What you need to know about biotech crops and pesticide use


Industrial agriculture is at a crossroads. A choice must be made whether to continue down a slippery slope of intensified dependence on biotech, or genetically engineered, crops and toxic chemical pesticides or turn towards more diversified and sustainable methods to combat the growing blight of herbicide-resistant “superweeds”.

Since the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops in the 1990s, agrochemical and biotechnology companies (increasingly becoming one and the same) have been marketing herbicide-tolerant GE crops as a way to improve yields, lower costs for farmers and reduce agriculture’s environmental impact. But a recent report by Food & Water Watch shows that not only have these claims not held up, biotech crops have backfired. Based on United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, the report shows that since 2001, as GE crops and their affiliated pesticides have proliferated, there has been a 26% increase in herbicide usage on corn, cotton and soybeans.

This increase is correlated with the development of glyphosate-tolerant superweeds, which have developed immunity to the weed killer marketed by Monsanto as RoundUp. Data from the International Survey on Herbicide Resistant Weeds shows superweeds are caused by an over-reliance on glyphosate as a single means of weed management. Before the introduction of GE crops, glyphosate-resistant weeds did not exist. There are now 14 glyphosate-resistant weeds in the US alone.

With over half of US farmers reporting infestations of superweeds, continued reliance on the intensive use of herbicides is not a solution. Yet, the biotech industry is pushing for the approval of new GE crops that can withstand multiple herbicides. The herbicides proposed include older and more toxic chemicals such as 2,4-D (a component of the Vietnam War era defoliant Agent Orange) and dicamba. These solutions are a way for biotech to maintain its stranglehold over the market by perpetuating agriculture’s reliance on chemicals while promoting an image as a steward to the environment.

If approved, the new line of GE crops tolerant to several herbicides will further threaten the environment. Chemicals such as 2,4-D are already known to pose a major risk to farmers as they contain cancer causing and hormone disrupting ingredients. Through contamination of the air and water, the chemicals pose a serious threat to wildlife and their habitats. Reliance on multiple herbicides will only result in multiple herbicide resistant weeds, a problem that is already surfacing with the report of 3 times as many multiple resistant weeds in the last decade.

It is no wonder that biotech is pushing for the fast track approval of new products, despite health and environmental risks. For years the industry has been able to rely on its star product, glyphosate, to provide continued demand for both the herbicide and herbicide-tolerant seeds. With the possibility of a major product line becoming worthless, biotech companies are anxious to squeeze as much profit out of glyphosate as possible, regardless of the external costs.

We need a new regulatory structure that actually examines the harmful effects of GE crops and the chemicals associated with them before granting entry into the fields. The USDA must place an emphasis on best management practices for weed control and the overall cultivation processes to prevent further crises. We must stop the runaway train of agrochemical dependence in its tracks before the damage it does to our environment and human health reaches the point of no return.

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch (foodandwaterwatch.org).

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2013



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