In March 2009, the President and the Chief Executive of the National Farmers' Union of Scotland (NFUS) described the US experience of GM crops as a “train wreck”.
One year on, the same farmers' union was calling for a faster approval system for GM imports and cultivation in the EU.
What is the NFUS basing its advice on? Is it hearing nothing beyond some short-term GM success stories and the continuing biotech company promises of farming-made-simple? Has something deafened it to the reports coming directly from today's GM farmers after several years' experience with the biotech crops?
When the Roundup/Roundup-Ready crop package entered US agriculture, it was hailed as a momentous, revolutionary, near-miraculous farming tool, an economic boon, a godsend. By purchasing the GM seed and applying a single herbicide when the weeds began to show, their crops could grow free from competition for light or nutrients. Even some environmentalists were interested in Roundup's safety profile and in the low-till, soil-saving methods encouraged by the Roundup/Roundup-Ready seed package. For farmers, the reduction in labour and input costs was huge: no more ploughing, no more guessing which chemical to use on which weeds and when to use it, effortless care of their precious soil. With farming this easy, their land area and their profits could be expanded, and the expensive machinery previously essential could be ditched.
“For a full decade and a half, everyone in the U.S. involved in agriculture, starting from the farmers themselves, including big agri-business and even the agricultural attachés in US Embassies worldwide, have declared European consumers as well as politicians and industry officials heeding consumer preferences half-witted for rejecting GMOs. Meanwhile, neither American nor foreign scientists warning USDA officials had a chance of having their concerns heard.” (TraceConsult)Early warnings on the pitfalls of GM were dismissed by the biotech industry on the grounds that “the science is shaky”.
In the last year however, reports in US farming publications, from agricultural journalists, from economists, and even in a US television documentary, are painting a picture which looks very much like ... a train wreck.
Farming in America is now “a serious, serious problem” and “nerve-wracking”, because “farmers have gotten spoiled a bit” and the “silver bullet of American agriculture is beginning to miss its mark”. In a nutshell, “Some growers aren't going to survive this”.
Three problems are emerging loud and clear.
Superweeds, resistant to all of the (few) herbicides available to farmers are spreading relentlessly and very rapidly throughout the farming states.
Some of the weeds farmers are battling this year “seem more like something found in a 1950s science fiction flick than a cotton, corn or soybean field”.
One farmers In Arkansas interviewed for TV described how he spent almost $400,000 in only three months in a failed attempt to kill the new super-weeds in his fields.
Adding to the difficulty of controlling the superweeds, is the fact that agriculture has been changed radically by the advent of the Roundup Ready package. Farmers have no wish to return to labour-intensive methods. Much farm machinery has been mothballed. Many farms have become too big to handle with hoes. Younger farmers have never farmed any other way but with glyphosate and GM crops. Consequently, they are all crying out for new chemicals and will pay a steep premium to control weeds chemically.
Agrichemical companies (what few of them have survived the competition of Roundup's dominance in the market) are dusting off older, more toxic weedkillers for relaunching, and rubbing their hands in glee because as one Syngenta spokesman put “Now (the herbicide business) is getting fun again”.
As one Center for Food Safety scientist said, we have to start using alternative methods of weed control, because otherwise “We're talking a pesticide treadmill here. It's just coming back to kick us in the butt now with resistant weeds.”
Needless to say, the biotech industry's strategy to overcoming Roundup-Resistant superweeds is to develop a new generation of GM crops resistant to other herbicides, such as Dicamba.
Problem number two is volunteers, the 'weeds' which grow in fields from seed spilled during the previous years' harvests.
Farmers have been rotating Roundup Ready Corn with Roundup Ready soya. Many are now looking at uncontrollable stands of volunteer soya mixed with volunteer corn. The only option here seems to be to hand-weed the corn (damaging the soya as they go) and cut their losses by harvesting what soya they can.
The yields from these are always poor: GM crops don't breed true and without Roundup which can't be sprayed without killing a significant proportion of the stand, it becomes choked with weeds; the fertilizers on which soya crops depend can't be appropriately applied for optimum growth; and without fungicide-treatment of the seeds, infection also takes its toll.
Increasingly, no-till or minimal-till is being replaced with deep-till and mixing herbicides into the soil, bringing back all the soil damage that, briefly, was a thing of the past.
Legal-minded readers might well be asking: given the infamous number of cases of non-GM farmers finding themselves facing law-suits for any biotech plants appearing in their fields, does Monsanto allow farmers to harvest volunteers? The answer is, yes of course, at a price. All farmers need to do to if they decide to harvest the mediocre yield of a partially-GM crop they didn't plant, didn't want and can't seem to get rid of, is to register their volunteer acres with Monsanto, sign a Monsanto Volunteer Use Technology Agreement, and pay Monsanto $15.65 an acre for the privilege.
Spread of GM weeds
Problem number three is the unprecedented spread of GM weeds. Herbicide-tolerant canola (oilseed rape) is growing on roadside verges, around petrol stations and grocery stores, often at large distances from areas of agricultural production. Some weeds derive from Monsanto's Roundup Ready varieties, others derive from Bayer's Liberty Link varieties (transformed to be resistant to the herbicide glufosinate), and after so many years' opportunity to interbreed, a few are resistant to both herbicides. Wind, weather, and spillage of seed during transport coupled to the widespread use of glyphosate and presumably glufosinate to clear weeds around roads and buildings have conspired to make herbicide-tolerant weeds inevitable. How far these GM plants have ingressed into wild environments or back into farmers fields from this weedy reservoir hasn't been studied.
The tactics suggested to deal with superweeds, volunteers and weeds are disturbingly military: superweeds are being “aggressively attacked”, prompting a “counter attack from agribusiness”; while Roundup is still part of a farmer's “arsenal”. Monsanto's only admission of failure in this “war” is that it could have been “more aggressive with education (about the need to diversity crops and chemicals)”.
... and Agent Orange
One of the older weedkillers being revived to combat Roundup Ready weeds was a key ingredient of the notorious 'Agent Orange', the defoliant used to clear the jungle in war-torn Vietnam and which continues to wreak havoc with the health of the people there to this day. Counter Punch quipped that, in order to maintain our diet of GM-dependent junk foods...
“we'll engage the services of the defense industry. We'll use Agent Orange to fight off weeds and ensure the delivery of cheap corn to Frito-Lay, Coke and Kelloggs; and when megaweeds evolve to withstand Agent Orange – eighteen-foot-tall weeds, stems like tree trunks – we'll reach for the napalm. 'Napalm-Ready' soy; that's our future.”
If you agree that US agriculture indeed, looks like a train-wreck, tell the NFUS to stop flip-flopping over its position on GM. Tell it to support the Scottish Government's drive for modern, sustainable agriculture, and let Scotland be a model for other to follow. You can contact the NFUS through its website www.nfus.org.uk
- NFUS Scotland call for more GM “train wrecks”, GM freeze Press Release, 25.03.10
- Scott Kilman, Superweed Outbreak Triggers Arms Race, Wall Street Journal, 4.06.10
- Dennis Sherer, Weeds that defy pesticide invading farms, Times Daily, 4.07.10
- William Neuman and Andrew Pollack, Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds, New York Times, 3.05.10
- David Mercer, Roundup resistant weeds pose environmental threat, Associated Press, USA Today, 21.06.10
- Caroline Stocks, Any GM volunteers? NufSaid, 8.07.10, www.nufsaid.net
- Brad Haire (University of Georgia), Pigweed threatens Georgia cotton industry, South East Farm Press, 6.07.10
- Brian Cross, Consider economics, legalities of volunteer canola, Saskatoon Newsroom, The Producer, 07.08.10
- Firmin DeBrabander, The Return of Agent Orange, Counter Punch, 13.07.10
- Roundup's potency declines and foils U.S. Farmers, TraceConsult, 30.07.10
- Georgina Gustin, Roundup's Potency Slips, Foils Farmers, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), 25.07.10
- Natach Gilbert, Transgenic canola found growing freely in North Dakota, Nature, 6.08.10
- F. William Engdahl, GMO Crop Catastrophe in USA , a lesson for EU, www.voltairenet.org, 22.08.10
- Marie-Monique Robin, The World According to Monsanto, The New Press 2010, ISBN 978-1-59558-426-7
- Tim King, Judge in California Could Halt planting of Genetically Modified Sugar Beets, Salem-News.com, 5.03.10.