(Beyond Pesticides, July 22, 2010) In a press release submitted last week, the Monsanto Company, Inc. announced that it has taken a vital step towards commercializing a new soybean product that is tolerant to the neurotoxic pesticide dicamba by completing its regulatory submission to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for dicamba-tolerant soybeans. Monsanto expects to complete regulatory submission to the USDA and key global markets in the coming months.
The dicamba tolerance trait is expected to also be stacked with the glyphosate-resistant, or “Roundup Ready” soybean trait upon commercialization. While Monsanto claims that this is a “highly effective and economical weed control package,” it is likely to be similar to Roundup (glyphosate) Ready crops, just another way to sell more pesticide product. Monsanto is banking on the idea that mixing dicamba with glyphosate will help manage the hard-to-control broadleaf weeds in chemical-intensive farming systems, targeting both pre-plant and post-emergence weed control in an effort to reduce resistance.
In a report published last year, analysts found that genetically engineered (GE) crops have been responsible for an increase of 383 million pounds of herbicide use in the U.S. over the first 13 years of commercial use of GE crops (1996-2008). The primary cause of the increase, according to the report, is the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds. Scientists at the Pan-American Weed Resistance Conference earlier this year gathered to discuss the increasing documented cases of glyphosate resistance, and the possibility that the broadscale use of the herbicide would “be driven to redundancy in the cotton, corn and soybean belt.”
While Monsanto asserts that farmers have used dicamba successfully to control broadleaf weeds in crops for decades with very little weed resistance, reports have historically provided significant documentation of herbicide-resistant weeds developing as a result of increased use of pesticides that a crop is bred to tolerate. Two species of weeds in the U.S. have shown resistance to dicamba already.
In addition to the dicamba- and glyphosate-resistant soy that Monsanto is hoping to commercialize, the company also has plans to seek approval for a dicamba tolerant, Roundup Ready Flex product in cotton. However, even if dicamba-tolerant cotton does not come to the market, it will still be affected by the GE soy. According to Alan York, Ph.D, Williams Neal Reynolds Professor Emeritus of crop science and extension specialist for North Carolina State University, soybean is used as a rotation crop for cotton, which will purportedly help cotton farmers manage weeds.
A major problem with dicamba is its extreme mobility in soils, regardless of organic matter or clay content, and high water solubility. Dicamba residues are both quite persistent (2 months to 1 year) and able to move vertically in the soil column. In fact, USDA found that dicamba was the most mobile of forty herbicides evaluated, a warning that dicamba would likely contaminate groundwater.
GE crops can contaminate conventional or organic crops through “genetic drift” and take a toll on the environment- increase resistant weeds, contaminate water and affect pollinators and other non-target organisms. The long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still unknown. GE crops present a unique risk to organic growers. Wind-pollinated and bee-pollinated crops, such as corn and alfalfa, have higher risks of cross pollination between GE crops and unmodified varieties. Currently, no provision exists to effectively protect organic farms from contamination, although EPA has required “refuges” or non-GE planted barriers around sites planted with GE crops.
Monsanto has recently come under fire for distributing misbranded GE cotton. Additionally, a Supreme Court judgment in April involving GE alfalfa ruled that the ban on GE alfalfa remains intact and that the planting and sale of GE alfalfa remains illegal, pending environmental review. In addition, the Court opinion supported the argument that gene flow (contamination) is a serious environmental and economic threat. This means that genetic contamination from GE crops can still be considered harm under the law, both from an environmental and economic perspective. A Federal District Judge in California denied a preliminary injunction on GE sugar beets and sugar beet seeds. The Court declined to impose an immediate ban on GE sugar beets because the seeds have already become so entrenched that there is not enough conventional (non-GE) seed available for a full crop this year.
Beyond Pesticides opposes the use of GE crops because its approach to pest management is short sighted and dangerous. Organic agriculture does not permit GE crops or the use of synthetic herbicides. It focuses on effecting good land stewardship and a reduction in hazardous chemical exposures for workers on the farm. For more information, see Beyond Pesticides’ GE Program and Organic Program pages.