Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds
If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment.
“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.
The maps below reveal the increase in resistance to glyphosate in the U.S.
So far, weed scientists estimate that the total amount of United States farmland afflicted by Roundup-resistant weeds is relatively small — seven million to 10 million acres, according to Ian Heap, director of the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds, which is financed by the agricultural chemical industry. There are roughly 170 million acres planted with corn, soybeans and cotton, the crops most affected.
Roundup-resistant weeds are also found in several other countries, including Australia, China and Brazil, according to the survey.
Monsanto, which once argued that resistance would not become a major problem, now cautions against exaggerating its impact. “It’s a serious issue, but it’s manageable,” said Rick Cole, who manages weed resistance issues in the United States for the company.
Of course, Monsanto stands to lose a lot of business if farmers use less Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds.
“You’re having to add another product with the Roundup to kill your weeds,” said Steve Doster, a corn and soybean farmer in Barnum, Iowa. “So then why are we buying the Roundup Ready product?”
Monsanto argues that Roundup still controls hundreds of weeds. But the company is concerned enough about the problem that it is taking the extraordinary step of subsidizing cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup.
Monsanto and other agricultural biotech companies are also developing genetically engineered crops resistant to other herbicides.
Bayer is already selling cotton and soybeans resistant to glufosinate, another weedkiller. Monsanto’s newest corn is tolerant of both glyphosate and glufosinate, and the company is developing crops resistant to dicamba, an older pesticide. Syngenta is developing soybeans tolerant of its Callisto product. And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War.
Still, scientists and farmers say that glyphosate is a once-in-a-century discovery, and steps need to be taken to preserve its effectiveness.
Glyphosate “is as important for reliable global food production as penicillin is for battling disease,” Stephen B. Powles, an Australian weed expert, wrote in a commentary in January in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The National Research Council, which advises the federal government on scientific matters, sounded its own warning last month, saying that the emergence of resistant weeds jeopardized the substantial benefits that genetically engineered crops were providing to farmers and the environment.
Weed scientists are urging farmers to alternate glyphosate with other herbicides. But the price of glyphosate has been falling as competition increases from generic versions, encouraging farmers to keep relying on it.
Something needs to be done, said Louie Perry Jr., a cotton grower whose great-great-grandfather started his farm in Moultrie, Ga., in 1830.
Georgia has been one of the states hit hardest by Roundup-resistant pigweed, and Mr. Perry said the pest could pose as big a threat to cotton farming in the South as the beetle that devastated the industry in the early 20th century.
“If we don’t whip this thing, it’s going to be like the boll weevil did to cotton,” said Mr. Perry, who is also chairman of the Georgia Cotton Commission. “It will take it away.”
William Neuman reported from Dyersburg, Tenn., and Andrew Pollack from Los Angeles. Source: The New York Times