Resistant Weeds According to Monsanto—Less than Half the Story

, former senior scientist, Food and Environment | March 14, 2012, 2:55 pm EDT
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The harm to agriculture from pests that have developed resistance to the premier products of the biotech industry—crops containing Bt insect toxins or immune to the herbicide Roundup (containing glyphosate)—has been receiving well justified attention recently. The problems resulting from this rising tide of resistance are serious, from loss of conservation tillage that preserves soil fertility, to increased use of older, more toxic herbicides, and greater use of insecticides. Herbicide resistant weeds in particular, now infesting millions of acres and spreading like a rash, are having real impact on farmers.

Spraying pesticide onto apple trees. USDA photo by Keith Weller.

But pest resistance also raises important questions about the harmful influence of the biotech industry over regulators. It is not incidental that resistance is rapidly increasing to pesticides used on GE crops. It is due in large part to the unprecedented use of the herbicide glyphosate on these crops, and the high use of Bt, which drives pest resistance. But resistance is is also due to bad policies that are the result, in part, of regulators listening too closely to industry.

In a post about increasing insect resistance to Bt, Dan Charles covers some of this important back story about these crops. But a recent NPR post by Charles on herbicide resistant weeds leaves out some of the important reasons why we are facing these problems. That post briefly revisits the history of weed resistance to glyphosate herbicide. Unfortunately it gives a one-sided version of what has occurred, relying solely on Monsanto sources to explain why the company got it so wrong when they predicted that weeds were highly unlikely to develop resistance to glyphosate.

So let’s fill in a few of the blanks.

First, to hear Monsanto interviewees tell it, one would think that there was unanimity among scientists at the time that resistance was as unlikely as the sun failing to shine.

To the contrary, weed scientists like Stephen Powles and colleagues noted back in 1998—two years before the first resistant weeds appeared in glyphosate-tolerant crops—that precautions should be taken to prevent glyphosate resistance. Powles and his colleagues wrote that “It would be prudent to accept that resistance can occur to this highly valuable herbicide and to encourage glyphosate use patterns within integrated strategies that do not impose a strong selection pressure for resistance.”

Industry Roadblocks

The reasons why Powles’ recommendations were not enacted are complicated. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been hesitant about requiring resistance management. But it did so for Bt crops with considerable success, because it considered Bt to be a special social good. Weed scientists, though, have a similar view of glyphosate, with some calling it a once in a century chemical.

EPA’s reticence does not prevent the industry from proactively preserving useful chemicals, and it could be argued that it would be in their interest to maintain sales of these products as long as possible. But all means for reducing resistance in weeds involve using less of a herbicide now, and more of other types of weed control, and to sacrifice some short-term profit for longer-term sustainability. And that is something companies such as Monsanto or DuPont don’t like to do. Companies discount the future value of products compared to current value and profits. For example, future sales are often reduced by competitors coming into the market with their own products. So companies view this as a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” situation. Using sustainable practices also does not consider the pressure for high short-term profits by publicly held companies.

Monsanto’s efforts over the years have actually been just the opposite of good stewardship and the sustainable use of glyphosate. It has actively argued, for example through advertisements to farmers, to keep the herbicide spray nozzles wide open rather than advocating practices that could have forestalled or reduced the rise of resistant weeds. Because of this, the company was taken to task by numerous weed scientists.

This is a crucial piece of the story, because it demonstrates one more reason why we need effective and strong regulatory policies to protect the public good. And why we need to listen less to companies and more to independent scientists.

Charles’ story ends by quoting his Monsanto sources saying that even if resistance may have been predictable (it was!), perhaps nothing could have been done about it. This ignores the largely successful resistance management of Bt under the direction of U.S. EPA, which could have served, very broadly, as a model for glyphosate-resistant crops. EPA even had an internal process to develop a voluntary resistance management system for pesticides that was ultimately scuttled by industry. It also ignores the pleadings of weed scientists over the years to take actions, which were well known, to slow resistance. Although there have been some serious failings with the program for Bt, such as poor compliance or EPA caving in to industry requests for a watered-down program, scientists credit it with delaying or preventing resistance of several insect pests.

Protecting Sales Instead of the Public Good

The best resistance management involves using long crop rotations, cover crops, mulches, and similar practices, along with minimal use of pesticides where needed. This greatly reduces pest numbers, is highly productive, and can be economically successful. These practices are being advocated more and more by mainstream scientists.

But you won’t hear this discussed by the Monsanto employees interviewed by Charles. These ecologically sound practices would, by design, drastically reduce amount of pesticides used. So these practices would work directly against the narrow interests of companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, or Bayer, that dominate the pesticide and GE seed industries, and wield undue influence over regulators.

Agroecological farming might also threaten the economic viability of genetic engineering. Development of an engineered crop trait is very expensive, about $136 million on average according to a recent industry report. That is one reason why most GE crops so far are big-acreage row crops like corn, soybeans, and cotton. But the value of many of these traits would be greatly reduced when used in truly sustainable agroecological systems, because pest infestations would be much lower and cause much less damage. It would be hard for companies to charge farmers the very high prices for seed they do now, because they would have less value where pests are less of a problem. And without those high prices, it is unclear whether the companies could afford to develop these seeds.

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  • Elisa Trimble

    @Farmer Green Jeans In fact the Rodale trials show that after a transition period, organic yields for some major crops outstrip conventional. In drought years, the yield gain over conventional is dramatic. So that’s not “neutral” performance, that’s better. Also there are studies showing returns from organic farming are better than from conventional. So when it comes to making a living, maybe organic is the better choice.

    BTW I find your accusations that Gurian-Sherman is “peddling hate” and “slandering” farmers libelous as well as off the mark logically. It also has the unfortunate effect of making the anti-Gurian-Sherman arguments look like the products of pathologically unbalanced minds rather than science and logic.

    • Doug

      Elisa, you are right that organic can be as or more productive than conventional agriculture, and many studies have shown this. It can also be somewhat less productive. I am confident that if anywhere near as much research effort was applied to organic and other sustainable agricultural systems, they could consistently match or exceed conventional agriculture in productivity.

      The importance of our research infrastructure in making agriculture productive and economically viable is often not understood. We have been pouring many billions of dollars over the decades into making industrial agriculture more productive and efficient, while largely ignoring sustainable ag.

      But in addition to productivity, methods used in organic and other ecologically based agriculture systems have been shown over and over to have huge benefits to the environment, such as keeping our water cleaner. I discuss these in previous blog posts and reports, as have many others. These societal benefits are potentially worth many billions of dollars every year, but because they fall outside a farmer’s balance sheets, the are largely ignored.

  • Monsanto it is always Monsanto. What this company has done to all population groups on this planet is incredible. Everyone reporting on them and following their tracks finds a trail of neglect, irresponsibility and a lack of concern for the toxins they have added into the global environment- hiring people and paying experts off to pass products that are harmful.

    This company I have come to call “The Devil’s Company Incarnate” or the company sent from Hell to single handedly poison the environment if the devil needed anyone worthy enough to do his bidding this is the one as this company really makes decisions that only effect their profitable bottom lines no matter what harm it does to anybody else.

    • Doug

      Thanks for the comment. Monsanto has been more aggressive than other biotech companies in trying to convince the public that GE is the way to go, that they are the Farmer’s friend, and so on. They have also spent more on lobbying the federal government for policies favorable to it, and tried to weaken out regulation of GE. They are active in countries like India to try to pry open their markets. This is why we recently posted our web feature outlining how Monsanto’s approach to agriculture is not truly sustainable ( ).

      But it is important to remember that Monsanto merely represents an industry that also has several other very large and important companies–DuPont, Dow, Syngenta, Bayer and a few others–that back similar policies. This “agro-industrial complex,” as in other parts of our economy such as the Wall Street financial sector, has undue influence over the direction of agriculture, and is taking us down some harmful paths.

      So while Monsanto is often especially culpable, it is more important to address the problems with the system that Monsanto is part of by trying to get federal legislation like the Farm Bill better serve small and mid-sized farmers growing diverse crops, organic farming, and more sustainable systems for large crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, and so on. It is also important to support types of agriculture that are the antithesis of the Monsanto vision–e.g farmer’s markets, food co-ops, and CSAs, to try to convince your elected officials to do the right thing, and support groups like UCS and others that are trying to change the current system.

  • J. L. T.

    Agroecological farming is an unlikely “economic threat” to anything except maybe a Renaissance Faire gardening exhibit. See, to be a “threat” it would have to be proven economically competitive…and effective…and practical…and successfully demonstrated at commercial scale under real-world conditions. If you could do that agroecological farming would not be perceived as a “threat” at all; it would be hailed as a breakthrough and it would be adopted at a furious pace. None of that is happening, and it never will so long as agroecologists are all trash talk and no demonstration walk. Oh sure, blame unfair farm subsidies (I read your mind, eh? Your schtick is that predictable).

    • Doug

      @ J.L.T.
      One form of agroecological farming, organic, is the fastest growing sector in the country, although still small. At tens of billions of dollars revenue per year, I would say it is quite successful economically. But there are many studies, including by scientists at universities working with farmers, that show that agroecology works, and is as productive (or more so, especially long term) than industrial monocrop agriculture. In fact, there are many studies showing that corn yields are routinely higher in crop rotations than continuous corn-on-corn. These farms and studies also show that these practices can be profitable.

      There are a range of agroecologically based practices,such as integrated weed or insect management, and a lot of them have been widely used over the years, so they have been quite practical. In fact, mainstream agricultural scientists, like the 22 entomologists who just signed a letter to EPA, are complaining that these practical methods are being jettisoned for increasingly simplified, and biologically unsound, cropping practices.

      There are a lot of reasons that agroecology is not more widely used. One is that current industrial farming produces a lot of environmental harm in order to achieve its productivity and profits, such as dead zones in coastal waters that hurt fisheries, pollution of lakes and streams that hurt tourism and biodiversity, and so on. But the nature of externalities is that they are outside the market of the entity that produces the problem. There are real economic costs, but the farmer is not the one paying for them. These costs come to billions per year nationally that we pay for as a society, but are not on the balance sheets of farmers using these methods (see for example, for the livestock industry: ). We should not blame the farmers, they are just following their current bottom line. But the system that allows this is a broken one.

      Another impediment to agroecology is that our research establishment has been working for decades at making current forms of industrial ag more efficient. As a scientist who has lots of confidence in our ability to improve technologies, I have no doubt that if a significant part of that effort was devoted to agroecology, it would also gain additional efficiency.

      Another problem is that much farmland is leased year to year, which provides a disincentive for farmers to invest in agroecological practices that built soil fertility that takes years to develop.

      And, yes, subsidies have played a big role. We have paid farmers to grow corn for ethanol, paid them direct payments of 5 billion a year even if they are doing fine, and so on. So yes, predictable or not, that is clearly part of the problem (you could have also predicted that I drive a car and eat several meals a day)

      • Farmer Green Jeans

        Doug, your defensive argument illustrates the problem. You can’t seem to showcase positive results. You trumpet a few neutral performances then really get down to cases with the officially authorized litany of negative talking points.

        Organic farming is, indeed, “small” as you recognize. Steve Savage has made this observation and put it in context. In nearly half a century, farmers haven’t adopted it because in some ways it is only barely as good as conventional, in all other ways it is inferior. Who the hell wants to buy that and try to make a living for their family with it?

        All the rest is nothing more than worn out old cheap shots, the impending end of the world caused by farmers, according to you: “…entomologists…are complaining…”, “…biologically unsound…”, “…industrial farming…”, “…dead zones…”, “…productivity and profit…”, “…efficiency…”, “…subsidies…”, and on and on and on you prattle with the buzzwords. We have heard all the fear talk and guilt talk and hate talk and dreamy fairy tales repeatedly — see, I can recite them as glibly as you.

        It is inexplicable how you think you can bad-mouth farmers and agriculture, then insist they buy your empty promises on a wing and a prayer. You seem plenty thin-skinned when criticized, do you honestly think your professional slandering is eagerly received by working agriculturists? Go peddle your hate to someone else…we want innovative, improved, proven effective methodologies. If those are interesting and fun, so much the better.