By Beth Hoffman
Over the past 15 years, farmers around the world have planted ever larger tracts of genetically engineered crops.
According to the USDA, in 2012 more than 93 percent of soy planted was “herbicide tolerant,” engineered to withstand herbicides (sold by the same companies who patent and sell the seeds). Likewise, 73 percent of all corn now is also genetically modified to withstand chemicals produced to kill competing weeds.
One of the main arguments behind creating these engineered crops is that farmers then need to use less herbicide and pesticide. This makes farms more eco-friendly, say proponents of genetically modified (GM) crops, and GM seeds also allow farmers to spend less on “inputs” (chemicals), thereby making a greater profit.
But a new study released by Food & Water Watch yesterday finds the goal of reduced chemical use has not panned out as planned. In fact, according to the USDA and EPA data used in the report, the quick adoption of genetically engineered crops by farmers has increased herbicide use over the past 9 years in the U.S. The report follows on the heels of another such study by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook just last year.
Both reports focus on “superweeds.” It turns out that spraying a pesticide repeatedly selects for weeds which also resist the chemical. Ever more resistant weeds are then bred, able to withstand increasing amounts – and often different forms – of herbicide.
At the center of debate is the pesticide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto MON +2.23%‘s Round Up. Food & Water Watch found that the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.” Overall pesticide use decreased only in the first few years GE crops were used (42 percent between 1998 and 2001) and has since then risen by 26 percent from 2001 to 2010.
By 2011 there were also three times as many herbicide-resistant weeds found in farmer’s fields as there were in 2001.
This has meant huge profits for agribusinesses developing and selling genetically engineered seeds, herbicides and pesticides. Seed revenues have septupled (increased seven fold) since 1998.
Fixing the problem is of course not going to be easy. But Food & Water Watch lists several suggestions, including the recommendation that the USDA “dedicate research dollars to developing alternatives for sustainable management of herbicide-resistant weeds.”
This is a solution that needs far more attention, and could be an economic boon for agriculture and green jobs across the country. It is also an idea I will discuss more later next week.