Superweeds: A Frightening Reality

By Katey Parker
(Partnerships & Media Manager, Just Label It)

In their recent article titled “What Happens When Weed Killers Stop Killing”, Science Magazine exposes the frightening reality of “superweeds” facing many U.S. farmers who rely on genetically engineered crops.

More than fifteen years ago, when the first herbicide-tolerant GE crops were planted in U.S. soil, some experts warned that the technology would accelerate the development of superweeds that would be resistant to the herbicides used with the crops. They were right. Superweeds, which evolve to withstand the very chemicals designed to kill them, have now become an epidemic on farmland in many locations across the country.

The most common superweeds are resistant to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide Roundup, but resistance is appearing to herbicides used with other GE crops 
as well. Today, more than 61.2 million acres of U.S. farmland are infested with weeds resistant to Roundup, which has been the world’s best-selling weed killer for 32 years.

As weeds became resistant, growers have applied still more herbicides to try to control them. A recent study found that over the 16 years from 1996 to 2011, the use of GE crops increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds, putting consumers and the environment increasingly at risk.

The emergence of glyphosate-resistant superweeds has led growers to turn to older herbicides such as dicamba and 2,4-D, an ingredient used in Agent Orange, the notorious Vietnam War era defoliant, resulting in the emergence of weed species that are resistant to multiple chemicals. Both dicamba and 2,4-D are volatile chemicals that evaporate and can drift well beyond their targets, especially in warmer weather, posing a significant public health risk to nearby rural communities.

The strategy of combatting weeds by engineering crops that can withstand herbicides and then blasting fields with those chemicals is no match for evolutionary adaptation, as demonstrated by the rapid growth of superweeds across the country. This approach leads to a dangerous, toxic dead end, one that will leave the landscape infested ever more varieties of resistant superweeds while and undermining efforts at safe, sustainable farming.

Additionally the superweed epidemic affects each farmer’s bottom line. According to Science Magazine, “for cotton grown in the South, the cost of using herbicides has climbed from between $50 and $75 per hectare a few years ago to about $370 per hectare today.” The need to apply more and more herbicides will continue to make farmers’ costs skyrocket, making this practice profoundly unsustainable.

Dow, Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and Monsanto are all developing new seed varieties resistant to herbicides other than glyphosate, which will make it easier for farmers to use alternative weed killers. However, Science Magazine acknowledges a bleak future for farmers that continue to rely heavily on the seed and herbicide combo. “If there is an overreliance on them, they will fail and fail rapidly.”

There is no question that GE technology will continue to drive up the costs of food production, increase the use of harmful chemicals and undermine efforts for a sustainable food system. We as citizens need the right to choose if we want to support this disaster scenario.

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