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Roundup Risks

Excerpts from Rachel's Environment and Health News #751 Sept. 5, 2002

Two new studies indicate that Monsanto's herbicide, Roundup, is a hormone-disruptor and is associated with birth defects in humans.

Farm families that applied pesticides to their crops in Minnesota were studied to see if their elevated exposure to pesticides caused birth defects in their children. The study found that two kinds of pesticides -- fungicides and the herbicide Roundup -- were linked to statistically significant increases in birth defects. Roundup was linked to a 3-fold increase in neurodevelopmental (attention deficit) disorders. [EHP Supplement 3, Vol. 110 (June 2002), pgs. 441-449.]

A recent test tube study reveals that Roundup can severely reduce the ability of mouse cells to produce hormones. Roundup interferes with a fundamental protein called StAR (steroidogenic acute regulatory protein). The StAR protein is key to the production of testosterone in men (thus controlling male characteristics, including sperm production) but also the production of adrenal hormone (essential for brain development), carbohydrate metabolism (leading to loss or gain of weight), and immune system function. The authors point out that "a disruption of the StAR protein may underlie many of the toxic effects of environmental pollutants." [EHP Vol. 108, No. 8 (August 2000), pgs. 769-776.]

Monsanto, the St. Louis chemical giant and creator of Roundup as well as PCBs, is now a leader in genetically engineered crops. Monsanto sells "Roundup ready" seeds for corn, soybeans, and cotton; wheat and lawn grasses will be next. These are seeds engineered to withstand a thorough dousing with Roundup, which kills weeds without killing the Roundup-ready crops. To make Monsanto's "Roundup ready" seeds legal, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had to triple the amount of Roundup residues that it allows on crops. For years, Roundup has been Monsanto's most profitable product, and genetic engineering has now allowed the firm to sell much more of it. [See RACHEL'S #637, #639, #660, #686, #726.]

For example, a 1999 study of soybean farming in the U.S. midwest found that farmers planting Roundup Ready soybeans used 2 to 5 times as many pounds of herbicide per acre as farmers using conventional systems, and ten times as much herbicide as farmers using Integrated Weed Management systems, which are intended to reduce the need for chemical herbicides.[3,pg.2]

More chemical dangers probably lie ahead as new products of genetic engineering come to market. According to the NEW YORK TIMES, Scotts Company is collaborating with Monsanto to develop Roundup Ready grass for lawns.[4] Children and pregnant women, beware.

[3] Charles Benbrook, "Evidence of the Magnitude and Consequences of the Roundup Ready Soybean Yield Drag from University-Based Varietal Trials in 1998", AgBioTech InfoNet Technical Paper #1, July 13, 1999. Available at

[4] David Barboza, "Suburban Genetics: Scientists Searching for a Perfect Lawn", New York Times July 9, 2000, pg. A1

Rachel's and the Environmental Research Foundation


Monsanto Meltdown

RR Resistant Weeds Threaten Major Cash Impact On Land Values In Us

The US is being hit by Roundup Ready resistant weeds and an independent market research study, which has been discreetly circulating and has been seen by GM WATCH, says Roundup Ready resistance is set to hit the economic value of farmland wiping around 17% off US land rentals. What's more, 46% of the farm managers surveyed in the study said weed resistance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup, is now their top weed-resistance concern.

The report warns, "Suddenly, glyphosate-resistant weeds have become more than an in-season production and profitability issue. They can also affect the long-term value of farmland". It also says, "These survey findings should make both farm managers and landowners take notice" because "The economic consequences are significant" and can represent for landowners "a major loss of cash flow".

Glyphosate is being massively used in North America thanks to Monsanto's GM herbicide-resistant 'Roundup Ready' crops. But there is growing concern among weed scientists and land owners about the emergence of glyphosate-resistance. As the report notes, "The high volume of glyphosate being used across the country as a result of RR technology adoption makes this a very real concern for growers, professional farm managers and the owners of farmland."

Glyphosate-resistant marestail has already been found in Delaware, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio. Marestail (horseweed) is a prolific seed producer and the seeds are easily blown around by the wind so this is a major problem. But the problem doesn't stop there. Glyphosate-resistant rigid ryegrass has been reported in California. Weed scientists in Iowa and Missouri are already testing waterhemp from fields that seem to be showing more tolerance to glyphosate. There are also complaints about marginal control of velvetleaf, ivyleaf morningglory and lambsquarters control with glyphosate.

The latest bad news for Monsanto, which has always promoted Roundup as a way of simplifying farm management issues, comes courtesy of its main rival, the world's largest biotech company, Syngenta, which commissioned the market research study report and has been quietly circulating it to farmers and landowners via its PR company, Gibbs & Soell.

Syngenta hopes to profit from the wave of concern over Roundup resistance as people rush to use extra chemicals, and crop rotations not involving RR crops, to try and head off the build up of glyphosate resistance on their land.

But American famers using Roundup Ready crops could be headed up a cul-de-sac.

According to weed scientists, such as Iowa State University's Mike Owen, it's doubtful whether this kind of resistance management will be viewed as economically feasable at elast in the short term. As Owen told a packed-out meeting of North Central Weed Science Society in St. Louis recently, he expects growers to try and carry on using glyphosate in the same way to try and avoid the extra expense of other chemicals until they are finally forced by resistance to switch to something else. But an article reporting on the Weed Science Society meeting concludes, "With few, if any, new blockbuster chemicals in the pipeline, the question may become whether there will be alternative programs to switch to if glyphosate loses its effectiveness." [see "Glyphosate resistance dominates weed science meetings", Mike Holmberg, Farm Chemicals Editor, Successful Farming December 6, 2002,]

Among the conclusions in the Syngenta report:

  • Specific weed resistance can reduce a farm's rentable value by 17 percent

  • The greatest weed-resistance concern is glyphosate tolerance in RR crops

  • More than half of farm managers placed it ahead of their concerns about weed resistance to atrazine, Pursuit, ALS herbicides or propanil

  • Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of these professional farm managers expect the importance of glyphosate tolerance to increase in the future when determining rental values and land appraisals. "Given the increasing adoption of RR technology in corn,soybeans and cotton,these professional farm managers and rural appraisers felt the importance of glyphosate-resistant weeds will increase in the future.Overall, 63 percent said it will become a bigger problem."

  • Almost half (47 percent)now require practices to manage weed resistance... This is expected to grow to 54 percent in the future

  • Seventy percent said the use of weed resistance-management practices already influence their tenant selection.

The report also looks at western Australia, where weed resistance to herbicides is becoming a big problem for land productivity.

Syngenta's 10-page 'White Paper' describing the research and the results is available as a pdf (requires Acrobat) on line.

Or e-mail your request for a copy of the report to Jennifer McManus of Gibbs & Soell at JMCMANUS@GIBBS-SOELL.COM



A Weed Killer Is A Block To Build On

By David Barboza
New York Times
August 2, 2001

ST. LOUIS - Monsanto jumped headfirst into the future five years ago, when it spun off its old-line chemicals business and rechristened itself a "life sciences" company that used biotechnology to develop genetically altered crops.

After investing billions in that vision - some of it to create bioengineered corn, soybeans and other crops, and some to buy large seed companies - Monsanto is prospering. But not because of any proliferation of genetically modified supercrops, which have been widely accepted in the United States but have come under fire in Europe and Japan.

What keeps Monsanto healthy is Roundup, a chemical herbicide developed more than two decades ago. It is the best- selling agricultural chemical product ever, with $2.8 billion in sales last year; it outsells other chemicals five to one.

The growth of Roundup, which accounts for about half of Monsanto's revenue, is the primary reason that the company reported a solid profit in the second quarter, despite the resistance overseas to bioengineered crops and a depressed agriculture economy that has battered other companies.

Monsanto has maintained and even souped up Roundup's status by forging what analysts say was a brilliant strategy of dropping its price years ahead of patent expiration and tying its use to the early growth of genetically modified crops - crops made to work in tandem with the herbicide.

"It was a classic pricing strategy," said Leslie Ravitz, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. "It was a textbook case. Every 1 percent price drop led to a 2.5 or 3 percent increase in volume."

Monsanto still faces challenges. Roundup's lower price and global dominance mean that it faces difficult growth prospects. And if consumers and regulators here and abroad reject biotech crops, Monsanto and its multibillion-dollar investments would be devastated.

But analysts say the company seems to be positioning Roundup as a hedge against that possibility. And if biotechnology is not dealt a significant blow, Monsanto could become the world's most profitable agriculture company because it would then command 80 percent to 90 percent of its two primary markets - nonselective herbicides and biotechnology seeds. The combination, analysts say, could lead both product lines to reinforce each other, helping Monsanto's seeds dominate certain crops in the same way Roundup does in herbicides.

Even competitors marvel at the growth and size of Roundup. "This is a blockbuster in an industry where a blockbuster is a $200 million product," said Jerome Peribere, vice president for herbicides at Dow AgroSciences. "In pharmaceuticals, a blockbuster is $1 billion; this is like imagining a $10 to $15 billion product."

That is why analysts project double-digit growth for Monsanto over the next few years. It would be a remarkable turnaround for a company whose profits had been weighed down by huge research costs and by the debt that came with buying seed companies in the 1990's. That debt, about $6 billion, helped push Monsanto into a merger with the Pharmacia Corporation (news/quote) in 1999.

Pharmacia swallowed up Monsanto's drug unit, Searle, and its Celebrex arthritis drug - then spun off Monsanto as a separate company after investors complained that Monsanto would weigh down Pharmacia's profits. But since Monsanto's initial offering in October, its shares have jumped about 82 percent. Shares of Pharmacia, which still owns 85 percent of Monsanto, have fallen about 19 percent.

Investors have reacted to two trends: the company's biotechnology seeds are now planted on about 80 million acres worldwide. And Roundup commands 80 percent of the world market in herbicides that do not target specific weeds.

Even more, few competitors are willing to produce a generic version of Roundup, a glyphosate herbicide that kills just about anything green, because Monsanto has protected its market dominance by cutting the price while finding new uses. This built loyalty while reducing the profit that potential competitors could reap by trying to lure away customers.

For example, in 1996 Monsanto began marketing genetically modified crops that were immune to Roundup. The crops, called "Roundup Ready," allow farmers to spray the herbicide on the fields, killing weeds but not the crops.

The company also lowered the retail price of Roundup years before its patent expired in 2000 - dropping it from about $44 a gallon in 1997 to $34 in 1999 to about $28 today. This drove up demand and may have also deterred competitors. At the same time, profits did not suffer; volume gains made up for the price cuts.
"If you look at the period 1994 to 2000, the price decreased 45 percent but our gross profit was up 90 percent," said Hugh Grant, the chief operating officer at Monsanto, which is based here.

Roundup also helped speed the adoption of conservation tillage, a system where farmers do not weed and till the soil before planting; they simply spray weed killer and then plant. Con-till, as it is known, reduces soil erosion, saves fuel and eases wear and tear on farm equipment, not to mention lowering labor costs.

The tillage method is used on about 300 million acres worldwide, and Roundup is used on about two-thirds of those acres.

Monsanto also decided that once its United States patent expired, it would supply its glyphosate molecule to competitors. The drop in the price of Roundup and the size of Monsanto's volume - it produces close to 160 million gallons a year - seemed to deter competitors from building plants because the economics make it difficult to compete.

"They said, 'We'll license you the molecule, and you can buy it, repackage it, do whatever you want. Or you can build your own plant.' " said Jeffrey Peck, an analyst at Bear Stearns (news/quote). "Just about every company they offered it to took the deal."

Monsanto extended its advantage by sharing its regulatory clearances with companies that buy the ingredient from Monsanto rather than make it themselves. That sped up government approval.

The world's biggest agricultural seed and chemical company, Syngenta (news/quote), which was formed last year when Novartis (news/quote) and AstraZeneca (news/quote) combined their agrochemical businesses, has begun to make a glyphosate molecule, but its market share is small. Another competitor, Dow AgroSciences, has set the modest goal of being No. 2 in the market, with 10 percent of glyphosate sales.

Some companies are fighting Monsanto in court. The DuPont Company has filed two lawsuits in federal courts accusing Monsanto of violating antitrust laws by linking the sale of Roundup and Roundup Ready crops and by using incentives and requirements to lock out rivals.

"The pressure Monsanto puts on dealers and distributors makes it very difficult for competitors to sell their own glyphosate products, even when those products are cheaper than Roundup," said John Hinderaker, a lawyer who represents Dupont. A spokesman for Monsanto said the Dupont case is "absolutely without merit."

In any case, analysts said it would be hard to compete with Monsanto on price because it could always cut the cost of the herbicide and make up the difference by raising prices for Roundup Ready seeds. Such seeds, which are protected by patents, account for almost 70 percent of the 70 million soybean acres in the United States.

"They take a lot of the price out of the herbicide but probably put it in the seed," said Ian Heap, who heads the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds in Corvallis, Ore. "And that gets a lot of companies out of the herbicide market."

The question is whether such strategies will continue to pay off. Analysts are betting yes, but there are obstacles. Adoption of the con-till method could slow. And Roundup could be nearing a saturation point - or at least a point where sizable growth is difficult, analysts say.

Industry executives agree. "The problem with Monsanto today is volumes have grown tremendously because of price elasticity, but this growth is coming down," said Mr. Peribere at Dow AgroSciences. "One has to ask whether the horse is out of the barn."

Still, analysts say Monsanto looks substantially better than it did two years ago. The company was reincarnated with a better balance sheet after the Pharmacia spinoff. It sold divisions, cut costs and trimmed its biotechnology ambitions.

Instead of trying to develop biotech versions of a dozen or more crops, it has focused on four: corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton.

Monsanto is pumping about $600 million a year in research and development, far more than any rival. The company knows that Roundup is its past, and perhaps its present. But it is counting on biotech to be the profit generator of the future.

Though costly to research and bring to market, biotech seeds generate large profits once they are licensed. This year, Monsanto is expected to bring in about $400 million from its biotech traits - the technology implanted in seeds to make a plant release an insecticide or resist weed killer.

But do not underestimate the power of Roundup, analysts say. "As the price of Roundup goes down, it's going to open up even more markets," said Andrew Cash, an analyst at UBS Warburg. "Roundup is a blockbuster right now, and it'll get even bigger."


Monsanto Sees Opportunity in Glyphosate Resistant Volunteer Weeds

by David Dechant

(Aug. 3, 2001 - CropChoice opinion) - While some see the unwanted presence of glyphosate resistant volunteer corn plants in a field of RR soybeans (Roundup Ready, resistant to glyphosate) as a problem inherent with relying on the RR system two or more years in a row, Monsanto sees opportunity: just get a patent on the practice of mixing with glyphosate other herbicides having a different mode of action, and on the premixtures thereof!

Never mind the fact that there is nothing novel about the practice of mixing herbicides with different modes of action, as this has been done as long as there have been herbicides. Never mind that nearly any farmer could figure out on his own which herbicides to mix. That doesn't matter to the US Patent Office, as Monsanto is now the proud owner of US Patent no.6,239,072.

The abstract of the two-month-old patent reads as such:

"The present invention is directed to tank mixtures and premixtures of a glyphosate herbicide and a second herbicide to which a first species is susceptible and a second species is resistant. Such tank mixtures and premixtures allow control of glyphosate-susceptible weeds and glyphosate-tolerant volunteer individuals of the first species in a crop of glyphosate-tolerant second species with a single application of herbicide."

This sure flies in the face of the argument that RR crops require only glyphosate or less herbicide for weed control. Because of the presence of weedy glyphosate tolerant corn volunteers, farmers now routinely apply a second herbicide when they are present in a field of RR soybeans. In fact, many times farmers now have do so even if the previous corn crop was not RR, because of cross-pollination from nearby fields of such corn.

In some cases, Monsanto even chips in for the second herbicide, especially when the farmer grows RR corn. Now, it appears Monsanto wants to prevent anyone from mixing on their own the following herbicides with glyphosate, as well as to corner the market for premixtures containing them: Assure, Poast, Fusilade, Select, Pursuit, and Raptor, their generic equivalents, and other non-glyphosate herbicides. It also looks like Monsanto intends the same for controlling glyphosate resistant volunteer wheat and rice plants, too, when they are present in fields of RR soybeans, canola, sugarbeets, or cotton.

Reading the patent description further, the scope of the "invention" broadens:

"Therefore, the scope of the present invention reasonably covers the presently-known glyphosate-tolerant corn, cotton, soybean, wheat, canola, sugarbeet, rice, and lettuce, and any glyphosate-tolerant crop species that may be developed. Also, although the development of glyphosate-tolerant plants by use of conventional breeding without recombinant DNA techniques is currently believed to be highly unlikely, if any such naturally glyphosate-tolerant plants are developed they would fall within the scope of the current invention."

This patent even covers glyphosate resistant crops that don't exist yet and maybe never will!

Reading still further, one finds examples of more combinations of glyphosate volunteer plants that can be controlled in glyphosate resistant crops, as sorghum and peanuts are added to the mix. One can't help but wonder if that includes everything!

At any rate, Monsanto does admit that there could be one limitation to modifying crops to be tolerant to glyphosate: the presence of glyphosate tolerant weeds other than those from tolerant volunteer crop species. But it downplays this, saying "No uncultivated species of weed has been observed to naturally develop glyphosate-tolerance, and the flow of genes for glyphosate tolerance from crop plants to related wild species is not expected to occur."

Perhaps the authors of the patent never saw the numerous reports, a few here on CropChoice, about weeds in certain areas exhibiting an increased tolerance to glyphosate applications. And while there may be no cases of glyphosate tolerant genes jumping from RR crops into weeds, (search for glycines) reports that there already are resistant types of ryegrass, goosegrass, and horseweed in different parts of the world.

Finally, this absurd patent, which reads more like a scam than a description of an invention, shows just how desperate Monsanto is to hang on to its near monopoly in glyphosate, its cash cow for well over a decade.

Monsanto's patent on glyphosate expired last September. However, farmers in the US still pay twice as much for glyphosate as do their competitors elsewhere in the world. That's because all generic startups either have to develop from scratch the required EPA registration data, which takes a long time and a lot of money, or go to the original registrant, Monsanto in this case, and get a license to use its registration data. Of course, they pay dearly for this, with the result they have to overcharge for a long time to pay off the licensing fee.

But someday, the generic competition will become more aggressive. So if Monsanto can no longer monopolize the glyphosate molecule itself, there's nothing better than trying to monopolize the uses of glyphosate and the premixtures, as well as the fix to a problem it caused in the first place, i.e., resistant volunteers. Last of all, thanks to the inept US Patent and Trademark Office for facilitating this scheme, as well as countless others.

Search on patent US patent #6,239,072 at:

David Dechant grows wheat, corn and alfalfa in Colorado

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