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TECHNOLOGY & PLANTS: Glyphosate resistant weeds leave Illinois (USA) farmers desperate



                                  PART 1


------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:   RESISTANT WEEDS LEAVE FARMERS DESPERATE

SOURCE:  St. Louis Post-Dispatch, USA

AUTHOR:  Georgina Gustin

URL:     http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/article_f01139be-ace0-502b-944a-0c534b70511c.html

DATE:    17.07.2011

SUMMARY: "As effectiveness of herbicides wanes, some try mixtures of older, more toxic chemicals, others pay itinerant workers to weed by hand. [...] The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is getting worse: Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Monsanto?s Roundup, sold generically as glyphosate, forcing farmers to use other herbicides or ?multiple modes of action.? But during this season especially farmers are finding that these other modes of action aren?t working either ? and there appears to be little relief on the horizon."

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RESISTANT WEEDS LEAVE FARMERS DESPERATE

As effectiveness of herbicides wanes, some try mixtures of older, more toxic chemicals, others pay itinerant workers to weed by hand.

Farmers in the state?s south are resorting to some old-fashioned tactics.

Weeds in cotton fields have gotten so tenacious ? some with stems 4-inches around ? that farmers are paying itinerant crews to chop them down by hand.

?In the Bootheel they?re hiring people to go out there with hoes,? said Blake Hurst, president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. ?I swung a hoe for 15 years, and I fail to see the romance in it.?

The problem, farmers and weed scientists say, is getting worse: Weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to Monsanto?s Roundup, sold generically as glyphosate, forcing farmers to use other herbicides or ?multiple modes of action.? But during this season especially farmers are finding that these other modes of action aren?t working either ? and there appears to be little relief on the horizon. In Missouri, herbicide dealers have sold out of Cobra, one of the herbicides most widely used in tandem with glyphosate.

?Are they running out of options?? asked Aaron Hager, a weed scientist with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ?The simple answer is yes.?

Farmers across the Midwest and South are, increasingly, using herbicide cocktails to combat weeds in cotton, corn and soybean fields.

?They?re using about every bullet they have in their gun,? said Derek Samples, a dealer with Agro Distribution in Portageville, about 150 miles south of St. Louis. ?It?s just been a nasty year.?

That worries environmental scientists who say these combinations employ older, more toxic herbicides that glyphosate was marketed to replace. In some areas of the state, certain weeds have become resistant to three herbicides. In Illinois, some weeds have become resistant to four.

?It?s rather ironic that we were sold glyphosate as an alternative to these older pesticides, and now farmers are using them again,? said Brett Lorenzen, a legal analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based environmental advocacy group. ?But that?s part of the pattern of the pesticide industry.?

RELIANCE BACKFIRES

Farmers say they?re frustrated, not least because these additional herbicides and strategies are costing them profits. They admit, however, that commodity prices are high enough to justify the additional expenditure.

?It?s easily costing $30 an acre for the hand weeding, and the pre-emergence herbicides are costing $10 and $20 an acre,? said Tom Jennings, who farms cotton, rice, soy and corn near Sikeston. ?If we see the markets drop back down, the economics are going to get a lot more difficult. As high as it is, we can afford some hand labor.?

Over the past 15 years glyphosate has become a ubiquitous product on American farms. Its rise has coincided with unprecedented crop yields and profits for farmers and has helped propel Creve Couer-based Monsanto into the world?s most dominant seed maker.

But reliance on glyphosate, scientists say, has led to an explosion in weeds that are genetically adapting to withstand its application. These weeds adapt faster and more vigorously than their weed cousins, choking fields and clogging irrigation ditches so badly water can?t pass through.

?Pollen can transfer the resistant trait; that?s the problem,? said Kevin Bradley, a weed scientist with the University of Missouri. ?There?s not much we can do about pollen flying through the air, and that?s why we see such rapid spread of resistance.?

In recent years, Monsanto has slashed prices, offered rebates to farmers and given incentives to buy other herbicides, even those of the company?s competitors. The company has acknowledged the situation and admitted that, perhaps, it could have more aggressively worked to get the message out about alternative strategies. Farmers, too, have accepted some of the blame.

?It was so effective and so cheap compared to everything else, that?s all you used,? Jennings said. ?Now we have problems out here and we don?t have new herbicides. Before Roundup you had a new product every two or three years. Almost all the new products are just combinations of old products. There?s no new chemistry.?

THE SMALL PRINT

Critics of the industry point out that Monsanto and its competitors have known about glyphosate resistance since the mid-1990s, when crops genetically engineered to withstand its application first hit the market. They say the companies should have more clearly warned about over-reliance on glyphosate sooner. Government-required labels urged farmers to use other herbicides in conjunction with glyphosate, but these suggestions were tucked away in fine print.

?It?s hard to read a 54-page booklet,? Lorenzen said. ?Monsanto has been saying don?t just use glyphosate, but farmers don?t have time to read the label.?

Lorenzen and other industry critics worry that the new herbicide cocktails farmers are using haven?t been tested. The Environmental Protection Agency reviews individual herbicides, not combinations. ?Nobody tests what happens when all those chemicals are combined together,? he said. ?Nobody knows.?

Analysts, too, worry that the problem could hit profits.

?They?ve taken a big hit with [Roundup] already,? said Jeff Windau, an analyst with Edward Jones. ?So moving forward there could be more pressure on sales.?

Windau also said that if farmers start spending too much to combat weeds then the benefits of genetically modified seed could diminish and they will stop buying it.

?There definitely could be issues there,? he said.

There is, however, some hope in the pipeline. Monsanto is working on developing soybeans and cotton that are resistant to the chemical dicamba. The cotton could be on the market within three years.

Until then, farmers say, they?re going to be spending more time in their fields, applying more chemicals, tilling and hoeing.

?Fortunately,? Jennings said, ?weeds haven?t developed a resistance to cold steel.?



                                  PART 2

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:   MONSANTO?S ?SUPERWEEDS? GALLOP THROUGH MIDWEST

SOURCE:  Mother Jones, USA

AUTHOR:  Tom Philpott

URL:     http://motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2011/07/monsanto-superweeds-roundup

DATE:    19.07.2011

SUMMARY: "Back in the mid-?90s, Monsanto rolled out seeds genetically engineered to withstand its Roundup herbicide. To ensure huge growth potential, the company shrewdly chose the most widely planted, highly subsidized US crops to grace with its new ?Roundup Ready? technology: corn, soy, and cotton. The pitch was simple and powerful: No longer would large-scale farmers need to worry about weeds. All they would have to do was douse their fields with Roundup, which would wipe out all plant life except the desired crop. Farmers leapt at the technology. It represented a fantastic labor-saving opportunity, allowing them to manage ever-larger swaths of land without having to pay more workers."

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MONSANTO?S ?SUPERWEEDS? GALLOP THROUGH MIDWEST

Back in the mid-?90s, Monsanto rolled out seeds genetically engineered to withstand its Roundup herbicide. To ensure huge growth potential, the company shrewdly chose the most widely planted, highly subsidized US crops to grace with its new ?Roundup Ready? technology: corn, soy, and cotton.

The pitch was simple and powerful: No longer would large-scale farmers need to worry about weeds. All they would have to do was douse their fields with Roundup, which would wipe out all plant life except the desired crop. Farmers leapt at the technology. It represented a fantastic labor-saving opportunity, allowing them to manage ever-larger swaths of land without having to pay more workers.

Today, Roundup Ready crops blanket US farmland. According to USDA figures, 94 percent of soybeans and more than 70 percent of corn and cotton planted in the US contain the Roundup-resistant gene. Back-of-the envelope calculations tell me that nearly 200,000 square miles of prime farmland?a land mass about two-thirds the size of Texas?now grow crops rigged to flourish amid an annual monsoon of Roundup.

Well, in what is surely the least surprising, most-anticipated major development in the history of US agriculture, farmers are discovering that when you spend years dousing land a single herbicide, ecosystems adapt. Roundup Ready crops, meet Roundup-defying weeds.

Such ?superweeds? have been vexing farmers for several years now, but this season, according to a stark report in Monsanto?s home-town paper The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the problem is galloping out of control. In recent years, farmers have had to supplement Roundup with other, harsher herbicides, subjecting their land to highly toxic chemical cocktails. But now, weeds are developing resistance to the cocktails, too. The Post-Dispatch reports that ?in some areas of the state, certain weeds have become resistant to three herbicides. In Illinois, some weeds have become resistant to four.?

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The problem is accelerating, because the resistant weeds are driving out their non-resistant counterparts, and also cross-pollinating them with the resistant gene, spreading it far and wide:

These weeds adapt faster and more vigorously than their weed cousins, choking fields and clogging irrigation ditches so badly water can?t pass through. ?Pollen can transfer the resistant trait; that?s the problem,? said Kevin Bradley, a weed scientist with the University of Missouri. ?There?s not much we can do about pollen flying through the air, and that?s why we see such rapid spread of resistance.?

Now, as I reported recently, the USDA openly acknowledges the superweed problem and even delivered a pretty good explainer on it in its environmental impact statement (PDF) on Roundup Ready alfalfa. Yet it keeps deregulating or choosing not to regulate at all new Roundup Ready crops, all of them quite widely planted. This year alone, the agency has green-lighted Roundup Ready versions of alfalfa (a major cow feed); sugar beets (source of half of US sugar), and most recently, Kentuckey bluegrass (popular lawn turf). These dubious USDA decisions will likely bring millions more acres?including lawns, parks, and golf courses near you?under the Roundup Ready domain. From the USDA?s perspective, superweeds?and the toxic cocktails they call forth upon the to land?are simply something we have to live with.

As for farmers, crop prices are high enough?thanks, ethanol!?that they?re still eking out a profit despite having to buy and spray the extra herbicides, the Post-Dispatch reports. And in many cases, Monsanto?s market dominance is so complete that farmers literally have no other alternative than to buy Roundup Ready seeds. For example, it?s virtually impossible to buy non-Roundup Ready sugar beet seeds.

As for Monsanto, well, as I reported Tuesday, Roundup sales are booming. The company expects to clock $700 million in profit from that product alone this year. And it has a plan for complaints about Roundup resistance. It will develop crops resistant to other poisons, creating whole new cycles of profit and ecological destruction. The Post-Dispatch reports:

There is, however, some hope in the pipeline. Monsanto is working on developing soybeans and cotton that are resistant to the chemical dicamba. The cotton could be on the market within three years.

Dicamba is a truly nasty poison?it makes the Pesticide Action Network?s ?bad actor? list, and is classified as a ?developmental or reproductive toxin.

Meanwhile, Roundup?s status as a relatively benign agrichemical poison is coming under withering attack. The latest: in a report last month (PDF) the European NGO Earth Open Source delivered an impressive body of evidence that Monsanto?s flagship herbicide causes ?endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, neurotoxicity, and cancer, as well as birth defects.? Those are explosive claims, given that Roundup and other forms of glyphosate are now the most-used herbicide in the world. I?ll be digging into the report over the next couple of weeks.