The Trojan Horse of Biotechnology

, sr. scientist emeritus, Food & Environment | May 10, 2012, 10:20 am EDT
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I am sitting at my desk looking at a slim report published in March 1990 at the dawn of the crop biotechnology era. On the matte blue cover are pictures of a then-new commercial equation: a small corn plant enclosed in a chemistry flask and a big barrel of herbicide. The report, “Biotechnology’s Bitter Harvest: Herbicide Tolerant Crops and the Threat to Sustainable Agriculture,” * asked whether herbicide-tolerant crops (HTCs) are a wise use of this powerful new technology.

Image of a Trojan Horse

Herbicide-tolerant crops, the Trojan Horse of agriculture. (Photo Source: Darcy McCarty, via Flickr.)

Leafing through “Bitter Harvest” brings to mind Cassandra, the Trojan princess to whom Apollo gave the gift of prophecy and, then, retaliating because she spurned his love, placed a curse on her, ensuring that no one would believe her predictions. Cassandra warned against the gift of the Trojan horse and predicted the fall of Troy, but no one believed her. Instead of avoiding the calamities she foresaw, the Trojans marched forward to disaster.

“Bitter Harvest” looked into the wondrous gift horse of biotechnology—which in the late 1980s was supposed to deliver an agriculture without any chemicals at all—to document at least 30 crop and forest tree species modified to withstand otherwise lethal doses of herbicides. According to the report, 27 corporations had initiated HTC research. Not surprisingly, chemical pesticide companies like Monsanto and Dupont led the pack.

The early proponents of HTC’s understood that tolerant crops would shackle farmers to ongoing herbicide use, but argued that the products would contain “environmentally benign” chemicals such as glyphosate, glufosinate and bromoxynil. “Bitter Harvest” challenged the notion of benign herbicides, noting that their active and so-called inert ingredients were often toxic. More telling, the biotechnology industry was in no way restricting itself to the so-called benign herbicides. Even in the 1980s, researchers were developing crops resistant to the older, more toxic herbicides, including atrazine, metalachlor and 2,4-D.

The report nailed the resistance issue from the get go:  “Once in widespread use, the exchange of herbicide-tolerance genes between the domesticated crops and weedy relatives could ultimately result in the need for more herbicides to control herbicide-resistant weeds” and that increased chemical use would “likely increase the severity and incidence of ground and surface water contamination.”

The Road Not Taken—Sustainable Weed Management

“Bitter Harvest” also pointed to a sophisticated alternative to the HTC treadmill: sustainable weed management—smart combinations of tillage, crop rotation, cultural methods and, yes, in some cases, chemical herbicides. Sustainable weed management can keep weeds down without the inevitable generation of costly new weeds. But the approach is knowledge-dependent and would require a very different research agenda at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With a seemingly miraculous weed control technology at hand, no one seriously considered such an alternative in the early 1990s.

But where would we be if we had developed a scientifically sound, integrated weed management system built around crop rotations, tillage systems and cover crops, and sparing use of chemicals over the last 22 years?

It’s not an easy question, especially without any predictive gifts from Apollo. But one thing is for sure, we would not be facing an inexorable explosion of super weeds and skyrocketing use of the very herbicides the tolerant crops were supposed to replace. And the National Academy of Sciences wouldn’t be holding a national weed summit to respond to this unprecedented crisis in U.S. agriculture.

We now know that inside the Trojan horse of biotechnology are just more herbicides and stronger weeds. The frustration of seeing the future but being unable to change drove Cassandra mad. I can relate.

* The report was produced by the Biotechnology Working Group, an informal coalition of environmental and agricultural groups. The authors were Rebecca Goldburg at the Environmental Defense Fund, Jane Rissler at the National Wildlife Federation, Hope Shand at Rural Advancement Fund International, and Chuck Hassebrook at the Center for Rural Affairs.

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  • Bill F

    Weldon is locked into the notion that integrated weed management that involves any less use of herbicides than is used today is identical to going backwards to the era of 1950s farming, largely before herbicides. First of all, he seems to have missed the point that agriculture IS going backwards right now, thanks to the latest in agricultural science and technology – Roundup Ready crop systems! It is to Weldon’s credit that he did not take Monsanto’s self-serving misinformation (weeds won’t evolve resistance to Roundup) seriously, but many farmers did. That’s why we’re in the place we’re in today, epidemic weed resistance to glyphosate and multiple herbicides, going BACKWARDS to hand-weeding on hundreds of thousands of acres, BACKWARDS to a massive increase in the use of older and more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D and dicamba with crops resistant to them, and BACKWARDS to more tillage. All the sins of the past that he attributes to 1950’s era farming are becoming more and more true of TODAY.

    Contrary to Weldon, integrated weed management is not going backwards, it’s the only way out of the chemical arms race with weeds that did not start with, but is being greatly accelerated by, the herbicide-only approach fostered by herbicide-resistant crop systems. IWM involves more than sparing use of tillage and chemicals. It includes a whole range of practices, like cover crops and intercropping (which physically suppress weeds), good agronomic practices that favor crop over weed (tighter plant spacing, advanced fertilization practices), conservation of weed seed predators, late season control of weed seed to prevent it from entering the weed seed bank (practiced in Australia). There are lots of IWM techniques, some traditional, some newly developed, some modern improvements on traditional practices. There has been practically NO support for research into non-chemiçal weed control, so there are surely many new techniques waiting to be discovered.

    One thing is certain. If American agriculture continues on its present path, with dozens of new herbicide-resistant crop systems, we will have huge increases in use of multiple toxic herbicides, harming human (especially farmer) health and the environment; rapid emergence and spread of multiple herbicide-resistant weeds; more and more crop injury from herbicide drift; and more going “backwards” to greater use of tillage and hand weeding.

  • weldon

    Interesting blog. I farm in Texas. I heard the sales pitch as well and remember them saying we would not develop resistance to round up. I remember thinking hog wash. However, I do use round up and if used properly – not necessarily the way the developers said but with crop rotations mainly and using other control chemicals with different chemistries you can stay away from resistance. I grew up on an organic farm. All farms in the 50s were organic. We had weeds that developed a resistance to the plow. Possession vines (not sure of the technical name for them) and Silver leaf bursadge (sp?) are two of them. Plowing didn’t eliminate them it actually spread them. Johnson grass is another one that has similar characteristics. The idea that organic farming eliminates the pests is silly. They are still there and they still cost yields. Organic farming just puts up with the yield loss and the pest. Nature is very good at evolving and there will be weeds that develop resistance to any control methods if that is the only method used. It applies to treflan, atrazine and plowing. Different control methods must be utilized in order to avoid resistance.
    The question is asked “But where would we be if we had developed a scientifically sound, integrated weed management system built around crop rotations, tillage systems and cover crops, and sparing use of chemicals over the last 22 years?” I can tell you. the spot we were 35 years years ago. Using lots more diesel and hand labor to control weeds and losing yields to the weeds. Just dealing with devastating yield losses due to outbreaks of insects. Because 35 years we ago we were all organic and that is what farming looked like back then. Ya’ll have a nice day.