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July 2nd, 2013

Attack of the Superweeds

weeds and tractor steering wheel

herbicide-resistant weeds take over tractor

By Anna Meyer

We were warned. Over fifty years ago Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring expressed major concerns about the negative impacts of widespread overuse of herbicides. These concerns were reiterated in the early 1990s during the initial approval process of GE crops when the FDA Food Advisory Committee was warned that GE herbicide-resistant crops were very likely to turn the most common farmland weeds into superweeds resistant to the herbicides meant to kill them.

In spite of these warnings, uncontrollable herbicide-resistant superweeds are a reality today. In recent years, there have been devastating reports of farmers losing crops to out-of-control weeds and the same old chemical solutions offered up by biotech industry giants such as Monsanto.

GE crops tolerant to the herbicide glyphosate (most commonly known as Monsanto’s Roundup), were sold on the premise that they would require less herbicide and increase yields, which would in turn be better for the environment. There is only one problem with this claim: it’s not true.

Prior to the use of glyphosate-tolerant crops (commonly known as Monsanto’s Roundup Ready brand), glyphosate-resistant superweeds didn’t exist. Although there was a short-lived decrease in the use of herbicides when GE crops were first introduced, the last ten years have seen a major spike in use. The problem is, as more glyphosate is used, the faster weeds develop a resistance and then more and more glyphosate is needed to kill off persistent weeds. This cycle continues every growing season leaving farmers reporting weeds that tower over them and reach heights upwards of eight feet.

Yesterday Food & Water Watch released a report and video (which you can watch below) that bring into question the promised benefits of GE crops and show the acute effect that they are having on the environment and on farmers.

The report highlights the fact that as monocultures of GE crops have become the norm there has been a correlated increase in herbicide use and in the development of superweeds. Farmers are watching their fields being taken over by monstrous weeds. With few ways to manage the weeds, farmers are resorting to using multiple types of herbicides. This is only worsening the problem, as there are more reports of superweeds resistant to multiple herbicides. The introduction of large quantities and varying types of herbicides into the environment with little regulation can devastate wildlife and its habitat.

So what is the solution? The EPA thinks the solution is allowing more Roundup – they are closing public comment this week on a rule to increase glyphosate tolerance levels on several crops. And the biotech industry is looking to get new GE herbicide tolerant crops approved by the USDA that use more toxic chemicals such as 2,4-D, one of the main ingredients in Agent Orange, and others such as dicamba. These alternate chemicals pose even more risks to the environment due to their higher rates of drift, increased toxicity to animals and humans and the rate at which they remain in the water and the air.

Dumping more and more chemicals on the problem will only make matters worse. And since we’re still light years away from the development of effective weed removing robots, we need our government agencies to advocate for methods of weed management such as crop rotation and cover crops that have been used for centuries as the best solution for weed management, now.

Anna Meyer is a communications intern for Food & Water Watch this summer, based out of the Oakland, Calif., office.

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