May 14 2012

GM crops in crisis: Roundup-resistant “superweeds”

I was a member of the FDA Food Advisory Committee when the agency approved production of genetically modified foods in the early 1990s.

At the time, critics repeatedly warned that widespread planting of GM crops modified to resist Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup, were highly likely to select for “superweeds” that could withstand treatment with Roundup.

I wrote about this problem in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety.  I added this update to the 2010 edition:

Late in 2004, weeds resistant to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup began appearing in GM plantings in Georgia and soon spread to other Southern states.  By 2009, more than one hundred thousand acres in Georgia were infested with Roundup-resistant pigweed.  Planters were advised to apply multiple herbicides, thereby defeating the point of Roundup: to reduce chemical applications.

Today, the idea that planting of GM crops is “widespread” is an understatement.

So, according to Reuters, is Roundup resistance.

Weed resistance has spread to more than 12 million U.S. acres and primarily afflicts key agricultural areas in the U.S. Southeast and the corn and soybean growing areas of the Midwest.

Many of the worst weeds, some of which grow more than six feet and can sharply reduce crop yields, have become resistant to the popular glyphosate-based weed-killer Roundup, as well as other common herbicides.

This is not a trivial problem.  As the Ottawa Citizen explains,

The resilience of nature is evident across almost five million hectares of superweed-infested U.S. farmland. Some runaway weeds in the southern U.S. are said to be big enough to stop combines dead in their tracks.

How is the chemical industry responding to this threat?  Zap it harder!

The industry is pressing the U.S. and Canadian governments to approve GM corn engineered to resist 2,4-D.

Remember 2,4-D?   It was the principal ingredient in Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the Vietnam War.  Although the health problems it caused have been attributed to contamination with dioxin, the uncontaminated chemical has also been associated with illness in some studies (the Wikipedia entry has references).

The chemical industry maintains that 2,4-D is safe at current usage levels.  Maybe, but Ontario bans its use on lawns, gardens, and in school yards and parks.  Weeds resistant to 2,4-D have been identified since the 1950s.

Is pouring more toxic herbicides on food crops a good idea?  These chemicals cannot be healthy for farmworkers or for soil or groundwater.

Organic agriculture anyone?

Addition: Fred Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State and organic farmer says in an e-mail:

The other issue that has weed scientists concerned is the fact that 2-4-D is known to be much more invasive than many other herbicides—it can drift in the air for long periods of time and land on many unintended crops.

2-4-D has been identified as the main cause for destroying the grape industry in Iowa—in the 1940′s Iowa was the 4th largest grape producing state in the nation, and then was virtually reduced to zero.

Clearly if 2-4-D is going to be the “answer” to Roundup Ready resistance it will now be used in much larger quantities than in the 1950′s and is not only likely to destroy the rebounding grape production (I think some 200 acres now) and the 8 wineries in Iowa, but will make it extremely difficult to grow vegetables, which will not be good news for the burgeoning CSA/farmers Market industry that has emerged in recent years.

  • FarmerJane

    If only we could move beyond the “conventional” VERSUS “organic” concept. There are 100,000′s of “conventional” farms in the US that use a wide variety of practices, in more of a continuum of practices rather than one or the other. To condemn the so-called “conventional” farmer (who maybe is using her land in an environmentally sound manner) while lauding the purely “organic” is a recipe for danger. We need to learn more of the farmers’ practices in various commodities, what are good for environment, what are bad, the choices the farmers have and what they are faced with in terms of economic choices. Remember, farmers deal with a very limited number of buyers, sometimes there is only one choice who tells you the price for your output.
    Example: My own farm is several hundred acres of grazing lands in the northeast, my cows graze extensively. Because we choose not to be certified organic dairy (because we want to be able to treat our cows with antibiotics if they are sick), the occasional food movement fan sometimes spits on us first, asks questions later. (condescendingly lecturing me about saving the environment)
    ANother example: A small crop farmer in our area tried to make a go of it going strictly organic. He lost two good crops to infestations that might have been stopped if he had timely sprayed and saved the crops. Today his land is being subdivided. I’m not saying to blast everything with pesticides and herbicides, but there are times when judicious use might save a farm for the future.
    We also never hear of the good things that regular farmers achieve. This serves to drive a wedge into the hearts of regular farmers who are in desperate need of a few kind words.

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  • Cathy Richards

    Sometimes it’s just not fun at all to say “I told you so”. Stupid selfish greedy lying companies. Excuse my name calling, but they called us names when we asked questions about this years and years ago.

  • FarmerJane

    Cathy, Monsanto also made life difficult for any of us farmers who objected to rbgh when it first came out years ago. In farmer discussions, so many were concerned about the impact this would have on consumer perceptions of milk if it were to be used. Most farmers quietly turned away from it, given Monsanto conduct at the time. Now, Monsanto cashed out, selling the rbgh unit to Elanco, and leaving us the dairy farmers holding the bag. Most farmers don’t use the stuff, but the public has no idea about that.

  • James

    Thanks for your words of moderation, FarmerJane: I wish that Monsanto could be less aggressive in their enforcement of genetic “property rights” and could explain, as Vince does, that their products do a lot of good. Instead, like Vince also does, they often choose a caustic means of expression. So, no one hails the work they’ve done though it has improved the lives of millions of consumers, who benefit from lower crop prices; it’s saved large amounts of land from being pulled into cultivation by making existing lands more productive; and it has saved millions of tons of soil by allowing farmers to spray instead of plowing weeds under. Organics just aren’t as productive, and while no one likes a super-weed, they’ve come about for a reason: chemicals are really useful. Maybe we need to find a better balance, but painting a black and white picture of good vs. evil is doing the situation a grave injustice, and it disappoints me when Marion and others do this.

  • Michael Bulger


    The millions of consumers are separated from most of these crops by the livestock industry. The livestock industry would be the real benefactor of low crop prices. These crops are also highly subsidized through federal payments, price protections, and revenue insurance. (Despite all of this, corn prices are at an all-time high.)

    Tillage is just one potential impact of farming, and no-till farming is not used on the majority of corn acres in the US. About half of soybean acres are no-till. But as Marion points out, GMO crops dominate acreage. That’s a lot of chemicals being applied to land that is plowed under anyways.

    Those chemicals can end up drifting into neighboring areas, seeping into waterways, and harming farmworkers.

    Research shows that no-till techniques can be implemented on organic farms and that reduced-tillage organic agriculture is also realistic.

    Organic agriculture builds soil, instead of just exploiting soil. Organic soil has been shown to be more resistant to drought and organic agriculture protects against erosion. In fact, minimizing soil erosion is required by the USDA’s Organic certification program. Now that’s saving soil! Here’s the FAO:

    If we really want to protect land from being cultivated, how about eating less meat or any number of other solutions? It certainly seems illogical to devote land, petroleum, and natural gas to manufacture hazardous chemicals that pollute our environment in the interest of “saving our soil”. We’re just shifting the burden off the farm and onto chemical plants. It may look efficient when you limit your analysis to an acre of corn, but then you’re not considering all the acres devoted to and affected by that acre.

  • Alliance for Natural Health USA

    Yesterday, on Twitter I asked USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack this question:

    ANH-USA: “Monsanto created superweeds now cover 12M acres of farmland, will USDA continue to deregulate GMO crops given the evidence of harm?”

    USDA: “@anhusa Your beef is not with us, it’s with Congress. The Plant Pest Protection Act narrowly defines what we can and cannot approve. -TJV”

    There you have it. USDA says they don’t have the authority to prevent deregulation of even the most dangerous and invasive crops. So what do they do?

  • James

    Thanks for all the links, Michael! Actually I am a vegetarian and I do consider myself an environmentalist. I just try to keep an open mind and consider all arguments, so I appreciate your response.

    I certainly agree that most crops reach consumers only through livestock, and that subsidies and numerous other factors also play a role. However, none of those issues contravene the fact that cheaper crops benefit consumers, whether the consumers are consuming corn directly (which is what, 1% of corn production?) or whether they are consuming ridiculously underpriced beef, pork, and chicken. High corn prices, due in large part to insane Federal requirements for corn-based ethanol production, would be even higher if GMO production was restricted.

    If GMO soybeans are being planted on areas where weed control happens through plowing, that would imply that those GMOs serve a different purpose: they’re probably BT rather than Roundup Ready. BT crops improve production by increasing plants’ resistance to pests, which has its own benefits, including decreased use of chemicals. Clearly chemicals cause problems too, as you note, and the thought of so much land being sprayed, whether by pesticides or herbicides, is not appealing, but we have to think of the alternative. One alternative to pesticide use is BT crops, and another is just suffering massive losses. Yet another alternative is organic crops, which in many cases means the use of copper or sulfur. (See this enlightening blog entry: Pesticides okayed for organic use tend to be weaker, so farmers use more. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure.

    Organic agriculture is awesome and I’m rich enough that I can afford to support it. I often choose organics for my own consumption. However, organic agriculture just is not as productive, and it requires more inputs, making it more expensive. For me, that’s not a big deal, but it prices many people out of the market. No doubt we can agree that easy access to affordable, nutritious food is a good thing.

    We agree that efficiency is a goal, and that the focus should not be just on each individual cultivated acre. However, as I said before, it’s still not a black-and-white question. Pesticides and herbicides and yes, even GMOs provide a host of benefits to users and even end consumers, and it’s time we stopped demonizing them. Let’s be up front about the negatives, but let’s not gloss over the positives, either.

  • Ewan R

    Disclaimer – I’m a monsanto employee, the views contained herein are entirely my own and not those of my employer.

    12 Million acres with glyphosate resistant weeds agaisnt a backdrop of ~175 million acres planted to soy, corn and cotton in the US (the 3 major RR brands) brings the picture into a little bit more focus.

    Somewhere in the region of 6% of acres where RR is utilized are experiencing an issue, so >90% of growers can use the system without the immediate concern of resistant weeds and can utilize best practices which reduce the potential for resistance arising (tank mixes of various herbicides, tillage, etc) – seems to me you’re overblowing this slightly, 6% of acres is hardly a crisis for the technology.

    “Planters were advised to apply multiple herbicides, thereby defeating the point of Roundup: to reduce chemical applications.”

    This is only the case if the number of applications exceeds what would be done sans roundup. If you were applying say, 5 times pre RR, then say once with roundup alone, and have to go up to say, twice, or three times now – that is still a reduction, also if the environmental impact, and cost, of your herbicide application regime is still lower than it used to be… the sytem is still ahead of the game (and lets face it, once it is harder or more expensive to use the RR system compared to what came before – thats what farmers will do)

    Another point on the weeds – these weeds, without the use of roundup, are just weeds – why so excited? If an organic farmer has methods of dealing with them then so does a conventional farmer – jsut not roundup – if the glyphosate resistance in the weed means that the land cannot be used anymore regardless of the weed management practice this simply means that the only reason that land was useable was roundup – glyphosate resistance does not impart magical properties on plants. Remember, a “superweed” is only a superweed in the context of the control method to which it is resistant, outside of this the terminology is exactly that of Marion’s 2-4D Agent Orange comparison – a stupid scare tactic.

    On 2-4D – you’re being pretty misleading on the subject – linking it to agent orange (when it is clear that the dioxin contamination in agent orange was responsible for the adverse effects, and that the dioxin contamination came from *the other component of agent orange*) is a nice scare tactic but hardly honest – as well get mad at farmers for irrigation systems which use water – remember it? A component of agent orange and responsible for thousands of deaths globally anyway.

    “These chemicals cannot be healthy for farmworkers or for soil or groundwater.”

    At least you’ve backed that up with sound eviden… oh wait no, you’re just making the claim sans evidential backing, hey, you’ve already made the (erroneous) link to agent orange, so that (organic no doubt) seed is planted in the mind of the reader, it’ll slip by.

    James – as far as I know there aren’t any Bt soybeans planted in the US , tillage is likely used in combination with RR in much the same way that it is used in combination with other herbicides and that other herbicides are used in combination with each other – multiple modes of action – RR soy & corn make no-till a far more viable system in conventional Ag, but by no means guarantee that folk will adopt it.

  • Michael Bulger

    I guess we will just agree to disagree on the facts.

    I think you’d be interested to know that organic soybeans are one of the most competitive crops in organic vs. conventional yield comparisons. In fact, organic soybeans can be more productive than conventional plantings.
    (Here’s one of the studies:

    Regardless, the prices consumers pay at the supermarket aren’t a simple matter of farm yield (supply) and demand. Food markets are not such simple creatures. There are many steps between the farm and the consumer, and all of those steps influence prices and have the opportunity to capture savings. Oversupply of corn or soy is going to affect the farmer long before it affects the consumer.

    As for ethanol production, the big push from legislators right now is to try and move away from corn and soy as feedstocks. In large part, this has to do with what we are talking about: corn and soy require lots of energy to produce and have questionable impacts.

    Thanks for the link to the blog. I was hoping I’d find the data you base your input comparison on. Unfortunately, the blogger- Christie Wilcox- is using data from 1971. She also goes on about a study so widely misrepresented that the university that conducted the research had to create a webpage to clear things up. I don’t believe Wilcox read the article (or the webpage) before she repeated the misinterpretations in her article. I saw that post when it was originally published on Scientific American. I responded at length in the comment section. (You can go read my comments there). Needless to say, the use of data that is almost a half century old is not her only shortcoming.

    Blogs are great places to get new ideas. But as Wilcox demonstrates, even if the blogger seems like an expert it helps to take a closer look.

    Thanks for your reasonable tone. Sincerely. I think we can both agree that it is a complicated issue and that organic and conventional methods both have benefits and drawbacks.

  • James

    Ewan- thanks for the clarification on Bt. Maybe you can answer another question for me: given all the great things Monsanto has come up with, why have they chosen such a horrible PR strategy? Sure, ads and promotional materials tout the amazing advantages of GM crops, but that’s so completely undercut by Monsanto’s aggressive legal enforcement department. One doesn’t have to go far to run into stories about the Schmeiser case or a “Food Inc.”-esque denunciation of Monsanto’s heavy-handed tactics. Your company has done some great things, and it’s sad that they’ve tossed aside the goodwill that they deserve in favor of what seem to this casual observer to be unnecessary aggression toward farmers.

    Michael- thanks for the information, and I will have to spend some time reading that stuff before getting back to you. I’m an economist and my research focus has drifted away from agriculture, but it’s starting to swing back. If you are the guy teaching a course with Marion (I sat in on a course with her in Berkeley when she spent a year out there!) then I have found your email address online and will write you after I’ve had time to learn more. Probably won’t be soon, since my agenda is pretty full, but I’ll do my best to get back to you eventually! Thanks for your information.

  • Ewan R

    James – the Schmeiser case is only bad because it is spun as such by anti-GM activists – the court documents clearly show that Schmeiser saved seed on purpose, in full knowledge that they were traited, and planted them on a large area.

    While people may not be overly fond of IP laws in general they are something companies need to have to protect their products, and to maintain a level playing field for other farmers.

    Food Inc likewise is an overblown propaganda piece telling only one side of the story – if I remember correctly (I may not) the seed cleaner featured in Food Inc was misleading his customers about whether or not they could save seed and thus potentially opening them up to liability for violating their contract – he risked the livelihoods of many by lying to them so that he could have more business – but it’s Monsanto who are the bad guys there.

    As far as I see it the unnecessary aggression piece is overplayed because it sounds good and is emotive, in reality though it doesn’t make much sense – you don’t gain customers by violating their trust and pissing them off – every last customer of Monsanto could move to Pioneer or Syngenta for their seed, sure, Monsanto would still get a cut of any RR or (most) Bt traits being used, but seed sales themselves account for a massive amount of income for Monsanto so tactics which actively harm perception within the farming community really aren’t a good idea (and aren’t practiced outside the minds of anti-GMO activists to be perfectly honest) – the whole thrust of Monsanto PR at present actually appears to be getting farmers back on side, but not over lawsuits etc (which don’t appear to actually be a concern to the bulk of farmers) but over pricing decisions on product releases, mix of products available etc – the most recent campaign appears to consist entirely of lauding the american farmer – predominantly because one of the biggest issues a lot of farmers face (according to various market research types) is the misconception of others and the general downward trend in respect for their profession.

    General consensus is that since 2008/9 the PR campaign is actually working well. One simply has to consider that the main focus is not on Joe public but on Jill farmer – it’s farmers who buy Monsanto products, therefore it is farmers who Monsanto will focus their efforts on.

    To offer a broader look at yield ratios, particularly with respect to the above link suggesting organic soy performs as well as conventional might I suggest

    (Comparing the yields of organic and conventional agriculture
    Verena Seufert,1 Navin Ramankutty1 & Jonathan A. Foley2 Nature
    Year published: (2012))

    which while showing Soy likely performs best out of 5 crops looked at by name (Maize, Barley, Wheat, Tomato, Soybean) it has significant overlap with corn in terms of performance (likely because n is relatively low and thus 95% CI is large) and the 95%CI does not cross zero – yield ratio is ~90% that of conventional

  • Michael Bulger

    James- You’re welcome to email me anytime.

    Ewan R- You responded to this statement: “These chemicals cannot be healthy for farmworkers or for soil or groundwater.” You wonder if there is evidence to back this up. Forgive me, but you are the Monsanto employee. Would you be able to tell me the trade name of the herbicide in question? Is it Landmaster II?

    Because that product carries a warning label that says,

  • James

    Great stuff, Ewan: thanks. Just sent a note to Monsanto that will hopefully reach you so I can get more information from you.

    On the PR issue, though, I understand your point about focusing messages on your customers, but I wish more were reaching a wider audience. I keep getting invited by friends to sign petitions asking for GMO labeling or limits to be set on GMO levels in food, etc., and as you are no doubt aware, “Monsanto = evil” is a meme that recurs fairly frequently on various websites.

    As to IP protection, again I understand wanting to protect patent rights and profit from the investments that the company has made. However, the music industry has learned that tracking down each individual user and nailing him or her to the wall isn’t the best business strategy. I don’t know how big your company’s enforcement/ IP / legal department is, but it’s obviously not small. I’m not a farmer so it doesn’t affect me personally, but I’d like to see that side blunted so I wouldn’t have such a hard time convincing my students that GMOs aren’t the work of the devil.

    Thanks also for the yield info: very useful. Take care.

  • Ewan R

    Michael – The statement said “These chemicals” it didn’t reference anythign specific, Marion was saying, in a massively loaded statement, “Is pouring more toxic herbicides on food crops a good idea?” which presupposes toxicity (which surely there will be at some dosage and for a given target species) and assumes ‘pouring’ (which conjures images of applying vast amounts of good in my mind at least)

    Spraying more chemicals on crops does not automatically result in more harm to ground water, farm workers or soil. Indeed with the advent of roundup ready crops there was a concurrent increase in the amount of chemical sprayed (as you need more active ingredient in the form of glyphosate than of the herbicides used previously) and decrease in the environmental impact (which includes a decreased toxicological impact).

    Could there be negative impacts? Sure, if everything is uncontrolled and willy nilly. Is it necessary that there will be? Absolutely not, but Marion apparently can come to this conclusion – they *cannot* – with absolute certainty.

    James – from what I recall focus groups found messages of the good being done etc to be condescending and counter-productive, so I wouldn’t hold your breath – doesn’t make particular sense to me, but apparently I could well be doing more harm than good waffling on as I do on the internet, at least if the focus groups are representative of the population of various blogs etc.

    On IP enforcement – take the IP enforcement away and there isn’t really a viable other route as far as I can see it, it doesn’t cost $100-$150M to produce a record, so a record company can probably afford not to have a sale attached to every use of their product (and they have other revenue streams such as radio play, concerts, merchandise etc) particularly when a given sale may well be on the order of what, $10 for a record company – with trait sales you’re looking at (to pull a figure out of my ass) say $20 per acre for the trait, which amounts to $20,000 for an average farm in the midwest covering their whole acreage (or pretty much exactly the acreage Schmeiser planted) – whole different kettle of fish (organic or GM, your choice) – if records were going for $20,000 a pop would you still imagine record companies would back off on piracy?

    It’ll be interesting, in terms of IP etc, how the next 5 years pan out – a lot of traits will be going off patent, which is a first in GM tech (at least for traits which have been commercially succesful) – the availability of generic vs patented in the marketplace might (probably won’t but one can hope) temper the arguement somewhat – big Agribusiness will no longer have an absolute stranglehold on all traits (just the best ones, which is why my hope is not too high)

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  • Michael Bulger

    James- So the 2,4-D that Monsanto would be pushing with the proposed GMO crops is or isn’t Landmaster II?

    Because if it is, then in addition to the warning about irreversible eye damage, it would also be sold with the warning:
    “WARNING! This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.”

    Monsanto warns to keep the product out of drains, sewers, ditches, and waterways. When farmers are done, the Landmaster II container has to be triple or pressure rinsed and the rinse water has to be disposed of somewhere… somewhere where the residues won’t contaminate water. The product info page isn’t very helpful in letting farmers know how to dispose of rinse water without involving a drain, sewer, ditch, or waterway.

    I understand that you would like to make the point that controlled application makes a difference. But in the real world, do you think that is always going to be the case? And what is an acceptable level of error for you?

    At the risk of sounding facetious, I ask: For the mere possibility of a slight increase in yield, is there a specific number of rural water sources or farmworkers that you feel it’s okay to damage?

  • Ewan R

    Michael, I believe you were responding to me rather than James (at least the content suggests so)

    as such – Landmaster II appears to be one option farmers could use yes, citing the msds as evidence that spraying on crops cannot be healthy for farm workers however is silly – the msds covers the concentrated chemical useage instructions, the herbicide as applied is mixed such that the final solution is only 1% of the concentrate + 99% water (according to the label instructions I jsut googled). That’s enough to go from something which’ll blind you to something which will irritate your eye (a 1% sodium hydroxide solution for instance, is an eye irritant, 50% or more is likely to blind you on contact)

    ““WARNING! This product contains chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.” – a label with little to no meaning, I have 2 bags of play sand with the same warning on them at home. Suffice to say I believe the state of california is essentially insane while labelling these things and thus the label is meaningless.

    “The product info page isn’t very helpful in letting farmers know how to dispose of rinse water without involving a drain, sewer, ditch, or waterway.”

    Is your assumption then that farmers are too stupid to figure out disposal of substances they aren’t supposed to put in drains etc? Or too stupid to follow the label instructions of contacting your local EPA office, State pesticide or environmental control agency?

    “But in the real world, do you think that is always going to be the case? And what is an acceptable level of error for you?”

    Acceptable levels of error should be within the norms of safety – I’d hope that legally the safe useage guides are stringent enough that in cases where they aren’t followed you’d have to be being spectacularly negligent to cause actual harm, and that in cases where you break the guidelines there is some sort of punitive measure in place to keep people in line (y’know, like the federal laws against contaminating groundwater etc)

    “For the mere possibility of a slight increase in yield, is there a specific number of rural water sources or farmworkers that you feel it’s okay to damage?”

    For the microscopic possibility of harm to farm workers or water sources how far back into the 1800′s are you willing to push our agricultural system?

    (I think the response there is just as stupid and loaded as your initial question, as such feel as free to ignore it as I did yours)

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  • Jane Peters

    We’re eating RoundUp. Yuck!

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