(Beyond Pesticides, January 28, 2010) Scientists convening at the Pan-American Weed Resistance Conference lamented the critical issue that environmentalists have known would eventually happen, and have argued for decades: the resistance of weeds to the broadscale use of the herbicide glyphosate. The conference, hosted by Bayer Crop Science and held in Miami on January 19-21, 2010, was attended by 284 scientists and media representatives from North and South America.
One of the scientists in attendance at the recent conference who offered some of the most dire outlooks on the use of glyphosate, according to The Delta Farm Press, was Stephen Powles, a professor of plant biology at the University of Western Australia, and director of the WA Herbicide Resistance Initiative (WAHRI). In some circles, he is known as an authority on herbicide resistance, and says that glyphosate “will be driven to redundancy in the cotton, corn and soybean belt.” Mr. Powles often refers to this area reaching northward into the Corn Belt down through Alabama and Mississippi as the “Glyphosate Belt.”
A report that Beyond Pesticides published twelve years ago, “The Environmental Risks of Transgenic Crops: An Agroecological Assessment is the failed pesticide paradigm being genetically engineered?” argued that as the industry pressures to increase herbicide sales, it will increase the acreage treated with these broad-spectrum herbicides, thus exacerbating the resistance problem.
While it was projected then that the acreage treated with glyphosate will increase to nearly 150 million acres, reports from a year ago show that there were at least 280 million acres of cropland in 23 countries. As long as transgenic crops follow closely the pesticide paradigm, such biotechnological products will do nothing but reinforce the pesticide treadmill in agroecosystems, legitimizing the concerns that many scientists have expressed regarding the possible environmental risks of genetically engineered organisms.
The current massive reliance on glyphosate, which has been promoted by the rapid adoption by U.S. farmers of genetically engineered (GE) corn, soybeans and cotton, is a key factor in this epidemic of herbicide-resistant weeds. A report released in November of 2009, for instance, found that since the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops, they have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. (1996-2008).
In Southern states, horseweed, ryegrass and pigweed are a concern for soybean farmers, while horseweed and volunteer Roundup Ready soybeans have become problem weeds for Mississippi rice. In Australia, weed scientists have now documented cases of glyphosate resistance in rigid ryegrass across large areas and are encountering it in other weed species in different parts of the world.
“In the U.S., when you have 70% Roundup Ready corn, 95% Roundup Ready soybeans and 95% Roundup Ready cotton in this area, this (weed resistance) is what happens,” Mr. Powles says.
Glyphosate is a known carcinogen, neurotoxin, irritant, and has been found to kill human embryonic cells, and can cause kidney and liver damage. Glyphosate is also harmful to the environment, particularly aquatic life and water quality and has been linked to intersex frogs, and is lethal to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment.
Despite these unacceptable risks to human health and the environment, Mr. Powles is still a staunch supporter of the use of glyphosate, and believes the resistance of glyphosate to weeds would be “lamentable.” However, farmers all over the world who employ the use of organic methods paint a different picture; that the use of the herbicide glyphosate is not necessary.
A growing number of researchers, development experts, farming groups and environmentalists are calling for new emphasis on sustainable agricultural practices that make a sharp break from current policies. Rodale Institute released a research paper last year, for instance, that shows that organic agriculture offers affordable, usable and universally accessible ways to improve yields and worldwide food security.
A study from the University of Berkeley, “Can Organic Farming Feed the World,” shows that organic farming systems have proven that they can prevent crop loss to pests without the use of any synthetic pesticides. In fact, they are able to maintain high yields that are comparable to conventional agriculture while continually increasing soil fertility and prevent loss of topsoil to erosion, while conventional methods have the opposite effect.
Another study that was produced by the University of Michigan predicts that organic farming can yield up to three times as much food on individual farms in developing countries, as low-intensive methods on the same land, which refutes the long-standing claim that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population.
For a better understanding of how to survive without the use of toxic herbicidal chemicals like glyphosate, read Beyond Pesticides’ fact sheets on understanding how to control weeds and understanding how to build healthy soil. For more information on organic food, you can also check out Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Program page for details on health and environmental benefits, resources, publications, and even details on how to start growing your own food.