By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If you haven’t heard by now, genetically modified crops or GMOs are typically developed to resist a certain pesticide.

That allows farmers to spray their crops with a certain herbicide — like one sold by the GMO company, killing the weeds but not the crop plants. The corn, soy or whatever survives, and yields go up. The weeds are killed. It’s a miracle of modern bio-engineering!

Except. It is not. There’s a big trade-off occurring, a behind-the-scenes failure of GM crops that puts the lie to the big promises made by GM crop seed makers like Monsanto and Bayer.

Here’s how the system breaks down: After a few years, the weeds adapt to the chemical (as agronomists have predicted since these systems were proposed).

So farmers apply more herbicide, more often.

Whew! Problem solved. Again, no. The additional application of chemicals — usually it is glyphosate, known as RoundUp, the world’s most-used, beloved and reviled herbicide –works for a time.

Weed, largeThen this house of cards collapses. Farmers find that after they’ve battered their fields with RoundUp for a few years (killing God-knows what all beneficial micro-organisms in the soil), they’ve now got a second, unwanted massive crop of RoundUp resistant weeds. Monsanto enjoyed several seasons of profits, but the fields are in major decline.

This isn’t just a radical theory or a few anecdotal tales.

An agri-marketing firm called Stratus has found that 61.2 million acres of US cropland  is “infested” with glyposate-resistant weeds.

That is double the acreage that was infested in 2010, according to a report by Stratus Agri-marketing Inc., which surveyed thousands of farmers over three years.

In some parts of the country, mainly the South, the weeds are gaining ground Nearly all of the Georgia farmers queried (92 percent) said they now have some glyphosate-resistant weeds.

Across all the farmers surveyed, 49 percent reported having glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, a figure that rose quickly from 2011 when 34 percent of farmers reported battling RoundUp-resistance.

This problem is well-known to agribusiness, though the big companies don’t promote it to the public, which is asked to support  GM crops because they’re needed to “feed the world”.

Instead, the chemical companies have applied to the EPA for new chemicals. That has brought them full circle, wanting to use the older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, for which RoundUp was supposed to be a safer replacement.

Monsanto also has posted several tips for farmers battling weed resistance, counseling them to better prep fields, control weeds early when they’re small, use tillage or crop rotation (ironically, crop rotation is one old-school method that’s been lost to the modern crop monocultures encouraged by the giant Ag companies and federal subsidies).

Monsanto also denies that RoundUp is the only bad actor in the explosion of Super Weeds. From its website:

“Confusion about what is or is not weed resistance is common. Herbicides are not known to directly cause genetic mutations in weeds that lead to resistance. However, herbicide resistant biotypes may already exist in native weed populations. When a herbicide is applied over and over again, some of these biotypes survive, mature and produce seed. If a farmer relies on only one herbicide with the same mechanism of action, again, the percentage of the resistant biotypes in the population is likely to increase. This is referred to as herbicide selection pressure.”

This seems to be an admonition to the farmer to use multiple herbicides, after selling him or her a crop seed that’s specially designed to work with one specific herbicide (usually RoundUp).

But for the record, that’s Monsanto’s position, farmers need to manage the situation better.

The company also notes on its website that its GM crops do increase yields. Again, for the record, we’re not saying here that they don’t. We’ve heard from farmers that they do. The problem is not lower yields, but a backlash of more weeds that can ultimately impair productivity, or require heavier and more frequent applications of herbicides.

To read more about the outbreak of weeds, see the blog by Ontario-based Stratus.

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