Superweeds linked to rising herbicide use in GM crops

Science Blog

A study published this week by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook finds that the use of herbicides in the production of three genetically modified herbicide-tolerant crops — cotton, soybeans and corn — has actually increased. This counterintuitive finding is based on an exhaustive analysis of publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agriculture Statistics Service. Benbrook’s analysis is the first peer-reviewed, published estimate of the impacts of genetically engineered (GE) herbicide-resistant (HT) crops on pesticide use.

In the study, which appeared in the the open-access, peer-reviewed journal “Environmental Sciences Europe,” Benbrook writes that the emergence and spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds is strongly correlated with the upward trajectory in herbicide use. Marketed as Roundup and other trade names, glyphosate is a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds. Approximately 95 percent of soybean and cotton acres, and over 85 percent of corn, are planted to varieties genetically modified to be herbicide resistant.

“Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent,” Benbrook said.

The annual increase in the herbicides required to deal with tougher-to-control weeds on cropland planted to GE cultivars has grown from 1.5 million pounds in 1999 to about 90 million pounds in 2011.

Herbicide-tolerant crops worked extremely well in the first few years of use, Benbrook’s analysis shows, but over-reliance may have led to shifts in weed communities and the spread of resistant weeds that force farmers to increase herbicide application rates (especially glyphosate), spray more often, and add new herbicides that work through an alternate mode of action into their spray programs.

Feds to farmers: Grow GMO beets or face sugar shortage


If you’re Monsanto, you’re probably really proud of your genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. Introduced in 2008, the beets are the company’s most recent Roundup Ready product genetically engineered to withstand the direct application of the herbicide glyphosate. Immediately successful, they took over the sugar beet market within two years. By 2010, 95 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. were Monsanto’s genetically modified variety.

This matters to us all because about 50 percent of white sugar sold here is made from sugar beets. In other words, unless that bag of sugar you just bought is labeled “Certified Organic” or “100 percent cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar made from GMO crops.

There was, of course, a reason for Monsanto’s success with sugar beets — and not just because it was able to leverage its market power to encourage farmers to adopt the new seed. Once again, it’s a weed problem.

Weeds in sugar beet fields have developed resistance to the chemicals farmers have been using for years, but they’re not resistant to glyphosate, which hasn’t been used very often in conventional sugar beet cultivation. As a result, these Roundup Ready seeds allowed farmers to use a chemical — glyphosate — that their weeds hadn’t really been exposed to and thus represented a bit of a game-changer for sugar beet farmers who had been left out of Big Ag’s glyphosate party.

Despite its instant success, Monsanto’s product hit a few speed bumps in 2010. That year, a federal judge revoked the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) approval for the seed in response to a lawsuit filed by the Center for Food Safety on the basis that the agency violated the law by failing to perform a full environmental impact statement for the seed. This is a critical oversight given the risks of genetic contamination of conventional and organic seeds by the GMO seeds through wind-blown pollen, as well as the current superweed crisis caused by overuse of glyphosate.

The problem with the judge’s order, however, was that Monsanto had so successfully crowded out sugar beet seed competitors that once he ruled the beets “illegal” it quickly became clear that there were no conventional sugar beet seeds to be found. So America faced the prospect of total Armageddon the zombie apocalypse cats and dogs sleeping together a 20 percent reduction in that year’s sugar crop. In response — and in defiance of the federal judge’s order — the USDA allowed farmers to plant GM sugar beets anyway.

Well, I’m happy to report that our long national nightmare is over. At last, the USDA has released its full environmental review of Roundup Ready sugar beets. In it, the agency describes the risks for genetic contamination as well as the likelihood of increased herbicide resistance in weeds that will result from unrestricted planting of the beets. And as a result, the USDA is recommending full “deregulation” of GMO sugar beets, which will allow for their unrestricted planting.

Wait. What?

The environmental review puts a high priority on the absence of alternative seeds and the potential disruption to sugar supplies — an absence that has been shaped by consolidation in the seed industry. It also observes that any weed resistance that develops if more Roundup Ready seed is planted can be countered by applying more types of herbicide! The chemical treadmill FTW!

As this review illustrates, the agency behaves as if its “hands are tied” on GM seed approvals. As George Kimbrell, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety and a plaintiff in the sugar beet trial, describes it, the agency claims “regulatory impotence.” The USDA’s arguments in the recent court case involving GM alfalfa echo this sentiment. In short, the agency asserts that it lacks authority to fully assess the risks of GM seeds because Congress has ruled that the agency can’t let the larger potential impacts enter its analysis.

Kimbrell isn’t buying it. “We strongly disagree with USDA’s claims of regulatory impotence,” he told me in an email. This claim, he added, is “contrary to the statute and Supreme Court, in addition to being extremely bad policy. USDA’s job is to protect all farmers and the environment, not just biotech special interests.”

It’s hard, for example, to reconcile the environmental review’s dry discussion of superweeds in GM sugar beet fields with the far more dire warnings that came out of the recent National Academy of Science summit on the topic. And it’s also hard to take seriously the USDA’s claim that farmers will take voluntary steps to ensure GMO sugar beets aren’t planted too closely to conventional ones (or related species like chard and other beets).

But here’s the really bad news: Full “deregulation” of the seed will eliminate existing distance requirements between fields of conventional crops and the GMO crops, which are meant to help prevent genetic contamination (aka gene flow). And while the USDA maintains that farmers will continue to observe these limits on their own, farmers have demonstrated that the temptation to plant more and more widely tends to outweigh all concern about contaminating the plots of their neighbors.

The Center for Food Safety is still reviewing the USDA’s 800-page decision. That said, advocates have unearthed past evidence of sloppy science and close ties to Monsanto within the arm of the USDA responsible for producing the review. And history does not offer much reassurance that the agency is putting its best effort into a full examination of the risks from further expansion of GMO seed.

In the end, maybe the answer lies not within the USDA but outside it. Perhaps farmers and food processors will be less enamored of GMO sugar beets if California passes the GMO food labeling law currently on the ballot there. Then bags of sugar with the phrase “contains genetically modified ingredients” will do what the agency charged with “protecting all farmers and the environment” simply won’t — and that’s to give farmers pause in embracing crops that offer short-term convenience and long-term complications.

Related: USDA Allows GMO Sugar Beet Planting Even After a Landmark Court Decision Says No

Genetically engineered maize with synthetic toxin approved for usage in EU food and feed

Farm Wars, July 28, 2011
Testbiotech and GeneWatch UK formally request withdrawal of EU market authorisation of Monsanto´s genetically engineered maize Genuity VT Triple PRO Corn with synthetic toxins.

The non-profit organisations Testbiotech (Germany) and GeneWatch UK have submitted a formal request to the European Commission to re-examine market authorisation of a genetically engineered maize produced by Monsanto sold under brand Genuity VT Triple PRO Corn (event MON89034 x MON 88017) that produces a synthetic toxin, intended to kill insect pests. This maize was approved for usage in food and feed by the EU Commission on 17th of June. It produces a combination of three different insecticidal toxins, one of which is synthesised artificially. Further, the plants are made tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate (known as Roundup).
Full story

Latest GMO fiasco: Mad Soy Disease Strikes Brazil

Wake-up Call

Senior scientists in the United States, who have studied glyphosate and glyphosate-tolerant GM crops for decades, identified more than 40 diseases linked to glyphosate, and the list is growing.

ISIS Report 27/10/10 – Dr. Mae-Wan HoThey call it “mad soy disease” in Brazil, where it has been spreading from the north, causing yield losses of up to 40 percent, most notably in the states of Mato Grosso, Tocantins and Goias.
Like its namesake, mad cow disease, it is incurable [1, 2, 3]. This is the latest GMO fiasco to surface since our report on the meltdown in the USA.Full story