Sunday, November 29, 2009

Superweeds: What Doesn't Kill Them Makes Them Stronger

One of the big promises of the industry that produces genetically engineered (GE) crops is that they will allow farmers to use less pesticide, thereby saving money and reducing negative impacts on the environment. But a recent paper shows that these claims don't stand up to scrutiny. On the contrary, pesticide use has increased almost every year in the thirteen years that GE crops have been planted on a large scale in the US.

Crops such as cotton, corn and soybean are genetically engineered in order to withstand a particular type of pesticide. That pesticide is sprayed over a large area and kills everything but the crop. That's the theory, anyhow. So the industry has spent a lot of money trying to rubbish the claims that eventually weeds would evolve that would be resistant to the glyphosate herbicide that needs to be used in increasing amounts on GE crops; these have been dubbed 'superweeds'. But such weeds have evolved and they keep evolving to resist higher levels of glyphosate and anything else farmers try to do to keep them under control.

This glyphosate is a pollutant that degrades land and contaminates water. Its serious effects on the environment, on conventional agriculture and on animals, domestic and wild, have been demonstrated many times but they have also been shown to cause health problems in humans. Reproductive, birth and neurological problems have been linked with exposure to pesticides.

Those using GE crops are not permitted to collect seeds to plant the following year and are compelled to buy seeds every year from the GE industry, in addition to the pesticides and the increasing amounts of herbicide. But farmers who try to buy conventional corn, soybean and cotton seeds find that there are few stocks available. Almost all these important crops have been taken over or contaminated by GE versions in the US.

And this industry wants us to believe that GE crops are the future for developing countries? Producers of GE crops in the US now have to spend so much money controlling resistant weeds that it is eating into their profits. Coupled with the costs of pesticides, it won't be long before there will be no profit at all. And the industry's claims about the increased yields from GE crops have never been demonstrated either. Yields are affected by resistant weed infestations, of course, but the yields have been no better than those of conventional crops. Sometimes they have been a lot lower.

In developing countries, where conditions are far from ideal, the chances of farmers even getting normal yields from GE crops are slim. And as the costs go up farmers will be unable to continue and will be forced to try to return to conventional crops. But their land and the land of those around them will, by then, be contaminated, as will seed crops. Their land, and even land close by that never bought into GE crops, will continue to produce weeds that are resistant to pesticides and the crops will be contaminated with GE strains for many years, if not decades.

It's ironic that this supposedly great technological achievement has now resulted in US farmers having to employ people to pull up weeds by hand. But this will not be an option for people in developing countries. They will not be able to withstand the pressures of increasing costs along with falling yields and GE crops will be a disaster for them, even more so than it is for industrialised countries. Monsanto and Syngenta are the main offenders mentioned in this report, names that will be familiar to those who have followed the GE industry to date. Their plan is to produce more pesticide and to produce stronger versions. That should help a lot.



Don said...

The use of glyphosate containing herbicides does not in any way relate to the subject. The link given which is to support the claim that all pesticides harm human health (epigenetic problematic (endocrine disrupting) compounds), cites a research article on such compounds from an Arctic study. Glyphosate is not such a compound. It is not cited in that research article. Both

Simon said...

Hi 'Don'
Thank you for your comment. Indeed, that article does not mention glyphosate, it is about pesticides being harmful, glyphosate being one pesticide. But if you doubt the dangers of glyphosate in particular you can challenge the relevant article in Wikipedia. It's under 'glyphosate'. You may also like to note and/or challenge the cases of false advertising and fraud involving Monsanto.

My concerns about GE crops are many. In addition to the health and environment problems, there are the developmental problems relating to poor, small-scale farmers taking on a technique that is being sold to them as advantageous when this is demonstrably not the case. In fact, GE crops have been lied about and hyped beyond belief but they have been a total failure and have not lived up to any of the wild promises made by Monsanto, Syngenta and other peddlers.

Rich Western farmers, who are heavily subsidised by governments ostensibly in favour of a free market may not have so much to worry about and if they are stupid enough to buy into something they have been told is a good buy, that's their problem. But governments of developing countries either don't have the money to subsidise and protect their farmers or are not prepared to do so. Nor would they be allowed to do so, if international trade practices are anything to go by.

Your observation is valid enough, but what point are you trying to make? That glyphosates are not harmful? That GE is not harmful? That superweeds are nothing to worry about? Or did you go to the trouble of posting anonymously just to show that you are familiar with a paper cited in the same paragraph that mentions glyphosates?