American farmers have a problem: their crops are drowning in a sea of weeds and their machines are choking to death.
|Common pigweed. CC photo from Wiki Commons|
In desperation, Texas cotton growers recently petitioned the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) to allow 'emergency' use of propazine, a weed-killer widely banned because it causes birth defects, is an endocrine disruptor, a possible carcinogen, ends up in waterways and takes years to breakdown. Fortunately for the public and the environment, the petition was denied. But how did we come to such a pass?
In 1996, the introduction of large-scale weed-control using 'Roundup-Ready' GM crops, which survive spraying with Roundup herbicide, radically changed commodity crop farming. The technology was a miracle which, when first introduced, allowed farmers to wipe out eighteen-inch high weeds with a single application of Roundup. Agriculture had never been so easy, and no one used any other system.
But, within a few years, the farmers found they had to catch the weeds at a more tender age, three- to four-inches high. Then their fields began to need two or three sprayings, and the Roundup had to be more concentrated. Finally, some of their most problematic weeds, such as pigweed in the case of the Texas cotton farmers, just wouldn't go away. Herbicide-hardy weeds are now infesting some 56 million acres of fields, an area roughly equivalent to the State of Arizona.
Farmers are losing control of weeds because the agri-chemical industry hasn't got anything to sell them: no new herbicide has been developed for 30 years, and there doesn't seem to be anything new in the pipeline.
However, the biotech industry, having sewn-up the seed market by buying-out all its competitors, and selling seed-herbicide packages controlled by patents and contracts isn't about to loose its grip. They're scrambling to get new GM herbicide-tolerant crops onto the market which can be sprayed with older weed-killers, abandoned because they're so much more toxic than Roundup. In fact, GM crops which can be sprayed with two different herbicides are the name of the game, and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is already considering one resistant to three. A patent has been granted to one biotech company which would allow nine types of herbicide resistance to be engineered into a single crop.
How long this GM/herbicide treadmill can churn on with no sign of true innovation is questionable. A single problem weed plant can produce 300,000 uncontrollable, and possibly evolving, seeds. Weeds have probably already developed tolerance to any weed-killer used in the past: adding in more chemicals will just produce better super-weeds.
Experts are beginning to recommend a return to older forms of weed control in which a variety of practices is used to suppress weeds rather than the 'big hammer' of a single herbicide on a GM crop designed to tolerate it. For example, crop-rotation, cover-crops, planting-date adjustment, tillage, chemical rotation.
However, there are major obstacles to a move back to previous practices. None of them benefit the biotech industry, which depends on blockbuster crops and chemicals for its profits. And commodity farmers must grow the most profitable (often the most government subsidised) crop to survive.
The EPA seems happy to hand responsibility for herbicide-tolerant weeds over to the industry whose products are creating them. Given the obvious conflict-of-interest, and the previous track record of biotech companies in monitoring the effects of their products, the regulators do not really seem to be doing their job. One company is addressing this responsibility by telling farmers to scout their fields. In something the size of a typical GM monoculture, is this likely to be sufficient to halt the problem?
What happens when all the chemical-fixes have become obsolete? This isn't just industry or farmers' profits at stake: this is our food supply.
Also of pressing importance is what happens to our health when the biotech industry plans for routine injection of a staggering array of harmful chemicals, end up in our food and water?
There is no safety-testing of cocktails of agri-chemicals, but the experiences of unfortunate souls in areas near GM monocultures in Argentina should leave you with no illusions .
Ask for government action to remove the monopoly power which the biotech industry and global markets hold over our farmers. Your MP will contact the UK Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, on your behalf (you can use www.writetothem.com).
 ARGENTINEAN DOCTORS REPORT ON PESTICIDE EFFECTS - December 2011
- Tom Meersman, Superweeds' emerge to challenge farmers, Star Tribune, 2.08.12
- Brandon Baker, EPA Denies Texas' Emergency Request To Use Dangerous Herbicide On 3 Million Cotton Field Acres, EcoWatch, www.mintpressnews.com, 24.07.1
- Genetically Engineered Cotton Growers Want Unlicensed Pesticide Use on 3 Million Acres, www.digitaljournal.com, 2.07.14
- Carey Gillam, U.S. Midwestern farmers fighting explosion of “superweeds”, Reuters, 23.07.14 USDA signals approval Dow's 2,4-D resistant seeds, Pesticide Actin Network North America, 6.08.14
- Rani Molla, The Rise of the 'Super Weed' Around the World, Wall Street Journal, 23.07.14 Brandon Keim, The Next Generation of GM crops Has Arrived - And So Has the Controversy, www.wired.com, 24.06.14
Photo of pigweed by F. D. Richards from Clinton, MI (Common Amaranth) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons