On May 10th scientists will gather in Washington D.C. to address one of the most significant problems facing American farmers today: the explosive growth in “superweeds” resistant to Monsanto’s flagship weedkiller, “Roundup” (i.e. glyphosate), and other chemical herbicides. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) “National Summit on Strategies to Manage Herbicide-Resistant Weeds” has the potential to signal a turning point in approaches to weed management. The meeting follows on the heels of an unprecedented public uproar over Dow AgroSciences’ recent application for USDA approval of a new genetically engineered corn, designed to be used with the controversial weed-killer, 2,4-D, and promoted by industry as an antidote to the epidemic of resistant weeds fostered by Roundup Ready crops.
The major strategies to be discussed at the NAS forum represent two starkly different paths forward: cutting edge agriculture grounded in a sophisticated understanding of agroecology and evolution, or another round of genetically engineered (GE) crops, designed to be used with older, yet more toxic herbicides.
Dow AgroSciences’ 2,4-D corn and soy are the first products emerging from this GE pipeline; 2,4-D formed part of the Agent Orange defoliant used in the Vietnam War. Monsanto is not far behind with crops resistant to the herbicide, dicamba. In fact, all of the major “Big 6” pesticide/biotech firms are now investing hundreds of millions of dollars to develop similar crops: Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and DuPont. Two-thirds of GE crops awaiting approval are resistant to one to three herbicides each.
“Herbicide-resistant crops increase the use of hazardous weed-killers and worsen rather than alleviate weed resistance,” said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at Center for Food Safety. “The temporary fix they may provide is paid for many times over by increasingly intractable and costly weed resistance. The only way out of this chemical arms race with weeds is a major commitment to non-chemical weed management techniques.”
Glyphosate-resistant “superweeds” now infest over 14 million acres of cropland in the United States. Weeds resistant to other herbicides infest millions more, with an alarming rise in weeds immune to multiple herbicides. Weed resistance poses a serious threat to rural communities because it spurs rising use of older, more toxic weed-killers harmful to public health and the environment; greater soil erosion through increased tillage to combat resistant weeds; and dramatically increased farmer costs for weed control.
“The Summit provides a much-needed opportunity for scientists and policymakers to review the solid evidence demonstrating the long-term efficacy and profitability of non-chemical weed management,” noted Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, senior scientist at Pesticide Action Network. “It remains to be seen, however, whether our academic community and regulators will confine themselves to the same herbicide-resistant crop paradigm that got us into this predicament, or whether they will embark on a path of sustainable, ecological weed management.”
State-of-the-art ecological weed management includes an array of techniques and practices that are grounded in ecological sciences and principles, reduce weed populations and prevent the evolution of herbicide resistance. Established tactics include crop rotation, planting cover crops, selection of competitive crop cultivars, mulching and minimal tillage (i.e. occasional inter-row cultivation over a multiyear rotation), advanced fertilization techniques that favor crop over weed, and conservation of weed seed predators. Long-term cropping systems research at The Rodale Institute has demonstrated the efficacy and productivity of organic systems that have eliminated chemical herbicide use entirely, while regenerating the ecological health of soil, water, farm and landscape. Iowa State University scientists have demonstrated the ability of integrated weed management (IWM) in corn to reduce herbicide inputs by up to 94%, while obtaining profits comparable to conventional chemical-based systems.
This summer, USDA will decide whether or not to approve Dow’s 2,4-D corn. Meanwhile, Congress will decide whether or not to fund crucial conservation programs in the Farm Bill. These two decisions will demonstrate whether our elected officials and policymakers will commit to the path of sustainable agriculture, or deepen American agriculture’s crippling dependence on toxic weed-killers.
Read the Center for Food Safety’s Q & A
The Center for Food Safety is a national, non-profit, membership organization founded in 1997 to protect human health and the environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. More information can be found at www.centerforfoodsafety.org
Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN North America, or PANNA) works to replace the use of hazardous pesticides with ecologically sound and socially just alternatives. As one of five PAN Regional Centers worldwide, we link local and international consumer, labor, health, environment and agriculture groups into an international citizens’ action network. This network challenges the global proliferation of pesticides, defends basic rights to health and environmental quality, and works to ensure the transition to a just and viable society. More information can be found at www.panna.org