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Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Roundup Weedkiller in the News, and in Court

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Keith Goetzman, agriculture, food, genetic engineering, Roundup, Roundup Ready, Monsanto, Supreme Court, Defenders of Wildlife, Humane Society, Center for Biological Diversity, New York Times, Center for Food Safety,

Tractor with herbicide tanksSo many American farmers are spraying Roundup weedkiller on their fields that they may be effectively creating a monster, the New York Times reports:

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of … Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them … farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

The superweed revolution appears to threaten what the Times calls the “Roundup revolution” in which many farmers combine Roundup and genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops. These crops stand up to the weedkiller while most of the surrounding weeds perish—or that’s the idea, anyway. Some farmers told the paper that they’re spraying more herbicide and giving up minimum-till farming, which reduces erosion and chemical runoff.

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.

It’s notable that just last week, Roundup maker Monsanto was defending itself at the Supreme Court in a case that involved the weedkiller’s environmental effects. On April 27, SustainableBusiness.com reported:

Today the Center for Food Safety faces off against Monsanto in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of farmers and public interest environmental organizations. Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms is the first case involving genetically engineered crops that has ever been heard by the Supreme Court.

Lower courts agreed that the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa must be stopped because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had failed to analyze the crop’s impacts on farmers and the environment. Although it remains undisputed that USDA violated environmental laws, and that it must rigorously analyze the genetically engineered crop’s impacts before deciding whether or not to approve it for sale, Monsanto is arguing that the lower courts should have allowed the planting of the illegal crop to go forward in the interim.

Presciently, the threat of the Roundup-resistant weeds covered in the New York Times came up in an amicus brief filed in the case by the Defenders of Wildlife, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity:

In this case, the significant environmental risks that warrant preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement, and that also implicate respondents’ interests in particular, involve not only whether Roundup Ready Alfalfa would further contaminate conventional alfalfa (as it already has), but also the risk that large-scale use of Roundup Ready Alfalfa will dramatically increase the use of the Roundup pesticide, which, among other impacts, may result “in the development of Roundup-tolerant weeds.”

Source: New York Times, SustainableBusiness.com, The Center for Food Safety

Image by John D. Byrd, Mississippi State University, Bugwood.org, licensed under Creative Commons.