Responding to a study released last week highlighting the increased resistance of weeds to glyphosate, and the potential introduction of new corn varieties genetically engineered (GE) to be used with more highly toxic weedkillers, farmers are calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to take action to protect rural economies.
If USDA deregulates 2,4 D resistant corn, farmers will once again shoulder the cost of the failed promise of GE crops.
“Widespread planting of 2,4-D corn will inevitably lead to a surge in the herbicide’s use,” said George Naylor, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer. “This will not only have adverse effects on public health from air and water pollution, but will also pose another economic risk to Midwest farmers whose non-2,4-D resistant crops will take the brunt of more herbicide drift."
The study in last week’s edition of Bioscience projects greatly increased herbicide use and collateral damage to nearby, non-resistant crops and wild habitat. 2,4-D is well understood to drift, both directly after it is applied and through volatilization, drift that takes place long after an application. As a result, farmers growing their products within miles of cornfields where 2,4-D is applied could face crop losses and serious financial hardship. In addition, organic farmers could lose their certification for years if their fields are contaminated.
Authors of the article, relying in part on industry analysis, note that use of 2,4-D and dicamba herbicides, first used during World War II, are expected to increase ten fold over the next decade. Dow AgroSciences is the driving force behind 2,4-D-resistant seeds, while Monsanto, the dominant manufacturer of glyphosate-resistant seeds, is collaborating with the European industry giant BASF (soon moving to the U.S.) in engineering dicamba-resistant seeds. And other pesticide and biotech firms have similar products in the pipeline. For years, Dow, Monsanto, and the rest of the “Big 6”, have argued that genetically engineered crops result in reduced pesticide use or can even “resist” drought, though with little to no documented success, according to independent scientists.
“Genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant seeds are the growth engines of the pesticide industry’s market strategy,” said Dr. Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, PhD, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “Repackaging antiquated pesticides as new solutions for Midwest economies is a disaster waiting to happen.”
The study also ties the increase in herbicide use to the decline of sustainable weed management. The authors note that USDA has increased funding at major universities for chemically-intensive methods while at the same time decreasing funding for agroecological methods—such as cover cropping, crop rotation and limited tillage—that are successful at improving weed control and reducing weed pressures.
At the same time, weed scientists have been raising red flags around the impending problems of resistance, the reliance on the “pesticide treadmill” and the need to invest in sustainable weed control, or Integrated Weed Management.
"It is only going to get worse," said Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy at the Weed Science Society of America in a Reuter’s interview.
The Weed Society of America just announced it will focus its May 2012 meeting on finding solutions to herbicide resistance. However, concerns remain about Monsanto’s efforts to undermine science and promote the next wave of GE technology, including 2,4-D and dicamba.
"I'm convinced that this is a big problem," said Dave Mortensen, professor of weed and applied plant ecology at Penn State University. "Most of the public doesn't know because the industry is calling the shots on how this should be spun."
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U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is closing out 2011 in much the same way it started the year—approving the use of genetically modified (GM) crops designed to withstand pesticide applications. On Dec. 27, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approved the use of two more GM crops and announced the availability of assessments for two additional GM crops. The end of the year announcements, however, include a holiday bonus—the department is on the verge of approving not just glyphosate-resistant crops, but crops engineered to withstand the systemic herbicide, 2,4-D.
The move to engineering crops resistant to 2,4-D comes on the heels of reports from the field and in the lab that GM crops—and specifically, those engineered to be glyphosate tolerant—are creating herbicide-resistant weeds. Not a new concept, the “pesticide treadmill” is catching up with biotechnology breakthroughs. Chemical companies must continually develop new and stronger pesticides to combat the unwanted weeds in farmers’ fields that have developed resistance to certain chemicals. The use of glyphosate-tolerant GM crops, and the accompanying use of glyphosate, has created glyphosate-tolerant weeds. Not missing a beat, chemical companies are developing GM crops resistant to stronger pesticides, such as 2,4-D.
The development of GM crops that are resistant to persistent, toxic pesticides lays to rest one of original lies told about GE crops—that their widespread use would lead to the end of toxic pesticides like 2,4-D that have been associated with the development of Parkinson’s disease and other medical disorders in humans and animals.
APHIS has prepared a plant pest risk assessment and an environmental assessment on the 2,4-D resistant corn engineered by Dow, Inc., as well as assessments on a Monsanto-made soybean engineered to produce an omega-3 fatty acid. APHIS has proposed to deregulate both crops, and is accepting public comment on its determinations through Feb. 27, 2012.
APHIS also announced the full deregulation without conditions of another Monsanto-made soybean, this time with tolerance to glyphosate and a modified fatty acid profile, as well as a corn engineered by Monsanto to be drought tolerant. (Readers may recall that a competing company, Pioneer, released drought-tolerant corn developed through conventional breeding methods earlier this year.)
In a year marked by a steady stream (and at times, a deluge) of GE crop approvals, National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition developed a policy on genetically engineered crops and livestock that supports farmer choice and enterprise, consumer choice, and a regulatory process informed by independent, open scientific assessment.
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