In 2009 Swiss biotech giant Syngenta made a bold prediction that by 2013 a quarter of U.S. cropland would be infested with glyphosate-resistant superweeds. I heartily congratulate Syngenta for its foresight, if not the response to it. By January 2013, 61.2 million acres of U.S. farmland suffered from an increasingly stubborn case of superweeds. So Syngenta was being uncharacteristically modest – aroundone third of the 185 million acres of U.S. land planted with corn, cotton and soy has weeds that can’t be killed by normal means, adding significantly to the cost and effort of farming.
As 2013 drew to a close, a new Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) policy brief reported that, in fact, “Almost 50 percent of surveyed farms are infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds, and the rate of these weeds’ spread has been increasing.” UCS added:
“Herbicide-resistant weeds are also symptomatic of a bigger problem: an out-dated system of farming that relies on planting huge acreages of the same crop year after year. This system, called monoculture, has provided especially good habitat for weeds and pests and accelerated the development of resistance. In response, Monsanto and its competitors are now proposing to throw more herbicides at resistant weeds, an approach that ignores the underlying biology of agricultural systems and will inevitably lead to more resistance and a further spiraling up of herbicide use.”
The rapid spike in the use of Monsanto’s best-selling weed killer glyphosate in the U.S. is closely linked to the uptake of genetically modified (GM) crops designed to be used with the brand name version of the chemical (Roundup). As widely predicted by both industry and GM skeptics, problematic weeds like Palmer amaranth quickly developed resistance to Roundup and are spreading fast as farmers struggle to kill them with combinations of chemicals in heavier concentrations, or simply resorting to hand weeding hundreds of acres of fields. The problem is so serious in the Southern U.S. that UCS reports, “92 percent of cotton and soybean fields are infested as a result of Roundup Ready crops.” Superweeds are also causing escalating problems in other countries with heavy GM crop use, including in the soy fields of Argentina and Brazil upon which the EU is so reliant to fuel its factory farms.
The biotech industry knew full well years ago that it was setting up farmers for a big, big fall, but it kept pushing GM crops and the chemicals that go with them, hoping something would emerge to fix it and keep the money flowing. It didn’t.
So what does the industry do when its predictions come true and vast areas of prime U.S. farmland is now chronically infested with weeds that need to be pulled by hand? It pushes yet more GM and more chemicals. The whole mess—especially the fact that companies like Syngenta knew this would happen—exposes the lie in the industry’s promise that GM would lead to cheaper and easier farming. It didn’t.
With no new weed killers in the pipeline, the biotech industry’s profitable GM venture means superweeds will continue to haunt millions of farmers for years to come even if everyone stopped growing GM tomorrow. It’s an impressive legacy, but surely it’s time to start building a more sensible future for farming that works with nature rather than against it. As the EU contemplates authorising a second GM maize for our fields that will up the ante by adding the weed killer glufosinate to the pesticide arms race, now would be good.
I’m looking forward to what wafts out of Syngenta’s crystal ball this year. Happy New Year.