(Beyond Pesticides, February 28, 2014) A report released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) considers the trends of genetically engineered (GE) crops over the past 15 years, since they were first introduced. Responding to increasing GE use, USDA also points to major concerns such as increasing herbicide resistance and higher levels of herbicide use as major potential threats to human health and the environment.
The report comes as USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are poised to approve new forms of GE corn and soybeans designed to be resistant to 2,4-D products, one of the active ingredients in Agent Orange and a known carcinogen. Released by USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) on February 20, the report not only details the trends in GE use but also the known and unknown threats that GE crops pose.
The number of GE varieties approved by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) grew exponentially between 1984 and 2002, the report said. Today the majority of GE crops, corn and soy, are grown on the nation’s largest farms. In 2013, more than 169 million acres of GE crops were planted in the U.S., comprising half of all cropland. Approximately 93 percent of all soybean crops planted across the nation were GE crops designed to be herbicide tolerant (HT), while HT corn and cotton constituted 85 and 82 percent of acreage.
These crops are design specifically to be sprayed with herbicides. Glyphosate is one of the most popular weed killers in both the U.S. and the world and also the active ingredient in Roundup ””the leading glyphosate product developed by Monsanto. Known as “Roundup Ready,” GE soybeans, corn, cotton, and other crops have been genetically altered and patented by Monsanto to be glyphosate-tolerant. Although GE crops are claimed by manufacturers to reduce pesticide use overall, the report documents a progressive rise in herbicide use over the past fifteen years on GE crops. According to the report, in 2002 farmers sprayed on average 1.5 pounds per planted acre, by 2010 the average had risen to more than 2.0 pounds per planted acre. One reason for increases in herbicide use is the rise herbicide resistant weeds.
Glyphosate resistance among weed populations in recent years may have induced farmers to raise application rates. Thus weed resistance may be offsetting some of the economic and environmental advantages of HT crop adoption regarding herbicide use. Moreover, herbicide toxicity may soon be negatively affected (compared to glyphosate) by the introduction (estimated for 2014) of crops tolerant to herbicides dicamba and 2,4-D.
Additionally, USDA researchers did not find any definitive yield increases over the past 15 years of GE production: “In fact, the yields of herbicide-tolerant or insect-resistant seeds may be occasionally lower than the yields of conventional varieties.” The report details “no significant differences” between yield of conventional seeds and GE seeds.
Do We Need to Worry About Glyphosate?
If readers are wondering whether glyphosate is really a problem pesticide, then the answer is a short and simple, “Yes.” A dangerous pesticide, glyphosate has been linked to a number of serious human health effects, including increased cancer risks, neurotoxicity, and birth defects, as well as eye, skin, and respiratory irritation. Inert ingredients in Roundup pose significant risks as well, with studies linking polyoxyethyleneamine (POEA) to the killing of human embryonic cells. In 2013, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also concluded after an extensive review of the large body of scientific literature on the toxics effects of glyphosate that the herbicide can enhance the negative effects of other environmental toxicants on the body and that this has been a critically overlooked component in research on glyphosates’ toxicity to mammals.
USDA’s report underlines the problems associated with GE crops and gives credence to the organic movement. Because certified organic products cannot use GE crops or most pesticides, it is important to Keep Organic Strong and buy organic to show consumer support for the standards and benefits organic practices maintain.
All unattributed comments and positions are those of Beyond Pesticides