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Super weeds put USDA on hotseat

The U.S. Congress got an earful from farmers, university researchers and pro-food groups during the first round of hearings into the increase in super weeds, deemed so because some are becoming resistant to multiple modes of actions and families of chemistries used in popular herbicides.

Eyes and ears for the U.S. House of Representatives in the case of super weeds is the Domestic Policy Oversight Subcommittee. The late July hearings were called to evaluate the impact of genetically engineered, herbicide-resistant crops on the environment and on the abundance and quality of the U.S. food supply.

The congressional committee is chaired by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). The hearings are titled “Are Superweeds an Outgrowth of USDA Biotech Policy?”

Indiana farmer Troy Roush, who was the target of a 2000 suit brought forth by Monsanto, gave a scathing indictment of GM plants. The suit was dropped by Monsanto, but Roush says he and his family spent two years fighting it.

In his testimony to the House sub-committee, Roush documented the development of glyphosate resistant weeds on his 5,500-acre family farm.

“In 2005, we first began to encounter problems with glyphosate resistance in marestail and lambsquarters in both our soybean and corn crops. Since there had been considerable discussion in the agricultural press about weeds developing resistance or tolerance to Roundup, I contacted a Monsanto weed scientist to discuss the problems I was experiencing on the farm and what could be done to eradicate the problematic weeds.

“Despite well documented proof that glyphosate tolerant weeds were becoming a significant problem, the Monsanto scientist denied that resistance existed and instructed me to increase my application rates,” the Indiana farmer reported.

“The increase in application rates proved ineffectual, and I was forced to turn to alternative methods for weed management including the use of tillage and other chemistry.

“In 2007, the weed problems had gotten so severe that we turned to an ALS inhibitor marketed as Canopy to alleviate the problem in our preplant, burndown herbicide application.

“In 2008 we were forced to include the use of 2,4-D and an ALS residual to our herbicide programs. Like most farmers, we are very sensitive to environmental issues and we were very reluctant to return to using tillage and more toxic herbicides for weed control. However, no other solutions were then or are now readily available to eradicate the weed problems caused by development of glyphosate resistance,” Roush said.

There is little doubt the discovery of genetically altered, target herbicide tolerant plants has made billions of dollars for U.S. farmers. Few can argue whether the management decisions on farms across the U.S. have been made easier by having this technology.

In fact, the ease of operation has made good land out of marginal land and some contend, good farmers out of fair farmers. Again, there is little doubt that the introduction of Roundup Ready cotton has allowed growers to expand their acreage — a reality that is coming back to bite some large farmers who are having problems managing weeds with resistance to multiple families of herbicides.

Roush, who is also vice president of the National Corn Growers Association, says bigger farms with multiple herbicide resistance problems are in great danger.

“The increased ease of use and convenience of herbicide tolerant crops enabled many farmers to significantly increase crop acreage which helped to offset higher production costs and, in some cases, lower yields. Biotech companies encouraged farm expansion by offering discounts for buying seed in bulk.

“The advent of glyphosate tolerant weeds necessitated the return to using tillage for weed control, eliminating the time savings that was initially afforded by using biotech crops.

“Farmers who expanded farm size are now finding it difficult, if not impossible, to manage the larger operations now that additional time is required for weed management,” the Indiana farmer said.

The driving force behind the congressional look into super weeds is the Center for Food Safety (CFS), which is a project of the International Center for Technology Assessment (ICTA). CFS is headed by Andrew Kimbrell, who was mentored by Jeremy Rifkin at the Foundation on Economic Trends.

For sure there is plenty of ammunition to be fired by both sides: Corn (85 percent of U.S. production is GM), soy (91 percent GM), cotton (88 percent GM), canola (85 percent GM) and sugar beets (95 percent GM) are all genetically engineered to withstand large amounts of glyphosate herbicide. Since the introduction of Roundup Ready technology yields per acre have gone up and continue to increase, especially for corn and soybeans.

Worldwide the adoption of GM products is astounding. The latest figures come from 2008, at which time herbicide tolerance deployed in soybeans, corn, canola, cotton and alfalfa occupied 63 percent, or roughly 200 million acres of the global biotech area of 325 million acres. HT soybeans are currently grown mostly in the United States, Argentina, Brazil, and other South American countries, accounting for 70 percent of worldwide soybean production.

Insect resistance to GM products, primarily based on different genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis worldwide is estimated at 50 million acres. These Bt genes control the European corn borer, the corn rootworm, different stemborers, and bollworm and budworm in cotton.

Kimbrell, an attorney and founder of the watchdog group Center for Food Safety, testifying before the House Subcommittee, laid much of the blame on development and proliferation of super weeds at the feet of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The history of USDA’s oversight of genetically engineered (GE) crops is littered with failures. The Government Accounting Office (GAO), the USDA’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), and the federal courts have repeatedly condemned USDA for oversight deficiencies and inadequate management,” Kimbrell testified.

“Regulation of GE crops has in part been defined by judicial decisions in lawsuits brought by CFS and others on behalf of farmers, consumers, and environmental groups. American agriculture cannot afford such “regulation by litigation,” an approach that has become standard operating procedure at USDA,” Kimbrell said.

In response to the testimony from farmers, watchdog groups and university scientists, Rep. Kucinich said, “the Agriculture Department (USDA) has been too quick to approve new varieties of herbicide-tolerant crops and other biotech products.

“Now, more than ever, farmers need to have a Department of Agriculture that takes care to preserve and protect the farming environment for generations to come,” Kucinich concluded.

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TAGS: Cotton
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