Originally published on the Huffington Post, March 20, 2015
Perhaps no group of science deniers has been more ridiculed than those who deny the science of evolution. What you may not know is that Monsanto and our United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) are among them. That's right: for decades, Monsanto and its enablers inside the USDA have denied the central tenets of evolutionary biology, namely natural selection and adaptation. And this denial of basic science by the company and our government threatens the future viability of American agriculture.
Third Grade Science
Let's start with interrelated concepts of natural selection and adaptation. This is elementary school science. In fact, in Washington D.C. it is part of the basic third grade science curriculum.
As we all remember from biology class, when an environment changes, trait variation in a species could allow some in that species to adapt to that new environment and survive. Others will die out. The survivors are then able to reproduce and even thrive under the new environmental conditions. For example, if a drought were to occur, some plants might have traits that allow them to survive while other plants in the same species would perish. The drought-resistant plants then become the "evolved" species, and they are able to reproduce in the drought environment.
Obvious, you are thinking. But let's explore how Monsanto's top scientists and government regulators would have failed a third grade science class in D.C. and the dire consequences that it is bringing to us all.
Biotech's Dirty Little Secret
First a little background. Since the early 1980s, Monsanto has endlessly hyped genetically engineered (GE) crops they claim could reduce hunger, reduce pesticide use, and survive droughts. In reality, no such "miracle" crops exist. No significantly greater yielding crops, no more effective drought resistance crops. And as for the claim of less pesticide use, behind this myth lies the "dirty little secret" of agricultural biotechnology. Namely, that GE crops actually add hundreds of millions of pounds of pesticides to our fields and crops, and create greater agrochemical residues on our food. Why? Because around 85 percent of all genetically engineered crops in the United States and around the world have been engineered to withstand massive doses of herbicides, mostly Monsanto's Roundup. Usually, if toxic weed-killing chemicals such as Roundup come into contact with a crop they will destroy it as well as the weeds around it. But Monsanto scientists genetically engineered a cassette of bacterial and viral DNA into plants that allowed them to tolerate these herbicides. So the weeds are killed, but the crops remain.
In the United States, more than 50 percent of all our cropland is devoted to GE corn, soy and cotton. They are commodity crops that feed cars, animals in industrial meat production and are used for additives like high fructose corn syrup. Almost none directly feeds people. So rather than feeding the hungry, this technology is about chemical companies selling more chemicals, a lot more chemicals. So as noted, each year 115 million more pounds of Roundup are spread on our farmlands because of these altered crops.
Profits versus Science: Science loses
If half of our nation's cropland is doused year after year with a particular herbicide, that is a significant change in the environment. The accompanying problem of adaptation and selection has probably already occurred to you. Wouldn't that massive increase in Roundup use over that huge a portion of our cropland cause some weed populations to develop resistance? Wouldn't weeds with natural resistance thrive in this new environment? Wouldn't these new "superweeds" eventually become a major problem for U.S. farmers, overrunning their crops?
As government regulators were considering whether to approve these plants in the mid-1990s, they asked Monsanto just that question. No doubt considering the billions they were going to make selling more Roundup, this is a moment when Monsanto's scientists seemed to find it convenient to their bottom line to deny basic evolutionary science. They stated, "Evolution of weed resistance to glyphosate (Roundup's active ingredient) appears to be an unlikely event." They also suggested that massive use of Roundup would lead to "no resistant weeds." Independent scientists were aghast. They mocked Monsanto's view that Roundup was somehow "invincible" from the laws of natural selection, and pointed out that the company's scientists purposely ignored numerous studies that showed there would be weed resistance. But incredibly, despite the strong contrary evidence, the USDA regulators just nodded in science denying agreement with Monsanto.
Of course, adaptation and natural selection did take place. As a result, in less than 20 years, more than half of all U.S. farms have some Roundup resistant "superweeds," weeds that now infest 70 million acres of U.S farmland, an area the size of Wyoming. Each year we see major expansion of this "superweed" acreage. Texas has gone so far as to declare a state of emergency for cotton farmers. Superweeds are already causing major economic problems for farmers with a current estimate of $1 billion lost in damages to crops so far.
Last year in a panel discussion with Robert Fraley, Chief Technology Officer for Monsanto and a founder of these herbicide tolerant crops, I confronted him. How could he and the other Monsanto scientists have claimed that natural selection would not take place? How could they ignore basic evolutionary science and clear contrary evidence? He just shook his head and said "You're right, weeds have evolved resistance." But apparently, Monsanto and their government regulators still haven't learned this third grade science lesson. They're denying science once again, and the stakes are even higher.
"Agent Orange Crops" and More Science Denial
Now Monsanto and Dow Chemical have received government approval to market new genetically engineered corn, soy and cotton, that are "stacked" with engineered DNA that make them resistant to Roundup as well as 2,4-D (one of the chief elements of "Agent Orange"). Monsanto has also gained approval from the USDA for the same three crops that can tolerate Dicamba. 2,4-D and Dicamba are older, more toxic herbicides than Roundup, and these companies are reverting to them because they have brought us to the point of peak herbicides. They simply don't have any new ones, similar to the current crisis in antibiotics.
But won't the weeds simply become resistant to these herbicides as well? Not according to the science deniers at Monsanto and Dow Chemical. Despite predictions that their new crops will add hundreds of millions more pounds of these herbicides each year, they say not to worry. They claim -- as they did 20 years ago -- that natural selection will not happen; that it is extremely unlikely for weeds to survive simultaneous attacks from two or more different herbicides with different methods.
Weed scientists have shredded this argument, noting that weeds in the past, through adaption, have done this and will almost certainly do it again. So in a few years we will be overrun with "superweeds" that are virtually indestructible by any known chemical. But by then Monsanto and Dow will have made billions selling their chemicals and can leave the "superweed" agronomic nightmare for others to solve. Nor will they have to deal with the other nightmares that could possibly occur: increased rates of cancer and diseases like Parkinson's associated with exposure to these herbicides.
A Better Way
A science-based, and safer, way forward is to abandon this doomed-to-fail chemical arms race against weeds and use ecologically based weed control. There are proven organic and agroecological approaches that emphasize weed management rather than weed eradication, soil building rather than soil supplementing. Crop rotation and cover crops can return productive yields without ridding the land of genetic biodiversity, and could reduce herbicide use by 90 percent.
So it's long past due that our government required real and rigorous science when regulating GE crops. It's time for them to say "no" to these herbicide-promoting crops, and prevent the looming agronomic disaster they will inevitably bring with them.
In the meantime, the next time you read hear about "GMO science deniers" -- think of 70 million acres of superweeds; think cancer, Parkinsons and other diseases caused by this growing use of herbicides; think Monsanto and its enablers at the USDA.