A decade and a half after farmers began planting the first genetically engineered (GE) crops, the future is clear. The scientists who pioneered genetic engineering thought of themselves as environmentalists, creating products that could reduce pesticide use. Instead, they have simply perpetuated the same "pesticide treadmill" as their pesticide-peddling counterparts resulting in the application of a greater volume of ever more toxic pesticides.
The "pesticide treadmill" occurs when insects "become resistant to the effects of pesticides, requiring farms to adopt new and more potent poisons, to which pests eventually become resistant." DDT was greeted as a war hero when it was used to combat malarial mosquitoes in World War II, but only a few years after it was introduced in agriculture, the pests evolved resistance. Farmers needed a new pesticide, perhaps a more toxic pesticide. For decades that followed, chemical companies introduced pesticide after pesticide, so farmers had no shortage of poisons. If one fails, use another. Never mind the myriad of other options available to prevent or combat pest problems, like attracting or releasing beneficial organisms that eat the pests or simply fostering healthy soil so your plants are healthy enough to defend themselves.
GMOs -- genetically modified organisms -- have now gone down the same path. In the early years of genetic engineering, biotech companies tried creating a number of products with different traits, like a tomato that stays ripe or a variety of canola that produced a different kind of oil. But only two types of GMOs really took off commercially -- Roundup Ready crops and Bt crops. Roundup Ready crops are engineered so they can survive being sprayed by glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup. A farmer can spray an entire field with Roundup herbicide, killing only the weeds. Bt crops produce an insecticidal protein derived from a naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), in every cell of the plant. Biotech giants like Monsanto create, patent, and sell the seeds for these two types of GMOs.
But after less than two decades on the market, these crops have also joined the pesticide treadmill as pests have begun to develop resistance to them.
Pesticide-Producing Crops Starting to Cause Mutant, Resistant Pests
The insecticidal proteins naturally produced by Bt are used in organic farming, but there is a big difference between an organic farmer spraying Bt on crops (the Bt breaks down quickly) and a genetically engineered crop constantly producing Bt in every cell of the organism. With the incredible growth of Bt crops, from none in the mid-1990s to 67 percent of U.S. corn and 77 percent of U.S. cotton by 2012, Americans' exposure to Bt has risen dramatically. A 2010 study found Bt in 93 percent and 80 percent of maternal and fetal blood samples, respectively. And, as organic farming comprises a tiny percent of farming overall, there's no doubt that the Bt in their blood mostly, if not entirely, came from genetically engineered foods like Bt corn.
Although humans are now exposed to more Bt than ever, some argue that one Bt crop, Bt cotton, represents a success because conventional cotton depends so heavily on pesticides that are far more toxic than Bt. In theory, by relying on Bt to kill pests, farmers could reduce or eliminate use of more toxic and persistent pesticides. This was not born out by the facts, however: As adoption of Bt cotton increased in the United States, applications of most pesticides declined -- but applications of aldicarb, one of the most concerning pesticides, actually grew. (Aldicarb is so toxic that it is already banned in the European Union and the United States will not allow its use after 2018.)
As a result of increased aldicarb usage, between 1996 and 2008, the amount of pesticides sprayed on each acre of cotton in the U.S. dropped only from 0.56 pounds per acre to 0.47 pounds per acre, even as farmers adopted Bt cotton. And that does not even take into account the pesticides used as seed treatments on cotton seeds during that time.
But, as of this year, there is more news. Insects have begun to evolve resistance to Bt. It began in 2011, when scientists identified Bt resistant corn rootworms in a few fields in Illinois and Iowa. In 2012, even more disturbing reports emerged of Bt resistant bollworms in cotton. A team of University of Arizona scientists looked into the matter and found a number of genetic mutations that provided the bugs with Bt resistance. The problem of these resistant "super pests" is still small, but growing. No doubt the biotech industry will ramp up the arms race against these pests in the coming years. The only questions that remain are: how toxic will their next products be, and will they produce such widespread Bt-resistant pests that it will render Bt a useless tool for organic farmers as well as conventional?
Roundup Ready Crops Caused Massive Increase in Glyphosate Use
While Bt crops are just now stepping on the pesticide treadmill, Roundup Ready crops have been pounding away on it for years now. When they were introduced, Roundup Ready crops resulted in a massive increase in the use of Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides. In the decade after the first Roundup Ready crop was introduced, Roundup Ready soybeans, U.S. farmers increased the amount of glyphosate used on soybeans by a factor of six. The increase occurred for two reasons: first, because farmers shifted away from other herbicides and used glyphosate instead and second, because weeds soon evolved resistance to small amounts of glyphosate, forcing farmers to use more and more of it each year.
The "environmentally friendly" argument for GMOs only applies if you buy the idea that glyphosate is an "environmentally friendly" and "safe" herbicide, as Monsanto claims. Never mind the 2010 study that found that low doses of glyphosate cause birth defects in frogs and chickens -- and the revelation that Monsanto was aware of Roundup's link to birth defects for decades.
Roundup Ready crops allowed Monsanto to capture enormous shares of both the seed market and the herbicide market for four crops: soybeans, cotton, corn, and canola. Since corn and soy together make up half of America's cropland, this represents no small amount of money.
Some farmers adopted Roundup Ready crops eagerly, and others did so more reluctantly. Corn and soy farmer George Naylor complains that the best seeds are only made available as Roundup Ready, forcing farmers who want non-GMO seeds to buy inferior seeds as a result. Since the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996, adoption rates by farmers have soared. In 2012, 93 percent of all soybeans, 80 percent of all cotton, and 73 percent of all corn planted in the U.S. was "herbicide tolerant," -- and most of that was Roundup Ready. (Some of the herbicide tolerant crops planted are tolerant of the herbicide glufosinate instead of glyphosate.)
More than a decade later, farmers are facing the predictable result of their actions: Roundup Ready "super weeds." As farmers happily sprayed their entire fields with Roundup again and again, more than 20 species of weeds evolved resistance to glyphosate. The big kahuna of these glyphosate resistant weeds is called palmer amaranth, a monster of a weed that grows seven feet tall and produces up to half a million seeds per plant. The weed can grow three inches a day and it's "tough enough to damage farm machinery."
More Herbicide Resistant Crops on the Way
But where farmers see a crisis, the "Big 6" chemical companies see opportunity. They finally have a chance to break into Monsanto's GMO empire by producing new herbicide tolerant crops designed to be used with their own herbicides. Already approved for use in the U.S. are Pioneer Hi-Bred's corn and soybeans that are tolerant of acetolactate synthase (ALS) inhibiting herbicides. But under review by the USDA right now are many, many more:
- BASF's imidazolinone tolerant soybean (access docket here)
- Monsanto's dicamba tolerant soybean (access docket here)
- Dow AgroScience's 2,4-D and ACCase Inhibitor Tolerant corn and 2,4-D tolerant soybeans (access dockets here and here)
- Bayer CropScience's isoxaflutole and glyphosate tolerant soybean (access docket here)
The most concerning of these next generation GMOs are the ones designed to work with dicamba (a developmental or reproductive toxin), isoxaflutole (a carcinogen), and 2,4-D, which was one of the two chemicals that made up Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant the U.S. sprayed in Vietnam. The Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) is asking concerned citizens to weigh in on the registration of 2,4-D soy, but dicamba and isofloxatule are deadly chemicals that are receiving far less attention. Imagine a six-fold increase in the use of these chemicals over the next decade!
The old argument that Bt and Roundup Ready GMOs were environmentally friendly because they would reduce toxic pesticide use was a flimsy one at best, but it is now entirely dead in the water. It took less than two decades for bugs and weeds to evolve resistance to Bt and Roundup, respectively. The "Big 6" chemical and biotech companies are now showing their true colors, creating more products certain to increase pesticide usage in the global food supply.
Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog "La Vida Locavore" and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It. She is a PRWatch guest contributor.