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Herbicide Round-Up: GMO's Pesky Pesticide Promise

Pesticide problems are just one of the severe drawbacks associated with GMO food. Pesticide problems are just one of the severe drawbacks associated with GMO food.

 

Since the beginning of agriculture, pests have been a constant and unavoidable challenge to farmers. Insects can decimate entire fields of crops, while hectares of sun-drenched soil are a smorgasbord for weeds. Every farmer must learn to carefully manage nature’s unwanted guests.

Traditional pest management measures include soil tilling, crop rotation, trap cropping, companion planting and the use of helper organisms like fungi and natural pest predators. No single method is a surefire solution, but collectively they offer farmers a flexible, dynamic toolbox for maintaining healthy yields.

In 1939, however, a Swiss chemist named Paul Müller discovered dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, and changed the game for everyone. By offering farmers an inexpensive, broad-spectrum solution to pest control, DDT helped kick-start modern agriculture’s Green Revolution. This chemical pesticide was as effective as a nuclear bomb at exterminating unwanted plant and animal life in a field in preparation for planting. But as time and hindsight have proven, what goes onto our food also goes into us.

Today, genetically engineered soy and cotton have virtually monopolized the market, representing more than 90% of the total acres planted for each crop, the majority of which are Monsanto’s Roundup Ready lineup.

Still, big business rarely learns its lesson the first time. In the wake of public outcry over the dangers of first-generation pesticides, biotech companies like Monsanto and Calgene touted a new solution in their genetically engineered seed strains. The year was 1996, and the sales pitch promised a utopian solution to agriculture’s oldest challenge: genetically modified organisms (GMO) would allow farmers to grow bigger yields with fewer pesticides.

It’s been almost 20 years since that promise was made; how has it turned out?

The science behind these original claims was admittedly plausible. Through transgenic alterations, genetic engineers were able to stitch a bacterial toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt) into the DNA of corn and cotton plants. The Bt toxin is an insecticide, harmful to a handful of pests that would otherwise need to be sprayed with a chemical pesticide. Similarly, Monsanto developed an herbicide-tolerant (HT) gene that protects crops from glyphosate, the active ingredient in their Roundup herbicide. The HT gene was first spliced into soy seeds to make them “Roundup Ready” and has since been combined with Bt genes in corn and cotton strains.

Monsanto reasoned that a crop producing its own insect-repellent toxin would require less insecticide. And if that crop could stand up to an herbicide that wiped out every other plant in the field, it seemed logical that Roundup would be the only herbicide needed and that less of it would have to be applied.

For the first few years, Monsanto’s promise came true. According to a definitive study by Washington State University professor Charles Benbrook, genetically engineered crops reduced overall pesticide use (herbicides plus insecticides) by about 2% each year in the first three years of commercial introduction. The upfront success of GMO convinced farmers to buy in. Genetically engineered crops were introduced on just over 7 million acres of U.S. farmland. By 2008, GMO crops occupied a whopping 132 million acres. Today, genetically engineered soy and cotton have virtually monopolized the market, representing more than 90% of the total acres planted for each crop, the majority of which are Monsanto’s Roundup Ready lineup.

The GMO super-crops created a lot of cash for Big Ag giants like Monsanto, but like any comic book fan will tell you, where there is a superhero, a supervillain will soon appear. With its reliance on a single pest-control agent year after year, HT crops have now created their own ultimate enemy. Enter the superweed.

If that’s not enough, new evidence by French researchers shows that Roundup is more toxic to humans than originally believed.

For many years now, farmers have started to notice these weeds growing among their GMO crops. In the Midwest, Roundup-resistant horseweed has sprung up in 16 states, occupying several million acres of farmland. In the Southeast, the Godzilla-like Palmer amaranth weed has adapted so heartily to glyphosate that farmers are now hiring workers to manually remove the plants from their soy and cotton fields. According to one Virginia farmers organization, just four Palmer amaranth plants in every 100 square feet of planted row can reduce soybean yield by up to 17%.

To fight these superweeds, Monsanto has encouraged farmers to spray more heavily and more often. Where a single dose of Roundup was once effective at clearing a field before planting, farmers are now being forced to spray as many as three times per crop cycle. Hardly the reduction in herbicides we were once promised.

Compared to other weed-control chemicals, Roundup is a high-dose herbicide, requiring 0.75 pounds per acre to get the job done. This has resulted in a veritable rain of glyphosate. Between 1996 and 2011, herbicide use in the United States has increased by 527 million pounds. At the same time, GMO has made America the resistant-weed epicenter of the world.

If that’s not enough, new evidence by French researchers shows that Roundup is more toxic to humans than originally believed. This is due to the revelation that POE-15, one of the so-called inert ingredients in Roundup, is actually highly toxic to human cells. Even scarier is the fact that inert ingredients are considered proprietary information and are not publicly regulated like the active ingredient, glyphosate. In other words, the only people who know exactly how much POE-15 is being sprayed onto our crops is Monsanto, and they for sure ain’t telling.

The supreme irony is that the more superweeds continue to thwart GMO crops, the more money Monsanto stands to gain. Roundup sales are through the roof, banking Monsanto a clean $1 billion in 2012 alone. In response to growing criticism around the failure of its seed technology, Monsanto has been developing new lines of Roundup that incorporate stronger poi-sons into the chemical cocktail.

The revised herbicides contain older, more dangerous ingredients like dicamba and 2,4-D, which threaten not only the ecological health of America’s groundwater, but the health of its people. 2,4-D poses known risks of birth defects and other reproductive problems. This synthetic auxin once made up the less toxic half of Monsanto’s infamous Agent Orange deforestation spray used during the Vietnam War, which resulted in an estimated half-million birth defects since the war.

Resistance in the insect world to GMO crops has taken longer than the plant world, but superbugs are beginning to show up in GMO fields as well.

What is evident from the GMO experiment so far is that there is no quick-fix solution to pest management or food production. Genetically engineered crops were spearheaded by the promise of reducing the health and environmental impacts of pesticide use, but this same technology is now reviving the very chemicals it was supposed to protect us from.

The numbers don’t lie: Where insecticide use has dropped as a result of the Bt gene, herbicide use has skyrocketed. Ac-cording to the Benbrook study, GMO has added more than four pounds of herbicide for every one pound of insecticide it has saved from America’s farmland, elevating the nation’s pesticide use by 7%.

Resistance in the insect world to GMO crops has taken longer than the plant world, but superbugs are beginning to show up in GMO fields as well. Bt-resistant bollworms have ravaged cotton plants in the Southeastern states. In the Midwest, the western rootworm beetle has developed immunity to the Bt toxin in Monsanto corn. Whatever gains GMO has made in reducing insecticide volume are certain to deteriorate as farmers are forced into an arms race against these new, more powerful insects.

While GMO farming requires more and more chemicals to maintain itself, conventional farmers have enjoyed recent advancements in alternative pesticides that allow them to spray less often and at lower acreage rates. Similarly, organic farming has found substantial success in the pest management systems that Big Ag tried, uselessly, to hurdle. As millennia of agriculture have proven, nature can be harnessed to feed our growing population, but as 17 years of GMO confirms, it cannot be cheated.

© Copyright RosebudMag.com, 2013



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Last modified on Tuesday, 03 December 2013 13:10

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