As use of Roundup Ready seed grows, some weeds have become resistant
By STEVE TARTER
PEORIA – Farm fields in central Illinois may look quiet now, but the upcoming planting season will see a return to an annual battle – and anticipated resistance.
Weed resistance to the herbicides farmers routinely apply to keep fields clear is a growing issue as weed control is often considered the biggest challenge in crop production, according to the University of Illinois Extension.
Farm chemicals come in a variety of forms – herbicides that control weeds, insecticides to kill bugs and fungicides to ward off disease – and represent a multibillion-dollar industry.
More than $1.6 billion was spent on fertilizers and pesticides in Illinois alone during 2006, the last year figures were available from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Biotech seed is also part of the story. The development of seed with built-in traits such as insecticide or resistance to a specific herbicide like glyphosate has changed the farm landscape over the past decade – especially in Illinois, where biotech crops dominate.
More than 90 percent of the state’s soybeans are Roundup Ready, the brand name devised by the St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp. for its glyphosate-resistant seed that hit the market in the mid-1990s. More than 50 percent of Illinois corn is a Roundup Ready variety, according to the U of I Extension.
The reason the Roundup Ready brand has taken over the market so rapidly is its simplicity and effectiveness, said Floyd Heller, general manager of farm co-op Agland FS, from his Pekin office. “Glyphosate kills what it touches and doesn’t hang around,” he said.
The rapid adoption of Roundup Ready hasn’t surprised Oregon-based Chuck Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a not-for-profit organization founded in 2002 by the organic food industry.
“Farmers have embraced the technology because it greatly simplifies soybean weed management,” he said. “RR technology has also given farmers a welcome alternative to the use of low-dose herbicides that are plagued by often serious problems.”
One of the claims supporting biotech seed may not be true – that genetically enhanced seed means using less herbicide, he said.
“Roundup Ready tends to reduce herbicide use for two to three years, but then there starts to be a shift in the weed community,” he said.
That shift involves weed resistance – resistance that grows every year, said Benbrook. “Illinois farmers are dealing with two to three different (glyphosate) resistant weeds,” he said. “Our research shows that for every acre of Roundup Ready seed applied, two-thirds to three-quarters of a pound more herbicide per acre is used than conventional seed.
“Farmers are just beginning to deal with a serious resistance problem,” he said.
Outbreaks of so-called “superweeds” that defy herbicide treatments will become more common, said Benbrook. “That’s the future for central Illinois.”
Farmers like Brian Heiser of Minier are aware of the resistance issue. “It’s a possibility we all have to be concerned about,” he said. “With any herbicide, it’s a concern but not a huge concern.”
Monsanto is dealing with the resistance issue, said spokesman Darren Wallis. “We’ve identified only a small number of Roundup Ready resistant weeds -12. Roundup has been around for many decades and still controls over 300 weeds,” he said.
Monsanto will launch a new Roundup Ready formulation for the soybean market this year. The new seed will be introduced on 1 million to 2 million U.S. soybean acres this year with an expanded release (more than 5 million acres) in 2010, the company noted.
While resistance is one issue farmers will face, another is the rising cost of putting a crop – whether corn or soybeans – in the ground.
Seed and fertilizer costs went up 40 percent between 2003 to 2007, said Dale Laatz, U of I Extension farm financial management specialist. Farm income also rose in that period, especially in central Illinois, he said. In 2008, the average net farm income for the state’s central region, an area that includes Peoria, Tazewell and Woodford counties, was $255,900, the highest in the state, said Laatz.
Genetically modified seed is also reaching new heights, said Benbrook. “You’re probably looking at the first $300 bag (for about 50 pounds) of (corn) seed this year. Farmers that used to spend between $15 and $20 a pound on seed per acre are now spending $100,” he said.
Steve Tarter can be reached at 696-3260 or [email protected]