While global GMO acreage surges, herbicide-resistent weeds thrive
Global acreage of genetically modified crops jumped 12 percent in 2007 — “the second highest increase in global biotech crop area in the last five years,” gushes a report from the pro-GMO International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
Farmers planted an additional 30 million acres of GM crops in 2007, an area nearly equal to the land mass of Iowa (a huge swath of which itself is planted in GM crops). Overall, GM crops cover 282.4 million acres, ISAAA claims — up from zero as recently as 1994.
ISAAA hails the GM explosion as a boon to humanity, ignoring serious evidence that genetically altered food presents health risks. The group also doesn’t mention that the GM acreage is essentially limited to four massive crops: corn, soy, cotton, and canola. That means that a sizabale swath of the globe’s arable land is planted from a startlingly narrow genetic base. Nor does it mention that a single company, Monsanto, dominates this huge and growing market. (It holds the patents on 91 percent of global GM soy, 97 percent of corn, 63 percent of cotton, and 59 percent of canola).
Finally, the report ignores the cascade of Roundup (glyphosate), Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, that has accompanied the rise of GM. As the Center for Food Safety writes in a report released this week (PDF), the great bulk of GM crops — covering four out of five GM acres planted — are engineered to withstand lashings of Roundup.
In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, CFS claims. And this herbicide gusher has given rise to a host of “superweeds” — weeds that tolerate heavy doses glyphosate. How do farmers deal with superweeds? By jacking up the dose of glyphosate.
The trend of increased rate of glyphosate use is clear. For soybeans, per-acre applications of Monsanto’s herbicide jumped by a factor of 2.5 between 1994 and 2006. Corn farmers didn’t really embrace GMOs until 2002; accordingly, between 2002 and 2005, glyphosate use on corn “jumped from 0.71 to 0.96 lbs./acre/year, a hefty 35% increase in just three years.”
Farmers of Roundup Ready crops appear to have entered a pesticide treadmill. They have to raise application rates to keep up with resistance; and every time they do, they create hardier and hardier weeds. Monsanto, which expects to rake in $1.4 billion in profit from Roundup sales alone this year, is evidently laughing its way to the bank.
Moreover, the cascade of Roundup has not even slowed down use of other, more toxic herbicides. Between 2002 and 2005, CFS reports, even as corn farmers were jacking up Roundup use, they also increased use of atrazine 12 percent (atrazine is applied to clear fields of weeds before planting, so it does it doesn’t affect the crops.) A similar trend holds for soy.
The CFS report contains other interesting analysis as well. For all the hype around GMOs, the group points out, “they continue to be the province of a handful of nations with highly-industrialized, export-oriented agricultural sectors.” The report continues:
Over 90 percent of the area planted to GM crops is found in just 5 countries located in North & South America: the US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. One country alone, the United States, produces over 50 percent of the world’s GM crops; the U.S. and Argentina together grow over 70% of all GM crops.
Moreover, for all the hype about who GMOs are going to “feed the world” and “save Africa from starvation,” and for all the billions Monsanto has raked in, the industry has only succeeded in rolling out two traits: herbicide tolerance and insect resistance.
Despite more than a decade of hype and failed promises, the biotechnology industry has not introduced a single GM crop with increased yield, enhanced nutrition, drought-tolerance or salt-tolerance. Disease-tolerant GM crops are practically non-existent. In fact, biotech companies have made a commercial success of GM crops with just two traits — herbicide tolerance and insect resistance — which offer no advantages to consumers or the environment.
Some will argue with that last point, no doubt. GM apologists will say that the industry’s insect-resistance trait has lowered the use of pesticides. CFS concedes this point, reporting that Bt corn and cotton have reduced pesticide use by 16 million pounds in the U.S. since the technology rolled out. That reduction, however, “has been swamped by a much larger increase in herbicide use on herbicide-tolerant crops (+138 million lbs.).”
Moreover, we have no idea what it means to cover millions of acres in plants that contain their own insecticides.
Get Grist in your inbox