The Trojan Horse of Biotechnology

May 10, 2012 | 10:20 am
Margaret Mellon
Former contributor

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.