Rise of the Superweeds

Half a billion pounds of herbicide.

It’s a staggering quantity, and it’s the amount herbicide use has increased over the past 16 years as a direct result of GMO crops, according to a powerful new study released on Monday.

Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook found that rising chemical use is being fed by the emergence of new types of weeds that are immune to popular herbicides such as Roundup, and indifferent to Monsanto patents.

“Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE (genetically engineered) crops, and are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent,” Benbrook explained.

Washington State University summarized a key finding: “Herbicide-tolerant crops worked extremely well in the first few years of use, Benbrook’s analysis shows, but over-reliance may have led to shifts in weed communities and the spread of resistant weeds that force farmers to increase herbicide application rates (especially glyphosate), spray more often, and add new herbicides that work through an alternate mode of action into their spray programs.”

In a Reuters interview, Benbrook warned: “Things are getting worse, fast. In order to deal with rapidly spreading resistant weeds, farmers are being forced to expand use of older, higher-risk herbicides. To stop corn and cotton insects from developing resistance to Bt, farmers planting Bt crops are being asked to spray the insecticides that Bt corn and cotton were designed to displace.”

Reuters described the significance of the study, which appears in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe:

“Herbicide-tolerant crops were the first genetically modified crops introduced to world, rolled out by Monsanto Co. in 1996, first in ‘Roundup Ready’ soybeans and then in corn, cotton and other crops. Roundup Ready crops are engineered through transgenic modification to tolerate dousings of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

“The crops were a hit with farmers who found they could easily kill weed populations without damaging their crops. But in recent years, more than two dozen weed species have become resistant to Roundup’s chief ingredient glyphosate, causing farmers to use increasing amounts both of glyphosate and other weedkilling chemicals to try to control the so-called ‘superweeds.’”

The magnitude of the problem is immense: “Herbicide-tolerant and Bt-transgenic crops now dominate U.S. agriculture, accounting for about one in every two acres of harvested cropland, and around 95 percent of soybean and cotton acres, and over 85 percent of corn acres.”

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