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Herbicide-tolerant traits vital for agriculture

Palmer pigweed has always been a ‘super’ weed. Even before Roundup, the weed was resistant to at least three conventional herbicide modes of action. Roundup Ready is such a miracle technology it was overused it and now Palmer pigweed is resistant to one more herbicide mode of action. The foreseeable future for agriculture, however, remains in herbicide-tolerant traits.

It is interesting to watch advocacy groups, which have a much different agenda than farmers, getting politically involved in the issue of herbicide-resistant weeds. One general message being put forth — and some in Washington are jumping on the bandwagon — is, “we told you so… GMO crops have created the super weeds we warned of!”

I hate to disappoint them, but in the case of Palmer pigweed it has always been a super weed. However, it was just beginning to become a driver weed (one that determines what the weed control program will be) when Roundup Ready came along in the mid 1990s. At that time it was primarily a problem on the thin sandy soils where crops drought stress quickly.

Even then, Palmer pigweed had developed resistance to at least three of our conventional herbicide modes of action. They were on the verge of putting soybean farmers who had the problem out of business.

Thank goodness a GMO technology — Roundup Ready — came along. Without it, I can not totally visualize what farming would look like in the United Statesthese 15 years later, but I am confident it would be ugly. When we look back, Roundup Ready is such a miracle technology we have overused it and now we have Palmer pigweed resistance to one more herbicide mode of action. The difference is this mode of action represents the best herbicide technology most of us will see in our lifetimes.

Now Palmer pigweed has moved from the isolated areas of 15 years ago to becoming the driver weed across the South. It is back on the verge of putting people out of business if we do not get smarter in our weed control programs.

While I think their views are wrong, I do not fault the anti-GMO folks for standing up for what they believe in. We do not all think alike.

I am somewhat perplexed though to see some of the groups who should be representing farmers trying to skirt the GMO or herbicide traits issue. It is like some of these groups want the technology for farmers while trying to be politically correct and not wanting to talk about it.

It is going to be very difficult to represent the best interest of agriculture and appease people who view things much differently at the same time. I have never been one to straddle the fence and have low tolerance for folks who do. Farmers and agriculture in general are going to need strong voices on herbicide resistance issues, and the tools needed to manage resistance.

Unless there is miracle conventional herbicide technology that I do not know about, and unless the herbicide industry suddenly retools and starts cranking out herbicides, our foreseeable future is in herbicide-tolerant traits. No crystal ball or rocket science is required to come to that conclusion.

This means getting new traits and also stacked traits. If we are not going to get new herbicides, we have to create crops tolerant to the herbicides we have. Our weed control programs have been built on herbicide-tolerant traits since 1995. That is not going to change in our lifetimes.

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