Superweeds, Superbugs, and Superbusiness


Sky over a field of Roundup Ready soybeans
This field of genetically-modified soy might look nice, but the Roundup
Ready system has turned out to be a Darwinian experiment on steroids.

When a cousin of mine planted his first field of Roundup Ready soybeans in southwest Iowa back in the 1990s, he told me, in a somewhat resigned way, "Well, it will take about five years for weeds to become resistant to this."

He was exaggerating, but not by much. These days, the farm press is full of reports from across the country, and indeed the world, of herbicide-resistant superweeds popping up in farmers' fields at an unprecedented rate. My cousin knew enough about evolutionary biology to figure out that if you use enough of one single chemical to kill weeds, it’s inevitable that some of those weeds will survive, reproducing offspring that resist being killed by subsequent sprayings. 

And the Roundup Ready system has turned out to be a Darwinian experiment on steroids. Soon after Monsanto started marketing seeds that produced crops genetically engineered to tolerate the herbicide glyphosate (marketed under the brand name Roundup), farmers adapted the technology in droves. The advantages for farmers were evident early on: they could plant their crop and then spray it once it had started growing, reducing the expensive, and erosive, mechanical weed control methods of the past. And since they were spraying the crop rather than saturating the soil at planting, less of it was required. Finally, glyphosate is known as a less toxic chemical than older herbicides, and supposedly does not hang around as long in the environment to cause problems.

Today herbicide tolerant crops account for 93 percent of the soybeans and 85 percent of the corn grown in the U.S., according to the USDA. This technology is ubiquitous in Farm Country, and it's made many, many fortunes for its manufacturer, Monsanto. 

But time is running out for this cash cow. Acreage with weeds that resist being killed by glyphosate almost doubled from 32.6 million in 2010 to 61.2 million 2012, according to a 31-state survey conducted by Stratus Agri-Marketing. Nearly half of all U.S. farmers Stratus surveyed said they had glyphosate resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011.

7/8/2014 2:02:14 AM

The article is very helpful in terms of pest management as the problem of pest is very common in our farms and garden. But I totally disagree with "glyphosate is less toxic", as I am pest controller and I had done a research with team. Our research concludes that glyphosate spoils soil fertility. So in my opinion people should avoid chemical pesticides and go with organic pesticides.

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