A recent number crunching report by the Electronic Research Service (ERS) arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives the reader an eye full of charts, graphs and statistics but not the full picture of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S. (which also happens to be the name of the report). While the ERS Report has information for both sides of the GMO debate to chew on, the downplaying of certain resistance data along with the unwillingness to envision and champion systemic changes to the current U.S. farming model suggests an institutional preference for the status quo.
Kudos to the ERS Report for dedicating several pages to glyphosate resistance and noting that there are 14 weeds resistant to glyphosate in the United States. The academic language of that presentation, however, belies the on the ground reality. Here is how a University of Arkansas weed specialist, Jason Norsworthy, described glyphosate resistance in Arkansas in a taped interview during an event for weed specialists and industry members in Nebraska in 2012: 60% soybeans have glyphosate resistant palmer amaranth and for 80% of cotton glyphosate is no longer an effective option. Norsworthy predicted that if glyphosate resistance is left unaddressed, there could be resistance over the entire farm in matter of 2-3 years.
Here is a poignant visual example demonstrating the spread of resistance in counties in North Dakota and Minnesota in a mere six years.
According to recent data, 61 million farm acres in the United States (49% of the farms) reported infestation of glyphosate resistant weeds. “To put that in perspective, it’s the area of the state of Wyoming,” said Bill Freese, the Science Policy Analyst for Center for Food Safety, to GMO Journal. Stated different, added Freese, “if you consider [that] a total of 185 million acres planted to soy, corn, cotton,” the three major crops modified to withstand repeated applications of glyphosate (upwards of 90% of some of the crops), “then about 1/3 of that is infested with [glyphosate resistant] weeds. That is a huge area, far more than is infested by weeds resistant to other herbicides.”
Glyphosate resistance is a problem for farmers but a boon for pesticide manufacturers. Not only have sales of pesticides increased overall but resistance has also spurred the development of next generation engineered crops resistant 2,4-D and dicamba, yet another temporary “solution” that primarily benefits the pesticide manufacturers. Dow Chemical’s Dow AgroSciences and president of the Weed Science Society of America in 2010, was quoted in WSJ extolling glyphosate resistance as “a very significant opportunity” for chemical companies, and that, “[i]t is a new era.”
The ERS Report, however, shies away from criticizing the seed and pesticide companies for having “spent much of the last two decades selling farmers products that would ultimately produce herbicide-resistant weeds.”
Furthermore, the ERS Report fails to sufficiently address the problems with wide-spread adoption of crops resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba. In fact, it dedicates a total of one line regarding this next round of GMO crops: “herbicide toxicity may soon be negatively affected (compared to glyphosate) by the introduction (estimated for 2014) of crops tolerant to the herbicides dicamba and 2,4-D.”
Those not tethered to the pesticide industry argue that crops resistant to 2,4-D and dicamba “will only exacerbate resistant weed problems and environmental risks.” The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of USDA (APHIS) conceded this much in its draft environmental impact statement although it went ahead with its deregulation recommendation.
Cornucopia Institute, in its comments to APHIS, stresses that an increase of 2,4-D in the environment “means increased environmental residues in rivers, lakes and oceans, which will harm fish. The herbicide also harms earthworms, birds, and beneficial insects.” (citations omitted).
Additionally, while the manufacturers claim that this new version of 2,4-D is less volatile than its predecessors (or the generic variations), there is growing concern that because of the chemical’s volatility “drift from 2,4-D can injure or kill non-target crops grown by neighboring farmers, landscape plants grown by nearby homeowners, and native plants in their natural habitat.” Certain crops, such as grapes, tomatoes, beans and sweet corn and non-GE soy and cotton are extremely sensitive to 2,4-D. As Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, Senior Scientist at Pesticide Action Network, points out, “we know from experience that regardless of idealized ‘best practices,’ drift happens.”
Health concerns have also been raised with the increased use of 2,4-D. Pesticide Action Network observes, for example, that 2,4-D “is a suspected endocrine disruptor and has been linked to cancer and reproductive harm. Children are particularly susceptible to its effects.” Doug Gurian-Sherman, Senior Scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists further explains that this herbicide has been “associated with human health risks, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and is considered by some health agencies to be a possible human carcinogen.”
Maybe the time has come to rethink and redesign the approval mechanisms in the United States where regulators pay more attention to the impact that toxic pesticides have on health and the environment.
In part two of this article we will examine how the ERS Report treats Bt resistance.