War of Words over Weeds Could Modify the Verdict on GM Crops
By Chris Benfield
November 24, 2009
American farmers are having to spend more and more money and chemicals fighting "superweeds" created by the rush into genetically modified crops, according to a new report which promises to re-ignite the debate over GM.
It claims that, far from reducing pesticide use, as promised, GM crops are requiring much more - because the saving on insecticide use is outweighed by extra herbicides being thrown at the weeds.
The cost of weed control in the southern states is approaching the point where it will wipe out the benefit of extra yields from GM seeds and the problem is moving north says the report, which was published last week by The Organic Center in Boulder, Colorado.
On the face of it, this is a major challenge to the UK Government, which - supported by the majority of farmers - wants to relax the EU rules to let a bit more GM technology in. Even the GM business admits the accusations would be sensational if true, but it is now challenging them head on.
PG Economics, a consultancy which has previously reported in favour of GM, rushed out a review of it at the weekend which the agribusiness giants are recommending to the media.
It says bluntly: "The Organic Center's assessment is disappointingly inaccurate, misleading and fails to acknowledge several of the benefits US farmers and citizens have derived from use of the technology."
Game on, it seems. The Organic Center is clearly ready for the argument. Its champion, and the author of the report, is its chief scientist, agricultural economist Charles Benbrook, a former US government adviser. He will be presenting his findings in Brussels and London early in December.
His work has been praised by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety in the US, and the Soil Association in this country. But all are essentially anti-GM in the first place, it should be said, as are Dr Benbrook and his employers.
The headline finding is that overall pesticide use has increased dramatically since GM crops were first planted in commercial quantities in 1996 - even though better chemicals mean conventional farms require less. Dr Benbrook says the problem is the big category of GM crops known as RR - meaning Roundup-Resistant.
Roundup, from the international giant Monsanto, is the most popular make of the most versatile weedkiller. However, according to Dr Benbrook, its widespread use has led to fast evolution of weeds which are resistant to the chemicals, so they need more Roundup to kill them, or something else as well. Farmers have got themselves into an arms race with Nature instead of altering their strategies and agribusiness is responding with more technology which, he says, "makes as much sense as pouring gasoline on a fire".
He acknowledges that pest-resistant GM strains have led to a reduction in the use of insecticides. But he says more herbicide on every GM acre means a big overall increase in the weight of chemicals put into the environment. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has failed to notice because of cuts in its pesticide monitoring operation under the Bush administration, he says.
But agribusiness says that in rejecting the USDA figures, Dr Benbrook has made guesses which contradict more reliable research - such as an American Geographical Society finding that rivers in the corn belt were cleaner since GM. They also point out that Roundup has been in use since 1974.
Colin Merritt, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Monsanto, told the Yorkshire Post: "What Dr Benbrook says would be extremely sensational but we say it is extremely wrong. He has made assumptions which cannot be backed up, he has omitted important points and he has confused issues."
But Lord Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association, which will host Dr Benbrook's visit to Westminster on December 3, said yesterday: "This is very significant research and a major blow to attempts to revive GM crops in England."
For the general public, the row at least promises to clarify the arguments. Until now, the GM debate has been largely about theoretical risks versus theoretical benefits. Now both sides have committed themselves to proving or disproving the facts of actual experience.