correctly noted in his testimony before Congress that “USDA the has self-imposed a very limited interpretation of its regulatory ambit, claiming that once that narrow review is completed, all further oversight or inquiry must end.” And its not just Kimbrell’s view. In 2005 the Office of Inspector General concluded that weaknesses in APHIS’ internal management controls undermine the agency’s ability to oversee successfully the safe development of genetically engineered organisms. In short, the OIG found that APHIS often failed to follow its own mandates. And this seems to have become the agency’s modus operandi.
And when Kimbrell recently stated that “USDA has become a rogue agency in its regulation of biotech crops,” he was not just trying to spin the PR web. In recent years, USDA has been shot down by several federal courts for the agency’s conduct, or, more properly, misconduct. Courts have criticized the agency for being cavalier, ignoring concerns of farmers, acting with “utter disregard” for laws, abdicating the agency’s responsibilities, and more recently, a Federal Judge ordered the agency “under penalty of perjury” to produce evidence that it made information about beet stecklinkgs permits publicly available on APHIS’ website, what information was made available and when. (See Kimbrell’s Testimony before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, July 28, 2010, pp. 3-5). Such agency conduct doesn’t exactly inspire public trust and confidence.
And seed companies, like the giant Monsanto, believed to control as much as 90 percent of seed genetics, are diligently working to ensure that farmers look nowhere else but a single weed management system. Offering discounts, enticing farmers with what now known to be unrealized promises of higher yields, and engaging in less than truthful tactics, such as those reported by Troy Roush, who was advised by a Monsanto scientist to increase application rates of Roundup when he contacted the company to inquire about weed resistance, are all methods designed to keep farmers indentured to the Monsanto’s vision of farming. Furthermore, after enticing farmers to switch to GM crops and the associated herbicides that must be used on the crops, farmers have to sign ironclad, one-sided contracts in which they give up a lot of their rights, including the right to farm their fields as they know and want (remember the no-seed-saving clause).
This movie, starring Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds, is familiar to many U.S. farmers, many of whom come to question their decisions to plant GM crops. In fact, because the long-term promises of GM crops did not pan out and because farmers are facing increasing costs and soil degradation in attempting to battle with superweeds brought about by the use of GM crops, farmers are considering switching back to conventional seeds. (See Roush Testimony and also this article by Tiffany Kaiser of the DailyTech). Furthermore, after painful trial-and-error with superweeds management they realize that the alternatives to weed resistance, i.e., harsher chemicals and tillage, as well as those alternative being contemplated by the biotechnology companies and the agri-chemical industry, i.e., designing crops resistant to multiple herbicides, are short sighted and wrong-headed. (Troy Roush Testimony Transcript before the Domestic Policy Subcommittee of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, July 28, 2010, p. 2-3, stating that “genetically engineered crops that are resistant to multiple herbicides are a disaster waiting to happen.”).
Before we blame farmers and target them exclusively as the be-all solution to superweeds, as suggested by Professors Weller and Owen, careful attention must be paid to the USDA’s policies, activities of the seed companies and how the two work in a partnership to create and foster conditions that make superweeds a daily reality.