Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Roundup Ready

Okay, back to the GMO thing. Although GMO proponents claim that genetic engineering can produce crops that are drought resistant, salt resistant, higher yielding, need less fertilizer, and all sorts of other wonderfulness that can benefit small farmers and help feed the world, in fact all but a tiny fraction of actually existing GMO crops are engineered for one of two properties: herbicide resistance, and natural expression of the insecticide Bt toxin.

The biggest sellers are Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soy, corn, cotton and canola seeds. These are resistant to Monsanto's big-selling herbicide Roundup, which is a formulation of the plant toxin glyphosate. I happened to do some research on glyphosate back when I was getting my M.A. in environmental policy. It's a very broad spectrum herbicide, i.e. it kills everything that's green, ordinarily. Roundup contains what Monsanto calls "inert" ingredients that aren't even regulated. In fact they are powerful detergents, added to help wet the leaves, which are highly toxic to aquatic organisms. But I digress.

Roundup Ready crops actually have lower yields than their competitors. The benefit to farmers is that they reduce labor crops. You don't have to till and otherwise manually control weeds. Just spray the whole field, kill everything, then plant. You can spray again if you want to. But, you aren't allowed to save your own seeds and plant them next year. You have to buy the seeds, and the Roundup, from Monsanto every year. As you can see, this gives an economic advantage to large, capital intensive farms over small, labor intensive farms. More about that later. For now . . .

If you keep spraying a single herbicide in the same place year after year, what do you think will happen? If GMO organisms can be glyphosate resistant, well, plants can evolve that same property on their own. And they do. A distaster is now in the making. Quoth the New York Times:

Botanists call the weed palmer amaranth. But perhaps the most fitting, if less known, name is carelessweed. In barely a decade, it has devastated Southern cotton farms and is poised to wreak havoc in the Midwest — all because farmers got careless. [er no, as the article goes on to say that's not why] . . .

Palmer, as farmers nicknamed it, is the most notorious of a growing number of weeds that are immune to the gold standard of herbicides, glyphosate.. . .  After Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist glyphosate in the 1990s, the herbicide’s use soared. Farmers who once juggled an array of herbicides — what killed weeds in a cotton field might kill cornstalks in a cornfield — suddenly had a single herbicide that could be applied to almost all major crops without harming them. But constantly dousing crops in glyphosate exacted a price. Weeds with glyphosate-resisting genetic mutations appeared faster and more often — 16 types of weed so far in the United States. A 2012 survey concluded that glyphosate-resistant weeds had infested enough acreage of American farmland to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and that the total infestation had grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Ga. Nine years later, they are in at least 24 states.
So now farmer are going back to manual extirpation and rotating herbicides. But for many, it's too late. Palmer is almost impossible to eradicate. It produces thousands of seeds that can germinate throughout the growing season, has a large dense root system, and grows back after you cut it down. Some farmers have had no choice but to mow their entire crops. The Roundup/Roundup Ready system is now useless for them and it may take decades for some farmers to regain control of their fields. So you can go ahead and eat the GMO food, but you still might have a guilty conscience.

To be continued.

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