By PAUL VOOSEN of Greenwire
Published: June 7, 2010
The Agriculture Department will approve for broad use tomorrow a genetically modified soybean engineered to contain healthier oils, the opening salvo in a biotech oil fight between DuPont Co. and its rival, Monsanto Co.
The high-oleic soybean, developed by DuPont and pending deregulation since 2006, is one of the first in a wave of bioengineered cash crops that are being altered for nutritional purposes. Currently, nearly all biotech crops grown in the United States have been altered for resistance to weedkiller or insects, traits that are rarely felt by consumers or commercial businesses.
The USDA deregulation is the "final step" in the approval process for Dupont’s soybean, which has already been approved in Canada and Mexico, said Bridget Anderson, a spokeswoman for Pioneer Hi-Bred, DuPont’s biotech seed business. The crop and its oil will continue commercial testing this year and should be ready for global use by 2012, she added.
The USDA approval is also the first play in a coming oil war between DuPont and Monsanto.
Currently, Monsanto has two varieties of biotech soybeans pending approval with USDA that also seek to modify the nutritional value of soybean oil, promising to eliminate trans fats and produce oil with omega-3 fatty acid — fish oil — for use in yogurt, granola bars and spreads.
Micheal D. K. Owen is a professor of agronomy and an extension weed scientist at Iowa State University. He is the co-author of “The Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States.”
Weeds, like all organisms, respond to selection pressures imposed by the environment. In this case, the primary selective pressure is the repeated use of one specific herbicide: glyphosate.
If farmers adjust their approach to weed control, they’ll be fine.
The solution to the problem for farmers who have yet to cause the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds is to adopt a more diverse weed management program that includes tactics other than glyphosate. By altering the selection pressure on the weeds, glyphosate resistance will be slow to evolve.
For those increasing number of farmers who have glyphosate-resistant weeds, the solution is similar but more difficult: adopt alternative tactics that will control those weeds. Of course, often these weeds have also evolved resistance to other herbicides, which, again, is attributed to the historic use of one herbicide as the sole management tactic. In this case, weed control may be more challenging and costly.
Weeds have demonstrated the ability to evolve resistance to herbicides predating the relatively recent adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops. The concern is that crop production systems (corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beets and canola) are now predominantly based on the use of glyphosate. Unless growers use more integrated weed management tactics, the problem of evolved glyphosate-resistance in weeds will likely continue to increase at a growing rate.
While it is unlikely that consumers will experience a direct impact with higher food prices, the farmers will have greater production costs and more difficult management decisions.
As far as what this problem infers about production agriculture is more difficult to assess. However, based on my experience, the risk of herbicide-resistant weeds can be addressed effectively by observing some basic principles of ecology and adjusting management tactics.
Scott M. Swinton is a professor of agricultural, food and resource economics at Michigan State University. He developed WEEDSIM, a computer program to help farmers choose profitable weed control strategies.
Roundup Ready™ crops let corn and soybean farmers rely on a single weapon. A single weapon is predicable, and any warrior who is predictable is open attack by opponents that can adjust. Roundup resistant weeds have done just that.
A choice between higher environmental costs and higher food costs for nonchemical weed control.
To overcome these new “super weeds,” farmers need to take a leaf from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”: study the opponent and find its weaknesses. The past 30 years of research into weed management have yielded two important keys to understanding the weaknesses of weeds.
The first key is to study the weeds in the crops. How many weeds are there? Just a few weeds may not cause enough crop damage to be worth the effort and cost of weed control. Which weed species are present? All weeds are not equal. Some weeds get bigger and do more damage than others.
There are many herbicides to choose from, and some kill certain weeds better than others. Computer programs can help farmers decide whether a herbicide is worthwhile and, if so, which one is most cost-effective. WeedSOFT is one program developed by researchers at 17 land-grant agricultural universities that can help farmers find the weapon to exploit their enemies’ weaknesses.
The second is to be unpredictable. Farmers who grow Roundup Ready™ crops may find that glyphosate is nearly always the most cost-effective choice, but the wise warrior also understands the value of surprise. Relying on the same herbicide will eventually favor those weeds that can mutate to survive.
There are many strategies farmers can use to vary their attack. They can change herbicides. They can use tillage. They can also rotate different types of crops. Rotating summer crops (like corn and soybean) with winter crops (like wheat and canola) can break up weed cycles.
Alas, studying the enemy takes time and effort. Just as antibiotic-resistant germs have forced physicians to spend more time on diagnosis, so glyphsate-resistant weeds will force farmers to spend more time on weed diagnosis. This will raise their weed control costs. Unfortunately, many herbicide substitutes for glyphosate are more toxic, so the public may have to choose between higher environmental costs and higher food costs for nonchemical weed control.
Anna Lappé is the author, most recently, of “Diet for a Hot Planet” and co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and the Small Planet Fund.
Times reporters William Neuman and Andrew Pollack investigate a dangerous and underreported consequence of genetically engineered crops: “tenacious new superweeds.” But the spread of superweeds should surprise no one.
We need to manage weeds and pests through natural processes, not toxic chemicals.
In 1999, my late father, scientist Marc Lappé and colleague Britt Bailey explained the threat of these superweeds, which “could require greater amounts of more toxic pesticides to manage, and threaten extinction for rare plants and their weedy relatives relied upon for crop and plant biodiversity.” Many others raised this red flag. Their concerns were largely dismissed as the rantings of Luddites or the hand wringing of elites.
Now we have evidence that, unfortunately, these predictions were prescient, especially here. The United States is ground zero in the global experiment with genetically engineered crops, with more than half of them planted in this country.
Who will pay the price of agribusiness’ power to silence those pointing out the most basic fact of evolutionary genetics, that plants evolve resistance? Farmers pay the price in lower yields; consumers pay the price in the checkout line; all of us pay the price as genetically engineered monocrops replace biodiversity As climate instability worsens, biodiversity is exactly what our farms will need to respond to changing conditions.
Mr. Neuman and Mr. Pollack note the industry’s response is to switch the chemical. No, we’ve got to switch the system.
We should listen to farmers, scientists and development experts who are urging agroecological farming practices, now proven to effectively manage weeds and pests through natural processes not toxic chemicals. And we should urge government support for those many farmers who want to transition away from this dangerous agricultural experiment, but who can’t afford to get off the chemical and biotech treadmill. Finally, in a farm economy where one company, Monsanto, controls more than 90 percent of all genetically modified germplasm, we should encourage competition in the agricultural markets.
Blake Hurst farms in northwestern Missouri with his family, raising corn, soybeans and greenhouse crops.
We used to control weeds by cultivating. Three triangular shovels ran between each row of crops, rooting out weeds. We were left with weeds that had tap roots and tough stalks, which slid around the shovels. Sort of a forerunner of herbicide-resistant weeds, when you think about it. We’d cut the escapes with a hoe, which was my summer job.
We used to control weeds the old-fashioned way — with hoes.
Then, we had an outbreak of shattercane, a grass closely related to grain sorghum, which seemed to thrive on the crop protection chemicals we had at the time. Shattercane seeded so profusely that the cultivator was ineffective, and would grow back from below the ground after we cut it with a hoe. A plant that was hoe resistant.
Then, we had Roundup, which ended the threat from shattercane. But some of those wily weeds have evolved to defeat Roundup, and the war between man and weed goes on. No different than it has since the beginning of time.
We haven’t noticed a large problem with Roundup-resistant weeds on our farm because we only use Roundup every other year, and we use crop protection chemicals with different modes of action to lessen the chance of resistant weeds. We will no doubt see an increase in resistant weeds, and we’ll perhaps have to lengthen the time between applications of Roundup to maintain its effectiveness.
None of this is surprising. Of course weeds evolve, and certainly some farmers have overused a wonderful tool, just as doctors have over prescribed antibiotics. Being a technological optimist, I assume that weed scientists and crop geneticists are working overtime to solve the problem. Martial metaphors are disturbing to those who imagine farming as a pastoral stroll with Gaia, but we’re in an arms race with weeds, and thus has it always been.
Stephen Powles is a professor of plant biology at the University of Western Australia. He is also a grain grower and glyphosate user.
Can anything be done about herbicide-resistant weeds in U.S. crops?
The herbicide is as important for global food production as penicillin is for human health.
The short answer is yes. This starts with realizing that glyphosate — Roundup and other trade names — is a precious resource for current and future harvests. Glyphosate is the world’s greatest herbicide. In my view glyphosate is a one-in-a-hundred-year discovery that is as important for global food production as penicillin is for global human health.
Yet glyphosate is failing in corn, soybean and cotton crops in the American Midwest and South because of massive overuse. This is also happening in Argentina and Brazil. For some U.S. grain and cotton producers it is already too late: over-reliance on glyphosate has led to the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds, and alternative chemical and non-chemical solutions will be required.
However, for many, glyphosate is still working, and these farmers have the opportunity to make changes now to give themselves the best chance that glyphosate will work for future harvests. This will call for diversifying crops and giving glyphosate a rest by using other herbicides and non-chemical weed control tools that make sense. Diversity offers the best chance of saving glyphosate.
Glyphosate should be conserved for future harvests in the U.S. and world crops because without glyphosate, global grain production becomes more difficult. And that will have a large effect on the global food supply.
We Knew It Was Coming
Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of ”Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.”
What a surprise! Roundup-resistant weeds have shown up in fields that have been doused with Roundup! Shocking!
Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm.
Actually, the surprise would have been if these weeds didn’t show up — the only thing in doubt was the timing. The theory of natural selection predicts that resistance will appear whenever you attempt to eradicate a pest or a bacteria using such a heavy-handed approach. And in fact the rise of Roundup resistant weeds was predicted by Marion Nestle in her 2003 book “Safe Food” and by the Union of Concerned Scientists. At the time, Monsanto rejected such predictions as “hypothetical.”
A few lessons may be drawn from this story:
1. A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, “sustainable.” Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.
2. Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm. This is the same-old pesticide treadmill, in which the farmer gets hooked on a chemical fix that needs to be upgraded every few years as it loses its effectiveness.
3. Monocultures are inherently precarious. The very success of Roundup Ready crops have been their undoing, since so many acres were planted with the same seed, and doused with the same chemical, resistance came quickly. Resilience, and long-term sustainability, comes from diversifying fields, not planting them all to the same kind of seed.
By THE EDITORS
American farmers’ broad use of the weedkiller glyphosphate — particularly Roundup, which was originally made by Monsanto — has led to the rapid growth in recent years of herbicide-resistant weeds. To fight them, farmers are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
What should farmers do about these superweeds? What does the problem mean for agriculture in the U.S.? Will it temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for genetically modified crops that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup?
By WILLIAM NEUMAN and ANDREW POLLACK
DYERSBURG, Tenn. — For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.
But not this year.
On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted.
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
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.
During the depths of the economic crisis last year, the prices for many goods held steady or even dropped. But on American farms, the picture was far different, as farmers watched the price they paid for seeds skyrocket. Corn seed prices rose 32 percent; soybean seeds were up 24 percent.
Such price increases for seeds — the most important purchase a farmer makes each year — are part of an unprecedented climb that began more than a decade ago, stemming from the advent of genetically engineered crops and the rapid concentration in the seed industry that accompanied it.
The price increases have not only irritated many farmers, they have caught the attention of the Obama administration. The Justice Department began an antitrust investigation of the seed industry last year, with an apparent focus on Monsanto, which controls much of the market for the expensive bioengineered traits that make crops resistant to insect pests and herbicides.