The “Pesticide Treadmill”

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

As genetically engineered ingredients become more and more prevalent in our food system, now accounting for 70% of the foods we find in our grocery stores, it comes as no surprise that the profits of their creators are increasing.  Last week, Monsanto released a profit report, highlighting a substantial gain in quarterly profits for the second year in a row. While concerning, it is the specific source of the majority of these profits that is cause for extreme concern.

As Tom Philpott points out in his latest article on Mother Jones, Monsanto’s monetary growth is divided into two categories: “seeds & genomics”, meaning seed sales, and “agricultural productivity”, essentially chemicals, such as RoundUp in its many forms.  While Monsanto’s seed sales increased by 10% in the last year, its chemical sales accounted for an astounding 36% increase.  In other words, increasing herbicide use is Monsanto’s biggest moneymaker.

As Gary Hirshberg noted in a recent Huffington Post article, “GE crops have been primarily engineered not for any increased nutritional value or consumer benefit, but to make it easier to control certain insects and spray herbicides on growing crops, killing weeds but leaving the genetically transformed crops unharmed.  The technology is a real moneymaker for the industry, which charges much more for the GE seeds, and then sells more herbicide to the farmers planting the seeds.”

It is important to note that along with the introduction of GE crops came industry claims that this technology (inserting herbicides and insecticides into the plants themselves) would decrease the need for external application. A close examination of GE crops over the past sixteen years shows that, despite these claims, herbicide use has actually increased significantly.

A peer-reviewed paper published last summer showed that the three major GE crops in the U.S. – corn, soybeans, and cotton – have increased overall herbicide use by more than 527 million pounds between 1996 – 2011, compared to what it likely would have been in the absence of GE crops.  In 1996, the year GE crops were introduced, about 14 MM pounds of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicides, were sprayed on the three major GE crops, corn, cotton, and soybeans, accounting for about 4% of total pesticide use on these crops.  In 2012, nearly 300 MM pounds were sprayed, a remarkable three-quarters of total pesticide use on these three crops.

Additionally, a U.S. Geological Survey study has shown that we may literally be living and breathing the chemical glyphosate, now a common component of the air and rain in the Midwest during spring and summer, with levels rising in many aquatic ecosystems.

So why exactly are these herbicides needed? Namely, nature’s brilliant ability to adapt.  Called “superweeds,” at least 23 species of weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, and are emerging at an alarming rate, now present in 50-75 million acres where GE soy, corn, and cotton crops grow in 26 states.

Several chemical companies are responding by designing GE seeds that tolerate multiple or higher-strength herbicides, such as 2,4-D and Dicamba. But because these chemicals were used previously, weeds resistant to them are already widespread. In fact, 28 species worldwide are resistant to 2,4-D and/or dicamba; by 2019, it could cause enormous increases in herbicide use, including a many-fold increase in the pounds of 2,4-D currently applied to American corn crops.

When is comes to insecticide use, the story is not much different.  Seed hybrids specifically made to ward off corn and cotton insects are now experiencing the existence of “superbugs”.  An alarming paper came out in the fall showing that corn borers are now becoming resistant to one of the Bt insecticides that was bred into corn since 1996.

This trend is expected to continue in 2013. In a recent Ag Professional piece, Mike Gray, an agricultural entomology professor at the University of Illinois, was cited as anticipating “a sharp increase in the use of planting-time soil insecticides with corn rootworm Bt hybrids. On average, nearly half the producers indicated they intend to use both a soil applied (at-planting) insecticide with their corn rootworm Bt hybrid this spring.”

Weed scientists are beginning to speak out against the “pesticide treadmill” strategy: trying to combat resistant weeds by spraying more and more herbicides on them – despite negative environmental and human health effects.

“Such a grossly excessive level of reliance on a single pesticide is profoundly unsustainable,” says Gary Hirshberg. “While the technology is so young and there is apparently so much to learn, consumers need to have the same rights held by citizens around the world, to choose whether or not to buy these foods and indirectly support this cycle of increased overall chemical usage.”

Image via New York Times

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