Roundup Resistant Weeds Not A Surprise

Monsanto, the developer of the herbicide Roundup, should have seen it coming. All across the country, weeds are quickly mutating to become resistant to Roundup. Many scientists did see it coming, including Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union for Concerned Scientists. They even wrote a book on The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops in 1996 in which they warned of just such a thing.

But now the New York Times has posted a nearly hysterical article about the End of Roundup. Think: Oh NO, America! Without Roundup and the benefit of genetically-engineered monocultures, agriculture will totally fall apart, get even more expensive, require us to use even more toxic chemicals just to keep our plants alive, and contribute to extensive erosion!! The impact on the environment will be terrible.

It would be laughable if it weren’t all such a bunch of marketing spin. It reminds me of the marketing campaign Monsanto launched last year. You know the one. The one where they declared their total dedication to “sustainable agriculture.”

Here are some choice quotations from the article:

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

Oh really? It seems like it’s a threat to sales of genetically engineered seeds for crops such as the Roundup resistant soybeans, corn, and cotton that Monsanto developed in the 1990s. After all, why would a farmer buy such expensive seeds year after year when spraying the crop with Roundup no longer effectively kills competing weeds? But a threat to production agriculture?

Oh wait. These days production agriculture is genetically-engineered agriculture. More than 90% of the soybeans, 70% of the corn, and 70% of the cotton grown in the U.S. are genetically engineered. In the U.S. alone, more than 170 million acres are planted with these GMO crops.

But not to worry, America. This doesn’t spell the end of genetically engineered crops!

Monsanto and other agricultural biotech companies are also developing genetically engineered crops resistant to other herbicides.

Bayer is already selling cotton and soybeans resistant to glufosinate, another weedkiller. Monsanto’s newest corn is tolerant of both glyphosate and glufosinate, and the company is developing crops resistant to dicamba, an older pesticide. Syngenta is developing soybeans tolerant of its Callisto product. And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War.

Still, scientists and farmers say that glyphosate is a once-in-a-century discovery, and steps need to be taken to preserve its effectiveness.

Glyphosate “is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling disease,” Stephen B. Powles, an Australian weed expert, wrote in a commentary in January in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This is where I actually inhaled my morning cup of tea and began choking in complete incredulity.

I agree that antibiotics are truly an amazing, once-in-a-century discovery. And I am appalled that they are slowly losing their effectiveness thanks to their overuse in food production.

But honestly? I actually rejoice that Roundup is nearing its end. Perhaps rather than turning towards even more biotech crops, chemicals, and toxins, farmers might heed the growing call to turn to a more organic, realistically sustainable production method.

What do you think?


(photo by Ian Hayhurst)

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Comments

  1. says

    Kristen,

    Thanks for writing this article. Totally agree with your thoughts on Monsanto and roundup. But it’s important to note that roundup’s diminishing effectiveness will have some devastating effects on the environment and on farmers. Erosion happens when land is plowed, and no-till farming methods with roundup-ready crops mitigate erosion. In my opinion, it’s better to keep topsoil in place, even though roundup renders it lifeless. With a lot of time and TLC, the topsoil’s living community can be coaxed back, but the topsoil that is eroded away will never return.
    Because of erosion, farmers were encouraged by government ag officials to invest in roundup ready technology in the 1990s. Farmers are still invested because they are still paying off notes on no-till drills, etc. Superweeds are hurting crop yields, but farmers can’t switch back to plowing so easily (and should they?). They’re in a no-win situation.
    I believe this is where commodity agriculture has brought us. Plow hundreds of millions of acres for row crops, and we get shocking amounts of erosion. We switch to no-till, and we get vicious superweeds. Our options are few, so we’ll use stronger herbicides. Everyone knows this will result in even more vicious superweeds and more poisons in our commodity food supply. I don’t see many alternatives besides getting our of commodity agriculture altogether. Please support your small farmers!

    • says

      Kelly,

      I recognize that conventional farmers are caught between a rock and a hard place, and I honestly don’t blame them for making the decisions they’ve made with the information they’ve had. After all, Monsanto promised increased crop yields, fewer pesticides, no tilling, reduced erosion, etc. Nevertheless, we *know* from studies that they’ve failed to deliver on these promises — if only because conventional agriculture inherently depletes top soil rather than building it.

      And YES! It CAN be built. The top soil that is eroded away CAN return. Joe Salatin adds more than an inch of top soil to his acreage at Polyface farms every year by allowing intensive, rotational grazing of his pastures. But then again, you’ve got a model of agriculture that is decidedly unconventional. And how many farmers can we expect to turn their acreage back into pastures?

      For more on this, I recommend seeing the movie Dirt! The Movie. I watched it this past weekend, and *loved* it.

      ~KristenM

      • says

        Kristen,

        Totally agree with you that soil can be rebuilt and “uppened”, as seen at Joel Salatin’s farm. I’ve been to Polyface several times, and my husband and I are modeling our farm after it. However, I don’t agree that this new soil is the same as the original topsoil. The original topsoil was created by hundreds of millions of years of glacial action and was highly mineralized. This has blown away, and it will never return. Rock minerals are not the same as nutrients coming out of the back end of a cow. Microbial action and organic matter are extremely important, but for farms like Polyface to regain their original highly-mineralized state, minerals have to be added.

        Conventional commodity agriculture has two evils: erosion and roundup. I’m just saying that roundup is the lesser of these two evils. I believe this is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation, and it needs to be considered in our glee over Monsanto’s failure.
        .-= Kelly´s last blog post …GMO Aftermath on the Farm =-.

  2. Nicole D says

    I have been following these developments as well, and I can’t say I was surprised… or unhappy. Though I’m not sure it will result in the changes we’d like to see. Men are creatures of habit… some farmers may just not know a way out of the plant-and-spray farming. Education and change are always hard for people (including me!) But we can change ourselves and hope eventually people jump on the sustainable train.

    BTW, LOVED your nutrition textbook I received in the mail. Nice to be able to have it all in one easy to read book, so I don’t have to worry about how to field the “Why do we eat different food from grandma?” questions. :)

    • says

      I don’t expect it to change much, either. Monsanto and other biotech companies are already working on “solutions.” Nevertheless, it would be nice if it *did* bring about some positive change. :)

      Thank you for the compliment on the book!

  3. says

    Ah…if only this was a blessing in disguise and these conventional farms could slowly go organic – better yet – BIODYNAMIC. One of the positives of living in cold, cloudy England is no GMO and lots of biodynamic farms. I had no idea that cows were meant to have horns and play a role in a cows vitality. Sorry, I am off topic. Just dreaming of sustainable agriculture.
    .-= Pure Mothers´s last blog post …Earth Day Exploration =-.

    • Fredericah says

      Alas, we are already subjected to GM in some of our animal feed – without labelling, and the government is champing at the bit to bring in GM foods – latest DEFRA comment today is that GM foods are completely safe and such a good idea…….sigh

  4. Lonna says

    Amen! I am completely appalled by the arrogance of Monsanto. It is so beyond scary how much control they have had. Thank for for continuing to spread the word about Monsanto and the issues with our food system. I have and will continue as well.

    We do need a miracle…

    Your fellow Food Renegade,
    Lonna

  5. Katie says

    To be honest, I think you are taking a somewhat simplistic view of the situation. Applauding the end of agriculture? Really? I’m curious what your definition of “production agriculture” and “small farmers” is, because I think you are picturing a two million acre farm run by robots for the first and an aw-shucks old man in overalls for the second. In reality, small farmers grow the same corn and soybeans as large farmers; I should know, I grew up on a small corn and soybean farm in Minnesota. It is insulting to say “Men are creatures of habit… some farmers may just not know a way out of the plant-and-spray farming.” Please. Give farmers some credit here; it’s not that they just plain old gee-whiz don’t know any better. The average farmer in this country feeds 144 people; that is extremely hard to reproduce without the modern farming methods used. It is frustrating to hear: “I actually rejoice that Roundup is nearing its end. Perhaps rather than turning towards even more biotech crops, chemicals, and toxins, farmers might heed the growing call to turn to a more organic, realistically sustainable production method.” Do you have any idea what organic, realistically sustainable agriculture costs? Currently the average farmer only receives 19 cents of every consumer food dollar spent. Do you have any idea how many family farms, livelihoods that people have spent their entire lives building, would be negatively affected? Perhaps you don’t mind spending twice as much money on your food but please don’t speak for the millions of other people in the world who cannot afford to, and please don’t judge farmers when you judge Monsanto.

    I’m honestly not trying to offend anyone, but it’s really hard for me to hear “la de da, let’s all just grow organic food and the world’s problems will be solved” from people who don’t have the slightest clue about farming or who farmers are.

    “According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 98 percent of all U.S. farms are owned by individuals, family partnerships or family corporations. Some people refer to these as “corporate farms,” but they usually are incorporated among two or three family members, a father and son or daughter, or other family partnerships.
    People also mistake family corporations for “factory farms,” which are run by one corporation that often owns or controls all aspects of the production process, including animal rearing, feed production, processing, packaging and distribution. Those corporate operations make up only 2 percent of U.S. farms and account for only 14 percent of U.S. farm product sales.” -www.saveourfood.org

    Okay, I’m getting off my soapbox now.

    • says

      Katie — Are you replying to me? I certainly would not rejoice at the end of agriculture! And who, anywhere on this site thus far, has said that “Men are creatures of habit … some farmers may not know the way out of plant and spray farming?” Or who has caricatured farmers the way that you insinuate they’ve done? You’ve built a straw man and misrepresented my stance on the issue.

      • Katie says

        Kind of a group response to the article and the comments of “Agriculture going extinct would be a fabulous thing… no worries here”. Same with the “Men are creatures of habit” quote, it’s in a comment to this article.

        I don’t think I am misrepresenting your direct quote of “I actually rejoice that Roundup is nearing its end. Perhaps rather than turning towards even more biotech crops, chemicals, and toxins, farmers might heed the growing call to turn to a more organic, realistically sustainable production method.” That is your stance on the issue, correct? Like I said, that type of statement oversimplifies the issue and lacks an understanding of where farmers are coming from.

        In the article I posted, she says “I do hate the fact that many of the farmers I met in Iowa raise GMO corn, but visiting with them confirmed what I had long known: that they have reasons for what they do. One farmer I met cited subsidies and futures as his reason for growing commodity crops. Indeed, if you were to watch your fellow farmers lose farms and land over the years as you struggled yourself to stay in business, would you dare gamble on growing anything that the government didn’t guarantee you a price for? Would you plant non-GMOs, knowing that if whatever you plant isn’t Roundup Ready and a neighbor accidentally sprays your field — or their spray just drifts on over — your crop is lost? For that matter, would you go through the trouble of that risk knowing that your more sustainably-produced product was going straight into a silo with the mountains of GMO corn produced all around you, anyway?”

        These are the kinds of issues I wish would be considered when this topic is discussed; I’m trying to give my opinion bluntly without offending anyone; you did ask for our thoughts at the end of the article :)

    • Amy says

      I live in a country where GMO crops are banned except in research facilities. It’s been a good move economically if nothing else, as we can get top dollar for exported produce that we can guarantee to be GMO-free.

      My own family are members of a CSA, and we’ve enjoyed improved health over the last couple of years as a result – we’re sort of compelled to eat the fresh produce we’re given, and knowing the care and attention that has gone into producing and handling everything from the farm to our doorstep, I’d feel guilty about wasting anything. I haven’t had a gallstone attack since we joined up, and one every few months was the norm for me. The CSA model suits us perfectly as we’re foodies and mainly vegetarian. Previously we’d have spent about the same amount of money at the supermarket on fresh produce, but it lacked the freshness and diversity. Google enables me to cook vegetables on a whim that I wouldn’t have even have even recognised before.

      But I digress. I think the subscription farm model is the answer to a lot of problems. It allows farmers to plan their crops for guaranteed consumers, so it cuts out waste there. It cuts out the supermarket middle-man – never before have people been so dependent on huge supermarkets for all their food, and these supermarkets take another huge cut from farmers, as well as contributing to waste – produce is shipped over huge distances and isn’t at its best by the time it arrives, and much more is doomed to perish waiting for a buyer. And it puts people in touch with where their food comes from, which encourages them to value it more, meaning less refrigerator waste.

      The uncomfortable truth is that the West takes part in a lot of self-indulgent hand-wringing over world hunger while eating an appalling diet, not paying a fair price for goods we often don’t even need, and wasting much of we end up with. We’ve convinced ourselves that we need a lot of things we don’t, and other human beings, animals and the environment are paying the price for this, while we go about like spoiled children with no appreciation for what we have. We don’t pay farmers enough, and we need to fundamentally change the way we think. Good food should cost money. Imported bananas *should* be fair trade and *should* cost more. When we get things ‘dirt cheap’, someone’s getting ripped off…probably the person living on dirt. Food and housing take up a substantial portion of our income, something that has been true for people for hundreds of years. I’m not sure where our sense of entitlement has come from (brainwashing from advertisers?) but when I see it in my own kids, I feel a little sick. I see our CSA subscription as a very reasonable price to pay for food that has been grown ‘the hard way’ but which is fresher and tastes better for it.

      I’m not perfect; no one is – I have a packet of probably-palm-oil chocolate biscuits somewhere in the cupboard. But I can see the flaws in the system and that things need to change. Change will be, must be, gradual, but it’s going to have to happen – this model is unsustainable and our cheap food is artificially so – if we saw the waste and the suffering that went into it, we’d do more about it. As a farmer, you’d do well to change the way you work and TELL people about it. Tell them why they ought to be paying more for it. Tell them how they’ll benefit from it – it’s all in the marketing, after all.

  6. Lorelei says

    While I dislike Monsanto, GMOs, etc, I have to agree with Katie about the costs small farmers face. We live in Hawaii where the majority of food is imported, and I make a concerted effort to get most of my food as biodynamic/organic/pastured produce and meat grown locally. Still, often the local folks are charging 2-10X what I pay by going to the health food store or Costco and buying produce or meat from larger (hopefully sustainable but I don’t know for sure) mainland companies. That’s simply what the local farmers have to charge to get by… but I can’t justify local “organic” carrots at $3/lb versus Costco organic carrots at $0.50/lb. As it is, 35% of our budget is food.

    I know subsidies play a big part in it all, and it’s really a very complex situation. Another factor is people’s willingness to pay more for food – I do, but we don’t have money for clothes or movies or iPods or the things most people have. When you get the majority of the population to feel that most of their budget should be going toward REAL food instead of cheap mass produced goods from China, then we’ll see change.

    Shame on Monsanto and the gov’t for fooling and poisoning us, but the bigger share of the blame goes to us for allowing ourselves to be fooled and poisoned…

    • Amy says

      I have to agree with this. We’re on a small budget – one income and three young children with a mortgage – and we do prioritise food, but sometimes sacrifices are made. We don’t have a lot of luxuries – new clothes or furniture, fancy new electronics, holidays – these things are a dream to us. Our ‘big’ purchases are investments back into a producing garden and our poultry.

      We don’t do everything organic. Sometimes we eat too much sugar, or things that are processed. Sometimes our food isn’t fair trade, let alone local. But I think the problem lies in believing that it’s all or nothing, that the problem is too big and taking from that that nothing should be or can be changed. That’s where we go wrong – we need our ideologies, our convictions in the way things should be, and then we need to work towards them, in little ways, each day. That’s the only way anything is going to change – and it IS us, with our relative privilege, who need to change. The change can’t come from people living in developing countries on the edge of survival, burning fossil fuels, eating bushmeat and burning rainforests. It’s ludicrous that we place restrictions on desperate people looking for their next meal, expecting them to conserve the only resources they have as parks and reserves while we sit in front of LCD televisions with bowls of ice cream. Change needs to come from those who can afford to and who are willing to change – at a rate that we can realistically adapt to.

  7. says

    I had a different reaction to that article than you did. I did not feel it was supportive of Monsanto or GM crops at all. Generally, I think that articles which seek to promote acceptance of GM crops do not refer, blatantly, to the development of crops able to withstand the application of components of Agent Orange. Nobody wants to read they might eat or wear such a product!

    But I do generally agree with your take on Monsanto, etc. I also think our government has acted criminally through its neglect to ensure the safety of these products before allowing them into the field. And it is the height of arrogance to think that somehow Monsanto or anybody else is going to be able to outsmart Mother Nature. I hope Monsanto gets spanked by the Supreme Court and by the anti-trust violations investigation.
    .-= Maggie´s last blog post …Who Hash =-.

  8. says

    I am new to your site and want to thank you for the information you provide.

    When I read this all I can think of is cancer. I am working on a lot of little things to do in our home. I read every label in the grocery store last night. If it was cheap it was bad. :( So sad.

    I am grabbing your button!
    .-= Tina Fisher´s last blog post …Sophie at Nine Months =-.

  9. whee says

    Just a brief note– the ‘weeds’ in question are a food crop (amaranth) in other parts of the world, and were a food crop in America among Native American farmers as recently as a couple hundred years ago.

    So Monsanto has farmers breaking their backs fighting a food crop that is fast-growing and clearly decent yielding and as a bonus, chemically resistant without resort to Monsanto-brand genetics-fixing.

    • Amy says

      Ha! That’s hilarious! Amaranth is delicious – my daughter had a porridge of amaranth flakes for years when she was younger. I hope we don’t see a whole lot of Round-Up sprayed amaranth as a result of this :/

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