The Des Moines Register
by Neil D. Hamilton
The Des Moines Register deserves a hearty thank you for Donnelle Eller’s eye-opening Sunday article on glyphosate-resistant Superweeds. It details a real threat to Iowa agriculture and raises important questions about responsibility and the way forward.
Some may believe it too soon or even unhelpful to consider how this happened and who bears responsibility for getting us into this mess. But if we fail to consider these questions, don’t we risk the likelihood our “solutions” will simply repeat our mistakes?
For over 20 years the farm chemical industry, led by Monsanto, has proclaimed the unquestioned benefits of genetically modifying seeds, and farmers gladly got on the GMO bandwagon as we raced to a golden era of high-tech agriculture. Claims of enhanced yields and one-pass weed control were hard to resist — especially as the seed industry bred resistance to Roundup, or glyphosate, into every crop and variety possible.
Truthfully, though, herbicide resistance is not inherently yield enhancing — not like the hybridizing work of Henry Wallace or any seed breeder who helps plants put more beans in the pod. What we created is simply a weed control system the main effects of which are to sell more Roundup and expensive modified seeds and allow farmers to cover more acres.
Of course there are — or were — benefits like cleaner fields and less weed pressure to suppress yields. But as “Superweeds” illustrate so well — even for non-believers in evolution — nature works around the clock and is eroding the benefits of GMOs. This is not a surprise.
Anyone who thought about it predicted what widespread and unrestrained planting of herbicide-resistant seeds and the increased use of glyphosate would yield — selecting for tougher, more resistant weeds, difficult if not impossible to control. Exactly what we have today and what every scientist quoted knew and said would happen.
So the GMO chickens are coming home to roost, and we must decide how to address the “crisis.” You will note one thing not in her article — any apology or expression of regret from the companies that helped create the mess or the public officials and cheerleaders who promoted GMOs as the answer to our needs.
The sad truth is, in less than 20 years we took a powerful and elegant scientific advance — plant biotechnology — and through hubris and greed frittered away some of its potential. In the process, we created a more threatening weed problem farmers must confront or risk economic disaster.
But not to fear, industry has a new solution — if you call it that: Take an older, harsher weed killer, 2,4-D, and breed resistance to it into seeds so more can be applied, enough to kill those pesky Superweeds. Meaning we are going to start over with the same approach, asking farmers to pay more for the privilege.
How long do you think it will be before today’s Superweeds evolve to resist this “technology”? Adding to the risks, this “solution” threatens other important parts of agriculture — the grapes and horticultural crops expanding across Iowa. Of course the chemical makers have an answer for this — a newer version of 2,4-D that is less likely to drift.
Some farmers may act to prevent problems miles away, but if you invested $10,000 an acre in grapes, is this an acceptable risk?
Before we race to the next silver bullet solution, perhaps those most responsible for getting us into this mess could show some humility and admit things didn’t work out quite like they planned. Unless you are cynical enough to believe this was the plan all along, given the predictability of Superweeds. Having a new product to sell and crisis-motivated buyers could yield big profits.
But there will be plenty of time and opportunity to sort out questions of legal liability and responsibility if class action lawsuits are filed, seeking to compensate farmers for their losses.
As we search for solutions to the “Superweed” dilemma, old-fashioned farming know-how like crop rotations and diversification should play a role. Here is another suggestion: If we claim to be interested in “sound science,” perhaps we might try actually listening to scientists like those from Iowa State University who warned about these risks, rather than just believing people who have some shiny new product to sell.
THE AUTHOR: NEIL D. HAMILTON is the Dwight Opperman Distinguished Professor of Law and director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University for over 30 years. Contact: [email protected]