New Generation of GM Crops Puts Agriculture in a ‘Crisis Situation’

Most corn, soy and other field crops grown in the United States are genetically engineered to tolerate Roundup, a trait developed by agrotech giant Monsanto in the early 1990s. Glyphosate use exploded: rather than spraying herbicides on a weed-by-weed basis or pulling them by hand, farmers could use the herbicide on entire fields.

“This was an economically rational decision. It just wasn’t a biologically rational decision,” said herbicide resistance specialist Stephen Powles at a recent Weed Science Society of America meeting. It favored the evolution of superweeds, which now pose an enormous agricultural threat.

Superweeds now infest an estimated 70 million acres of U.S. farmland, causing roughly $1 billion in damage. The problem is growing fast, and farmers have scrambled for solutions. Dow and other large agrotech companies, including Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta, have responded by engineering plants to withstand combinations of herbicides rather than glyphosate alone.

Enlist is the first of these crops, and it could set an important precedent. Yet many scientists say simply using more, different herbicides will hasten the evolution of ever-more-resistant superweeds, putting agriculture on what some scientists have called an herbicide treadmill: more herbicides and more resistance, over and over.


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