Herbicide-resistant superweeds are a real threat to agriculture and the GMO industry "solution" will only add to the problem, writes Neil D. Hamilton, director of the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University.
Hamilton's article (item 1 below) is the most clear-eyed analysis we've read in a long time of the shocking contrast between the hype around GMO crops versus the reality – namely, the herbicide-resistant superweed problem in the heart of GMO-land in the Midwest of the USA.
Hamilton points out that the industry "solution" to the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds – 2,4-D-resistant GM crops – will quickly be made redundant by weeds that are resistant to that chemical too. What's more, other food crops increasingly being grown across Iowa will fall victim to 2,4-D spray drift.
Hamilton's piece is a response to an article in the Des Moines Register called "'Superweeds' choke farms", item 2 below.
EXCERPTS (item 1): 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….
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.
1. Don't repeat mistakes that led to Superweeds
2. "Superweeds" choke farms
1. Don't repeat mistakes that led to Superweeds
By Neil D. Hamilton
The Des Moines Register, 28 June 2014
The Des Moines Register deserves a hearty thank you for Donnelle Eller's eye-opening Sunday article on glysophate-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 glysophate, 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 glysophate 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.
2. "Superweeds" choke farms
The Des Moines Register, 23 June 2014
Arkansas farmer Tommy Young says Southern growers have lived through nearly a decade of torment, fighting a destructive, fast-growing weed that can carry a million seeds, grow as tall as an NBA player and is unfazed by several herbicides.
Now that weed — Palmer amaranth — is in five Iowa counties on the state's border, and agronomists are working to determine whether it is herbicide resistant.
It has the power to choke the state's economy and environment — and increase prices for consumers.
Here's how: Even a moderate infestation of Palmer amaranth can rob farmers of about two-thirds of their corn and soybean yields, experts say.
That would be about $11 billion gone from last year's total $16 billion corn and soybean receipts. That money ripples through some of the state's most important agricultural businesses, a lineup that includes DuPont Pioneer, Sukup Manufacturing Co. and Deere & Co. Economists estimate that a quarter of Iowa's $166 billion gross domestic product is tied to farming.
The growth of herbicide resistance means farmers will use more — and potentially more toxic — chemicals to battle the aggressive weed.
Agribusinesses are introducing a new lineup of herbicides and seeds to the battle. Environmental groups worry that those proposed solutions will only worsen the problem.
"Increased herbicide use on the new engineered crops will speed up weed resistance, leaving no viable herbicide alternatives," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist with the Center for Food Safety.
"This is a dangerous chemical cocktail that, when combined with the current farming system, it's a recipe for disaster," Gurian-Sherman, formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But farmers like Young say they have been forced to adopt less environmentally friendly farming practices, such as increased tillage, to battle herbicide-resistant weeds. Tilling is blamed for increased soil erosion and the loss of nutrients that can make their way into rivers and streams.
Farmers also have turned to older, less-safe chemicals like 2,4-D when glyphosate doesn't work.
Iowa farmers should be scared, said Young, who had stopped tilling 7,000 acres that his family farms until the discovery of Palmer amaranth four years ago. He said crop rotation and other conservation methods helped him keep the weed at bay for about four years after becoming resistant in the state.
Southern states have plowed under thousands of acres of crops such as cotton in an effort to control Palmer amaranth — and spent millions of dollars hand-weeding it.
"I'm sitting in a sprayer that cost over $350,000," Young said. "It's got a computer system that lets me tell you precisely what herbicide I sprayed, how many ounces I sprayed, the wind direction and speed, the field I was in, the humidity.
"I've got all this fantastic technology, but nothing to pour in my tank," said the 50-year-old, who wants government regulators to approve new products from Dow and Monsanto to help battle the weed. "I'm using the same chemicals I used when I was 14."
Soon, it won't just be farmers who suffer, he said: "We're all going to get hurt."
Many U.S. products are tied to corn and soybeans — from sodas to cereals and fuels — and prices will rise, said Mike Owen, professor of agronomy at Iowa State University. "People don't recognize almost everything they touch, whether they eat it or they wear it or drive it, has corn or soybeans in it."
Access to high-quality, low-cost readily available food is "all a function of an effective agricultural system that a weed like the Palmer amaranth could significantly impact," Owen said.
"Best herbicide around" loses power
Nearly 20 weeds in Iowa have developed resistance to herbicides that include glyphosate, a once-in-a-century chemical that Monsanto brought to the market in 1976 under the name Roundup. It killed a broad range of weeds.
Seed companies later introduced genetically modified soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops that were tolerant to glyphosate and other herbicides. It enabled farmers to spray fields for weeds without harming crops.
Seeds also have been modified so crops are resistant to insects and can better withstand environmental forces such as drought. Experts say the seeds have increased yields and, at least initially, enabled farmers to reduce the amount of herbicides and pesticides they used.
Last year, nearly 160 million corn and soybeans acres nationally were planted with genetically modified crops, nearly tripling since 2000, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a recent report. That's about 90 percent of all corn and soybean acres.
Critics blame farmers for creating herbicide-resistant weeds by overusing herbicides such as glyphosate and failing to diversify the crops they plant, relying on products such as Roundup Ready corn and soybeans year after year.
"Even though we warned them, you understand the economics behind it," said Robert Hartzler, an ISU professor of agronomy. "The current system favors the growth of corn and soybeans," prompting farmers to leave out rotations of other crops such as winter wheat that could disrupt weed resistance.
"To make a reasonable living, you need to farm large acres, and to farm large acres, you need to cover acres quickly and that involves herbicides. Glyphosate was the best herbicide around," Hartzler said.
"You couldn't sit down at a blackboard and come up with a better rotation than we have for weeds to thrive in," he said.
Hartzler and other scientists say herbicide resistance in weeds was inevitable. "You've heard of this guy called Chuck Darwin and evolution?" Owen said.
"If we use one single system, one tool to control a pest, Mother Nature will find a way around that tool," said Brent Wilson, DuPont Pioneer technical services manager. "That's just the law of nature.
"It's too bad that glyphosate is developing resistance, but it shouldn't surprise us," Wilson said. "We don't know of any herbicide that won't develop resistance over some time."
Is Palmer already resistant in Iowa?
Hartzler, Owen and others are trying to determine whether Palmer amaranth, discovered in Iowa last year, is resistant to glyphosate.
"If I was a betting man, and I am, I'd say we've got glyphosate-resistant Palmer in Iowa," Owen said. Hartzler believes the superweed is likely growing in more than five counties.
The tiny seed spreads easily — by farm equipment that moves across state lines and fields, in cotton byproducts that are fed to dairy cows, even potentially by birds, experts say.
The states around Iowa are already fighting glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth, including Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas.
Waterhemp, a similar-looking but wimpier cousin of Palmer amaranth, is resistant to glyphosate and other herbicides in Iowa. "At least 50 percent of fields in Iowa have waterhemp that's resistant to glyphosate. It's our No. 1 weed problem," Hartzler said.
It's difficult to distinguish between waterhemp and Palmer amaranth, both pigweeds, especially when they're small, he said. But Palmer amaranth is stronger and faster-growing. It can quickly overrun a soybean crop. Corn is tougher in a matchup.
Waiting even a long weekend to kill Palmer amaranth can result in the plant getting too large to kill with a herbicide. The weed can grow 2 inches a day and needs to be sprayed when it's 4 to 6 inches in size.
Add spring rains or wind to the equation, and farmers can quickly miss the window, Hartzler said.
Already, U.S. farmers are being forced to use more herbicides to control waterhemp. "We've already seen a big leap, and Palmer amaranth will increase it more," he said.
A Muscatine County farmer who discovered Palmer amaranth last fall decided to mow down part of a soybean field to control it. "He knew if he tried to harvest it, the Palmer amaranth seed would get inside the combine, and it's nearly impossible to clean it out," said Hartzler, who determined that weed wasn't yet resistant to glyphosate. "He didn't want to spread it to other fields."
The Iowa Soybean Association has asked farmers to carefully scout fields and nearby ditches for Palmer amaranth. They're being urged to treat any pigweed like it's herbicide-resistant, meaning aggressively stamping it out when it's small.
Young, the Arkansas farmer, said he initially thought he had missed spraying a small patch of weeds that turned out to be resistant to Palmer amaranth. Within a short time, the weed had spread to all the fields he farms.
"If you miss the window of application, you miss the whole boat," Young said. "I'd say there are very few acres in Arkansas that don't have resistant Palmer amaranth."
The cost of using more herbicide, buying tillage equipment, even hiring workers to hand-weed fields, is driving some farmers out of business, he said. "For a lot of farmers, there won't be a next year."
Farmers won't be able to keep up with global demand for their crops as the herbicide-resistant weeds spread and reduce yields. "We're farming like we did 35 to 40 years ago," he said. "It's like using a rotary-dial phone" in a cellphone world.
AGGRESSIVE: Palmer amaranth quickly evolves, adapting to pressures such as herbicides. It's invasive, with small seeds that are easily spread by machines, feed, and birds. It aggressively competes with crops for water and nutrients.
FAST-GROWING: One plant can create 1 million seeds and grow 2 inches a day.
"A CHRISTMAS TREE": It can grow up to 7 feet, blocking sunlight from smaller plants such as soybeans. "You could have used it as a Christmas tree," said agronomist Clarke McGrath, about weeds discovered in southwest Iowa. "That's what's so scary about Palmer amaranth. It's so competitive, it can put on so much biomass, it can take over a field pretty easy."
EDIBLE: The seeds are a good source of protein.
Herbicide resistance at a glance
14: Weeds in the U.S. that are resistant to glyphosate
160 million: U.S. acres with genetically modified corn and soybeans
70 million: U.S. acres of cropland with glyphosate-resistant weeds in 2013
30,000: Weed species that have the potential to cause farmers trouble
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture; Union of Concerned Scientists; Dow AgroSciences
Climate change another threat
The nation's $330 billion agriculture industry will see increased weed, insect, and disease pressures from projected rising average temperatures and extreme weather events such as flooding and droughts, according to the latest national climate change report.
Already, farmers like those in Iowa are fighting narrowing windows to prepare fields and plant and harvest crops, said Ricardo Salvador, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "You're applying the herbicides, you're applying the fertilizers, and harvesting all at breakneck speed," said Salvador, a former agronomy professor at Iowa State University. That will only intensify as catastrophic weather events increase, making farming more difficult.
Herbicide-tolerant crops make farming under those narrowing windows easier. But Salvador believes that will be detrimental. With increased use comes increased weed resistance, he said. "It's the primary accelerator that will bring about more of these problems."
Dow AgroSciences disagrees. It says adding to the tools that farmers use is the best way to control weeds and their extensive damage.