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Traits in Agriculture » Herbicide Tolerance

Title: U.S. Close to Approving New Wave of GE Herbicide-Resistant Crops
Publication date: July 08, 2014
Posting date: July 08, 2014


Dear Friends and Colleagues 

U.S. Close to Approving New Wave of GE Herbicide-Resistant Crops 

The major genetically engineered (GE) herbicide-resistant crops approved in the United States currently are Roundup Ready crops, resistant to glyphosate. However, the widespread use of glyphosate with the GE crops has resulted in the emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, with more than 61 million acres now infested, affecting more than half of U.S. farmers.

In response to this problem, Dow AgroSciences has developed a herbicide-resistant crop system called “Enlist Duo”, made resistant to both glyphosate and 2,4-D (one of the ingredients of Agent Orange) and has applied for its approval. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has called for public comment while the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has given provisional approval for Enlist Duo by way of a corn plant and two types of soybean.

Civil society groups have opposed the application, raising health and environmental concerns. 2,4-D has been linked to increased incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson's disease, and birth defects in humans and harm to endangered species. Herbicide use in the country is estimated to jump by more than six-fold to about 176 million pounds per year with the approval of Enlist Duo.

"The Dow proposal …..(is) advertised as a solution to the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds, but in fact the weeds will rapidly evolve resistance and become more difficult to control, leading to what we call the pesticide treadmill,” says Bill Freese, a senior policy analyst with the Centre for Food Safety. 

This warning is echoed by the Union of Concerned Scientists, which pinpoints that herbicide-resistant weeds are a symptom of a weak agricultural system and recommends agroecology as the best way to drastically reduce or eliminate the need for herbicides.

Two articles containing the above news are reproduced below as Items 1 and 2.

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Item 1 


Friday, May 2, 2014 - Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 02 (IPS) - Two key federal agencies here are in the final stages of approving a new herbicide-resistant crop 'system' that would constitute the second phase of genetically engineered agriculture, following an announcement this week.

To date, the only herbicide-resistant plants approved in the United States have been related to Monsanto's Roundup Ready system. This system uses six crops genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide Roundup, also produced by Monsanto, a U.S.-based company.

Yet use of Roundup Ready crops has been so widespread in the United States over the past decade and a half that farmers have increasingly found themselves battling weeds that have evolved resistance to the herbicide's key ingredient, glyphosate.

According to an industry survey released last year, the amount of U.S. farmland infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds has almost doubled since 2010, to more than 61 million acres, with half of U.S. farmers reporting glyphosate-resistant weeds in their fields in 2012.

In response, Dow AgroSciences, another U.S. company, has produced a new set of crops that have been genetically engineered to be resistant to both glyphosate and another chemical, 2,4-D, known most notoriously as half of the infamous Vietnam War-era defoliant Agent Orange. The company says approval could bring in a billion dollars in revenues.

"The Dow proposal would be the first major product of the next generation of genetically engineered crops,” Bill Freese, a senior policy analyst with the Centre for Food Safety, a watchdog group here, told IPS.

"It's advertised as a solution to the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds, but in fact the weeds will rapidly evolve resistance and become more difficult to control„ leading to what we call the pesticide treadmill. As we've seen with Roundup Ready, these systems are extremely good at fostering resistant weeds."

On Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) opened a 30-day public comment period on Dow's application, specifically on its specialised use of 2,4-D. The other agency in charge of deciding on the application, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), has already given its provisional approval for the new cops, which include a corn plant and two types of soybean.

In announcing the start of this final phase of the regulatory process, the EPA was clear in the rationale behind Dow's product, which is known as Enlist Duo.

“Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides and are posing a problem for farmers,” the agency said in a statement. "If finalized, EPA's action provides an additional tool to reduce the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds."

Indeed, it appears that additional tools may soon abound. According to the Center for Food Safety's Freese, nine of the 14 applications for genetically engineered crops currently pending before U.S. regulators are for herbicide-resistant varieties.

Sixfold increase

Critics are warning of a spectrum of concerns around Dow's application, particularly regarding the impacts of increased use of 2,4-D. This compound is already in use, with U.S. farmers currently using around 26 million pounds per year.

Yet according to the USDA's own estimates, this usage would likely jump by more than sixfold following the approval of Enlist Duo, perhaps resulting in some 176 million pounds used per year. That would constitute higher U.S. use than any pesticide other than glyphosate.

Even at the comparably low usage of 2,4-D of recent years, worrying health effects are already being seen. According to public health advocates, 2,4-D has been linked to increases in non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Parkinson's disease, as well as heightened risk of birth defects among the children of farm workers who apply 2,4-D.

"The herbicide itself is in various ways more toxic than glyphosate, leading to cancer, lower sperm counts, liver disease and other problems. And it's still contaminated with dioxins,” Paul Achitoff, an attorney with Earthjustice, a legal advocacy group, told IPS.

"Remarkably, you have government regulators openly admitting that, due to previous deregulations, you already have 60 million acres of glyphosate resistance, and now they want to address this by increasing the use of a toxic chemical. And so far, Congress has just yawned!"

Impact could also be significant for both nearby agriculture and environmental systems. 2,4-D has been shown to be highly volatile, tending to drift easily on the wind or to enter groundwater via runoff.

Given that the compound is specifically designed to be lethal to any broad-leafed plant, the impact of a sixfold increase in the use of 2,4-D would likely be significant. The EPA and the National Marine Fisheries Service have both found that the even relatively low use of 2,4-D of recent years is likely already having a negative impact on endangered species.

Agricultural crossroads

In a public letter released earlier this year, 144 farm, food, health, public interest, consumer, fisheries, and environmental organizations called on the federal government to reject the Dow proposal, warning that U.S. agriculture is at a crossroads.

“One path leads to more intensive use of old and toxic pesticides, litigious disputes in farm country over drift-related crop injury, still less crop diversity, increasingly intractable weeds, and sharply rising farmer production costs,” the letter stated. “This is the path American agriculture will take with approval of Dow's 2,4-D corn, soybeans and the host of other new herbicide-resistant crops in the pipeline.”

Yet the implications of the biotechnology revolution in agriculture go well beyond the United States. Although genetically engineered crops first took root in the U.S., this approach has since spread across the globe, in developing and developed countries alike, though the U.S. regulatory system continues to be more lax on the issue than in other countries.

At times these new technologies are contextualised as an important opportunity to increase yields, particularly in adverse environments, and thus to combat hunger and strengthen food security. But the Center for Food Safety's Freese says this is whitewash.

"The rhetoric is about biotech feeding the world, but really it has no place in developing countries. Most poor farmers can't afford this type of product in the first place,” he notes.

"Biotech is not a humanitarian endeavour. It's about promoting pesticide use by industrial farmers in developed countries."

Freese says his office will likely push the EPA to extend its public comment period for Enlist Duo, given what he dubs the significance of the regulator's decision. Dow is currently hoping to have its new crops in the ground by next year.


Item 2 


May 1, 2014

Dr. Doug Sherman, Union of Concerned Scientists 

As another growing season begins, production agriculture is confronted with important choices. Among them is whether the farming community and policy makers will heed the clear warnings from herbicide-resistant weeds that industrial monoculture farming methods are not sustainable.

The epidemic of weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate herbicide, used on glyphosate-resistant GMO crops, is an important symptom of the problems with our current farming system. Mismanagement of this weed control system has predictably led to glyphosate resistant weeds, and along with them, greatly increased herbicide use and harm to farms and the environment.

Some have noted that resistance to pesticides is nothing new. True. But the almost exclusive use of these GMO crops, and the glyphosate used with them, has led to exceptional evolutionary pressure for resistance to develop. For example, for most of the last decade, over 90 percent of soybeans grown in the US have been GMO glyphosate-resistant. This exacerbates weed resistance tendencies inherent in monocultures and the problems that come with them. The lack of regulations that could require methods to prevent or reduce the development of resistant weeds is also an important key to this problem. As a consequence, USDA is poised to approve the next generation of GMO herbicide resistant crops without adequate safeguards.

A New Direction for Innovative Weed Management is Sorely Needed

Monsanto, Dow and the rest of the biotech industry claim to develop advanced agricultural technology, but in fact their response to resistant weeds and greatly increased herbicide use is more of the same—new herbicide-resistant crops that are immune to older, nastier herbicides like 2,4-D, dicamba, and isoxaflutole. Yesterday, UCS released an animated video that illustrates the problems with GMO herbicide resistant crops, and challenges us to implement real, sustainable solutions that have multiple benefits for the environment and the economy.

Some have argued that even though herbicide use is higher than it would have been without herbicide-resistant crops, glyphosate is less harmful than other herbicides. This may be true for some types of harm. However, glyphosate use in these crops has likely caused substantial environmental harm already, in particular as a major contributor to the decimation of monarch butterfly populations. These defenders of glyphosate resistant crops also rarely mention the next generation GMO herbicide-resistant crops waiting in the wings, which will usher in greatly increased use of more harmful herbicides.

Industry’s Toothless Response

The dramatic increase in herbicide-resistant weeds has sounded an alarm among weed scientists and farmers, and has led to several meetings instigated by the USDA or the National Academy of Sciences. The response of farmers to the onslaught of resistance is probably the reason for an increase in the use of other herbicides as well as glyphosate in the past several years. This use of multiple herbicides may slow the advance of herbicide resistant weeds….temporarily.

This is because different herbicides work through different effects on the weeds, and it is harder, but still possible, for a weed to develop resistance to several of these mechanisms simultaneously.

The problem is that weeds resistant to multiple herbicides, including glyphosate, have developed already. And some serious weeds, like waterhemp in the Midwest, have separate populations resistant to glyphosate or 2,4-D, the latter one of the main herbicides to be used with the next generation of herbicide resistant crops (these weeds may also be somewhat resistant to dicamba, which is similar to 2,4-D). This means that these already resistant weeds need develop resistance to only one of these herbicides, not multiple herbicides, to evade the control from the new GMO crops. Alternatively, these separate singly-resistant populations may eventually mate, producing multiple herbicide resistance that way.

This also means that the industry solution—new herbicide resistant crops—may make them a lot of money in sales, but it will only forestall the problem. Because there are no new, broadly useful herbicides on the horizon, this could lead to a situation where farmers have few, and sometimes no effective herbicide solutions for these resistant weeds.

Real, Sustainable, Solutions

Herbicide resistant weeds are mostly a symptom of an inherently vulnerable and brittle agriculture system. Growing huge expanses of the same few crops over and over favors the buildup of pests, and using the same few means to control them is susceptible to resistance.

This means that the way we grow crops needs to change in more fundamental ways that increase diversity on the farm. These methods, collectively called agroecology, are not only more resilient to pest resistance, but also to climate change. They also can greatly reduce pollution from fertilizers, climate change emissions, and help maintain biodiversity, as we laid out in a recent UCS report on healthy farms.

Specifically applied to weed control, as described in another recent UCS report, agroecology can greatly reduce or eliminate the need for herbicides.

Recommendations by Monsanto, in addition to the predictable use of more herbicides, include approaches such as crop rotation and the use of cover crops. While that is clearly desirable as far as it goes, it does not go very far. Farmers overuse certain herbicides and GMO crops for reasons that are mostly sensible to them, such as convenience or labor reductions.

The same reasons will apply to the new GMO crops, unless measure are taken to prevent this. It has been generally known for a long time that alternating herbicides and other measures can slow resistance, but they were not widely adopted. Perhaps there will be some heightened awareness of a need to act under the current circumstances. But given the barriers and perverse incentives, such as subsidies for growing a limited number of crops, many farmers will not adopt the best practices. And I suspect the majority, if they adopt any, will only go as far as relying on the more familiar practice of using different herbicides. As noted above, that will not be enough.

Simply recommending that farmers adopt sustainable practices will fail because making these changes, even though better in the long run, can be challenging. It requires new ways of farming and thinking, investments in new equipment, new reliable information about how to make it work, and so on. There also needs to be disincentives to continue on the current path. This requires policies, support and incentives from sources such as the USDA, which are in short supply at best. Even merely using multiple herbicides usually results in higher costs or more labor than relying on herbicide resistant GMO crops alone.

The companies know this. So forgive my skepticism, but talk is cheap. Until there is real muscle behind creating real change in the way we farm, we will get more of the same. That change will only happen when enough pressure is brought to bear on policy makers and others, it will not come from those who have created the current problems in the first place.

Posted in: Food and Agriculture Tags: GMOs., herbicide resistance, herbicides, Monsanto, pesticides, sustainable agriculture

About the author: Doug Gurian-Sherman is a widely-cited expert on biotechnology and sustainable agriculture. He holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology.

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