Roundup Ready decline

April 2011

What's going on in the real world of Roundup Ready farming?

Spraying crops in the evening dusk
Crop spraying by TaminaMiller on Flickr
An article in Ag Journal gives some useful, at times poetically vivid, insights into what's really happening in GM Roundup-based agriculture in the USA.

The problems described are much the same as we've been hearing elsewhere. Roundup Ready seeds genetically transformed to resist Roundup herbicide are being mis-used and over-used, and farmers don't seem to know how to stop.

Encouraged by the convenience of biotech seed-weedkiller packages, plus company spin, plus a reduction in the cost or Roundup from $80 a gallon in the early years to $10 today, farmers are shifting away from traditional tillage and crop rotation. Increasingly, they are adopting a no-till, reduced-labour, low-rotation regime. Year-on-year rotations of Roundup Ready corn and Roundup Ready soya, coupled in some areas to a two-year fallow period for the soil to recover (and for the weeds to thrive), have all set the scene for the inevitable emergence of some very problematic Roundup-resistant weeds. So far, farmers have reacted by upping their applications of Roundup: in some cases three or four times in the same field besides a pre-emergent application.

This weed-resistance problem may also be increased by little-known interactions between Roundup and its environment. A university soil management specialist describes new research which is revealing how much soil acidity levels can inhibit the useful life of herbicides. As he put it:
“We aren't letting our herbicides live the length they need to live. That's a recipe for (weed) resistance.”
One university weed expert compared modern weed-control strategies to the historic Pony Express which once came through his home-town. Along each leg of the mail delivery route, the goal was to mount a fresh horse and “ride it as hard as they could” before jumping onto the next one. US farmers are engaged in riding Roundup to exhaustion. The problem here is that there isn't a fresh horse waiting for them to mount. Safe, effective new weed-killers haven't been developed, and don't even seem to be on the horizon.

Interestingly, both weed and tillage experts, like the biotech companies, blame the farmers. “Everyone wants to point at the biotech as the issue” said one well-known no-till advocate:
“It's like the guns: it's not the guns it's the idiots with the guns. It's the way we use them that matters.” 
Farmers have come to treat Roundup as some sort of miracle drug, and it's made them lazy. They “think of Roundup as a pill” which can be popped to keep fit instead of working out everyday and eating healthier.

The answer is that farmers have to stop looking for shortcuts and instead become increasingly sophisticated managers of their resources. They have to move away from the mentality that throws more technology at a problem that was created by technology in the first place: they need to focus on improved farming methods rather than on new products.

Biotech companies have been putting out the message that weed control has “a dead simple solution: just picking the right herbicide” said one weed specialist. But, “It has nothing to do with the herbicide, it's all about good agronomics.

An early adopter of no-till methods commented that the weed issue will force producers into hard choices over whether to till or not to till, with two distinctive paths to follow. In his own case he's clear which to choose “I'm not going back to plowing”. However he adds “I've had some of my land no till for 18 years now” which means his experience of the no till methods goes back many years before the age of Roundup Ready GM crops.


Perhaps the farmer with 18 years experience could teach his fellow-farmers a thing or two.

However, what is actually meant by 'no till' seems to be seriously open to question, check out CARBON-REDUCING MYTHS – March 2011.

Candace Krebs, Farmers look to broader strategies to battle weeds, Ag Journal on-line, 22.03.11

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