Say No To GMOs! logo
February 2008 Updates

Report Raises Alarm over 'Superweeds'

By Brian Hindo
February 13, 2008

Use of herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup is on the rise. As weeds become resistant, environmental activists blame genetically modified crops

It's been 12 years since the first genetically modified crop was sown in the U.S., and controversy has raged since. Now, another salvo has been launched, in the form of a new report from environmental activist organization Friends of the Earth International and the Center for Food Safety, a Washington (D.C.) advocacy group. Called Who Benefits from GM Crops?, the study examines the emergence of "superweeds" that have developed a resistance to conventional herbicides such as Monsanto's (MON) Roundup. The culprits, says the report, are plants like corn, soybeans, and cotton that have been genetically modified to survive Roundup. Farmers can spray their fields and the weeds will die but the crops will thrive.

As more acres of "Roundup Ready" crops are planted, the use of the pesticide has increased. The increased application has led some weeds to develop a resistance to glyphosate, the generic term for the chemical in Roundup. And, in turn, farmers have had to apply stronger doses of pesticide to kill the superweeds.

According to the report, the amount of weed-killing herbicides used by farmers has exploded, rising fifteenfold since biotech crops were first planted. The report lists eight weeds in the U.S. - among them horseweed, common waterhemp, and hairy fleabane - that have developed resistance to glyphosate, the most commonly applied pesticide. The next generations of biotech seeds include some that have been modified to withstand stronger doses of herbicides, while another strategy has been to develop tolerances to different herbicides and to combine multiple types of resistance in the same seed. "It's a chemical arms race against these weeds," says Bill Freese, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety and a co-author of the report.

Monsanto profit forecast up

In response, Monsanto said in an e-mailed statement: "The Friends of the Earth report makes numerous inaccurate and false claims. Information sources cited are rarely from peer reviewed scientific journals or research and are not representative of actual impacts." Apropos weed resistance, the company said, in part, "Monsanto takes product stewardship and claims of resistance to glyphosate very seriously . . . Monsanto also sponsors internal and external research to understand the various aspects of glyphosate-resistant weeds, and research on best management practices in Roundup Ready crops."

The boost in herbicide use is proving to be a financial boon for Monsanto. Its Roundup business was thought to be an albatross, as the pesticide came off patent in 2000 and revenue quickly plunged. Chief Executive Hugh Grant hastened the company's shift away from reliance on Roundup sales to an emphasis on GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds - in particular, commodity crops such as corn and soy, which are the grist for animal feed, food processing, and biofuels. As demand for agricultural commodities has soared in recent years, stoked by growing wealth and changing diets in developing nations, so too have the plantings of GMOs (BusinessWeek, 12/6/07).

But as more seeds with a baked-in resistance to Roundup are planted around the world, it's helping prop up sales of the herbicide. Some 80% of biotech seeds have herbicide-tolerance in them, and the vast majority of those tolerate Roundup specifically. In fact, on Feb. 12, Monsanto Executive Vice-President Brett Begemann told investors at a conference that the company would raise its 2008 earnings guidance, thanks in part to better-than-anticipated Roundup sales. In the company's first fiscal quarter, sales of Roundup and other chemicals jumped 47%. The company expects up to $1.4 billion in gross profit for the year from its chemicals business, Begemann said, which would be a 10% increase from 2007. (Monsanto forecasts $3.5 billion in gross profit from its seeds businesses, a 16% increase.)

Environmental impact unclear

Superweeds are most directly a nuisance for farmers, who have to work harder to tend their fields and spend more on buying and applying herbicides. But the impact reaches consumers, too, argues Freese, as increased levels of chemicals hit plants and can work their way into groundwater. So far, the concerns have not hindered the adoption of biotech crops: On Feb. 13, a biotech industry group, the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, is expected to release its own report showing an uptick in plantings of GMO crops around the world.

But many of the side effects, both actual and potential, continue to stir debate. Companies such as Monsanto, DuPont's (DD) Pioneer, and Syngenta (SYT) must submit environmental assessments to the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) before a biotech plant can be approved for commercial use. Freese argues, however, that more rigorous regulatory evaluations of biotech crops' impact can stave off environmental side effects. In March, 2007, a federal judge in Northern California halted plantings of biotech alfalfa, ruling that the USDA's oversight was inadequate.

For its part, Monsanto said in the Feb. 12 statement: "As part of the petition for deregulation, Monsanto includes information on glyphosate-resistant weeds and Monsanto's weed resistance stewardship program. USDA reviews that information, along with other information such as research journal articles, in preparing their environmental assessment."

Academics have been studying the impact of GMOs, but the research is still nascent. Just last November, the National Academy of Sciences convened a workshop of entomologists, geneticists, biologists, and others to discuss research priorities on how genetically engineered plants and animals impact the environment. The results are expected later in the year.


New Report: GM Crops Increase Pesticide Use

Friends of the Earth International
Media Advisory
February 13, 2008

In 2007 GM crops still failed to tackle hunger and poverty in developing countries

Brussels (Belgium), Lagos (Nigeria), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) - A new report released on February 13th shows that planting genetically modified (GM) crops is causing an increased use of harmful pesticides in major biotech crop producing countries.

The 2008 edition of the Friends of the Earth International "Who Benefits from GM crops?" report series is titled "The Rise in Pesticide Use" and concludes that GM crops on the market today have on the whole caused an increase rather than a decrease in toxic pesticides use, and have failed to tackle hunger and poverty.

After more than a decade of GM crop cultivation, more than 70% of the area cultivated with biotech crops is still concentrated in only two countries: the US and Argentina. To date, GM crops have done nothing to alleviate hunger or poverty in Africa or elsewhere.

"The biotech industry is telling Africans that we need GM crops to tackle the food needs of our population. But how can we believe such statements when the majority of GM crops are used to feed the animals of rich countries, produce industrial products like agrofuels, and overall don\u2019t yield more than conventional crops?", said Nnimmo Bassey of Friends of the Earth Nigeria/ERA.

"GM crops still fail to deliver the long-promised benefits. They are not good for the environment, as they are increasing pesticide use. In addition, they do not benefit small farmers or consumers in terms of quality or price," added Bassey.

The new report launch coincides with the annual release of the "Global Status of Commercialized Biotech" report of the industry-sponsored International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) which promotes GM crops as beneficial for the environment and a key solution to hunger and poverty.

The GM crops industry continues to misleadingly claim that GM crops reduce pesticide use and play a role in tackling poverty and hunger. The main conclusions of the 2008 report "The Rise in Pesticide Use" include :

1) GM crops are not 'green'. The adoption of Roundup Ready (RR) crops, the most extensively grown GM crop today, has led to an increase in pesticide use:

  • In the United States, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that RR crops drove a more than 15-fold increase in the use of glyphosate - the herbicide associated with RR crops - on major field crops from 1994 to 2005. In 2006, the last year for which data is available, glyphosate use on soybeans jumped a substantial 28%. The intensity of glyphosate use has also risen dramatically. From 1994 to 2006, the amount of glyphosate applied per acre of soya rose by more than 150%.

  • The increase in glyphosate herbicide is no longer displacing other herbicides in the US. From 2002 to 2006 the use of 2,4-D \u2013one of the most widely used herbicide in the world- on soybeans more than doubled, and the use of atrazine (an herbicide banned in Europe due to links to health problems) on corn increased by 12 per cent from 2002 to 2005.

  • In major RR soybean producer countries, like Brazil and Argentina, glyphosate use and weed resistance have risen. A 2007 study by a Brazilian governmental agency shows that the use of glyphosate increased 79,6% between 2000 to 2005, much faster than the expansion in area planted with RR soya. In 2007 a glyphosate-resistant weed called Johnson Grass infested over 120,000 ha in Argentina. An estimated 25 million litres of herbicides other than glyphosate will be needed, resulting in increasing production costs of between $160 to 950 million per year. In India, a 2007 study from Andhra University concluded that Bt cotton uses the same amount of pesticides as conventional cotton.

2) GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty. Most GM crops commercialized so far are destined for animal feed, not for food, and none have been introduced to address hunger and poverty issues. GM crops are not providing help to small farmers in developing countries. In South Africa, for example since the adoption of Bt cotton, the number of small cotton farmers have plummeted from 3229 in 2001/02 to just 853 in 2006/07.

3) Overall, current GM crops do not yield more than other existing crop varieties:

  • RR Soybeans, the most widely planted GM crop in the world, does not have a higher yield performance than conventional soya. On the contrary, many studies show that RR soya has on average 5-10% lower yield than equivalent conventional varieties.
  • Bt cotton does not have higher yields than conventional cotton. In most countries where Bt cotton was adopted -such as the U.S., Argentina, Colombia, and Australia \u2013 overall cotton yields remained constant . In other countries, like India and China, the yield increase is mainly due to weather conditions and other production factors not related to GM technology. For example Xinjiang, the Chinese province with the highest cotton production and the highest average yield in China, grows mostly conventional cotton, not Bt varieties.

Documents Available Online

Full Report pdf


Monsanto U: Agribusiness's Takeover of Public Schools

By Nancy Scola
February 15, 2008

I've startled a bug scientist. "Yeah, now I'm nervous," said Mike Hoffmann, a Cornell University entomologist and crop specialist who spends his days with cucumber beetles and small wasps. But he's also in charge of keeping the research funding flowing at Cornell's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. What have I done to alarm him? I've drawn his attention to the newly released FY 2009 Presidential Budget.

Like more than a hundred public institutions of higher learning, Cornell is what's known as a "land grant." Dotting the United States from Ithaca, N.Y., to Pullman, Wash., such schools were established by a Civil War-era act of Congress to provide universities centered around, "the agriculture and mechanic arts." Congress handed each U.S. state a chunk of federal land to be sold for start-up monies, and for the last 150 years, it has funded ground-breaking research on all things agriculture, from dirt to crops to cattle.

The land-grant system has been, in short, a high-yield investment. The scientific research that has come out of land-grant labs and fields have aided millions of farmers and fed millions of Americans. And the land-grant reach doesn't stop at ocean's edge. Oklahoma State, the Sooner State's land grant, says that the public funding of land-grant research "has benefited every man, woman and child in the United States and much of the world."

That was until America's land-grant system met George W. Bush. Tucked into the appendix of his latest national budget is a nearly one-third cut in the public funding for agriculture research at the land grants. The size of the cut is surprising, but not its existence -it's part of a multiyear drive by the Bush administration to completely eliminate regular public research funding. In a press briefing last week, a USDA deputy secretary illuminated the Bush administration's rationale for the transition to competitive grant making: "That's how you get the most bang for the buck."

Wallace Huffman, an Iowa State agro-economist, is deeply unimpressed with Bush's "bang" approach to land-grant research. "There's a sense in the president's office that you invest in research like you invest in building cars," Huffman told me last week. Land-grant school officials are similarly skeptical. In a survey, Kansas State argued that the loss of regular funding would upend education. Minnesota complained that cuts would undermine ongoing research projects. North Dakota simply asked, "What is the future of ag research?"

Good question. A reasonable answer? The future of agricultural research at America's land-grant institutions belongs to biotech conglomerates like Monsanto. And it seems likely that it's a future of chemical-dependent, genetically modified, bio-engineered agriculture.

In stark contrast to how the federal government and many states are wallowing in red ink, the St. Louis-based Monsanto boasted more than $7 billion in annual sales in 2007 -simply the latest in four years of record-smashing profits. And so when our president says that the time has come for public land-grant institutions to get cracking at "leveraging nonfederal resources," you can be sure that Monsanto's ears perk.

But, it doesn't take a presidential invitation to get Monsanto to sink its roots in the land-grant system. Those roots are already planted. Iowa State's campus boasts a Monsanto Auditorium and the school offers students Monsanto-funded graduate fellowships on seed policy with a special focus on "the protection of intellectual property rights." Kansas State has spun off Wildcat Genetics, a side company whose purpose is the selling of soybean seeds genetically engineered to survive the application of Roundup® -the result of a decades long relationship with Monsanto, the pesticide's maker.

But don't get the wrong idea about Monsanto's land-grant activities. By that, I mean, don't think the company is the only multinational biotech conglomerate firmly rooted in American land-grant soil.

Head on down to Texas A & M. There you'll find the a chair for the "Dow Chemical Professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering." Similar chairs exist at West Virginia State and Louisiana State. The agricultural college of the University of California at Davis is funded in part by DuPont and Calgene.

The University of California at Berkeley's Plant and Microbiology Department entered into a $25 million/five-year quasi-exclusive research agreement with the Swiss-based Novartis, which then became Syngenta, which now funds the land-grant research group on soybean fungi. In 2005, Purdue, Indiana's land-grant school, developed an application of the so-called Terminator gene pioneered by Delta Pine and Land Co.; school officials and researchers later took to the hustings when the public resisted the idea of self-sterilizing plants.

But the agricultural industry's relationship with the land-grant system is not an entirely new development. In 1973, former Texas agricultural commissioner and activist Jim Hightower lamented the situation in his landmark report, Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times: The Failure of America's Land Grant College Complex.

But the world of agriculture is today a far, far different place than when Hightower wrote.

For one thing, in the early 1970s Monsanto was still a decade away from genetically modifying its very first plant cell. For another, back then the federal government was still committed to providing steady research funding.

And, importantly, it was neither possible nor profitable for our nation's bastions of higher learning to be players in the global agribusiness. But intervening tectonic shifts in American public policy help us to understand why a public institution like Purdue would fight so darn hard to defend a biotech advance like the Terminator gene: in a manner of speaking, they own the thing.

Jump ahead to 1980, when the U.S. Supreme Court under Warren Burger decided that, as long as they'd been tweaked from their natural state, living organisms from seeds to microbes or Terminator genes could be patented just as if they were a new cotton gin or tractor blade. And in that same year, Congress gave universities a kick towards the marketplace by encouraging institutions to file patent claims on the discoveries and inventions of their faculty researchers -no matter if their work was funded in whole or in part by taxpayer dollars.

The summed effect was that, suddenly, a public institution like Purdue had a great deal of motivation for working with Delta Pine and Land Co. to see if they might make a buck off their biotech invention in the marketplace. What's more, the policy shift made it so individual lab geeks themselves stood to profit, eligible for a large slice of whatever windfall their discovery generated.

As the biotech industry has since exploded, the impact on the land-grant system is perhaps not unexpected. "Researchers want to be at both the cutting edge of science and the cutting edge of the marketplace," says Andrew Neighbour, until recently the director of UCLA's office on the business applications of faculty research. (The entire University of California system functions as that state's "land-grant institution.") And so the advent of patentable and profitable plants (and animals, for that matter) has meant a shift in research focus away new knowledge and towards the creation of marketable products.

The land-grant institutions find themselves in a pickle. "On the one hand," says Paul Gepts, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at UC Davis, schools pushed into the free market have developed the habit of patenting research and found a taste for private business deals. But on the other hand, "they have a public role where the information they produce should be available to all."

As things stand, "public universities," says Dr. Gepts, "are a contradiction."

This embrace of patents and profits means that land-grant agricultural research centers today are not playgrounds of academic collaboration they once were. "Things have changed enormously," says William Folk, a plant geneticist at the University of Missouri. "When I started in the '70s," he recalls fondly, "meetings were filled with people criticizing each other and sharing ideas." But today, he says "if you have an idea that has any potential commercial value, you're reluctant to share."

Not surprisingly, school administrators argue that a negative reading of the cozy relationship between agricultural researchers and biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta is hogwash. When asked, Neal Van Alfen, dean of the UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, acknowledges that about 20 percent of the $165 million annual research budget is contributed by industry. But Dean Van Alfen is quick to add, "It forms just one part of who we work with." Research conducted in conjunction with industry interests, he insists, is simply one chunk of "an awfully large amount of work."

But numbers and percentages don't tell the whole story, because of the way that industry engages in the land-grant system. In short, they skim. Here's how it works: (a) federal and state governments hand over taxpayer money to build and sustain the basic infrastructure, without which research can't hope to take place, then (b) the biotech industry injects some smaller amount of much-needed cash into the system, and then (c) agribusinesses skim off and patent the most promising (and potentially profitable) discoveries that rise to the top.

Still, administrators argue, scientific professionalism keeps industry in check -a researcher who fudges his or her findings to curry industry favor is in for a short career. But that line of reasoning misses the real concern. What's alarming isn't that global agribusiness conglomerates like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and DuPont are getting the answers they want from our land-grant entomologists, agronomists and plant geneticists.

It's that at public institutions, private interests are the ones asking the questions.

What must be kept in mind is that land-grant researchers are generally expected to bring to the table their own research funding, and the situation can already be fairly dire. When UC Davis' Paul Gepts comments on how his institution's support is limited to a base salary, I attempt a lame joke: "They give you a desk too, right?" Yes, he responds, but a phone is another matter.

Faculty researchers are so hungry for funding that, says Missouri's William Folk, "if companies want to entice researchers to work on their projects, all they have to do is wave a bit of money." "The availability of funds, he says, "makes an enormous difference in what we can do."

"We're opportunists," Folk says, with compassion, of himself and his fellow researchers, "we go after money where it might be."

When it comes to how industry-university relations shape academic research, UCLA's Andrew Neighbour is the person to talk to. While an administrator at Washington University in St. Louis, Neighbour managed the school's landmark multiyear and multimillion-dollar relationship with Monsanto. (Note: WashU is a private institution.) "There's no question that industry money comes with strings," Neighbour admits. "It limits what you can do, when you can do it, who it has to be approved by."

And so the issue at hand becomes one of the questions that are being asked at public land-grant schools. While Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, et al., are paying the bills, are agricultural researchers going to pursue such lines of scientific inquiry as "How will this new corn variety impact the independent New York farmer?" Or, "Will this new tomato make eaters healthier?"

It seems far more likely that the questions that multinational biotech conglomerates are willing to pay to have answered run along the lines of "How can we keep growing our own bottom lines?"

I put it to Dr. Folk. "The companies are there to make money, no doubt," he responds.

What suffers for falling outside the scope of industry interest? Organic farming, for one. The Organic Farming Research Foundation was founded in the 1980s after, Executive Director Bob Scowcroft tells me, farmers interested in weaning themselves from chemical dependence approached their local land-grant outreach agents for help for pest management. As Scowcroft tells it, their advice was invariably in the spirit of, "Well, sure, I can tell you what to spray."

OFRF began arming land-grant researchers with modest grants but found that academics interested in conducting organic-related research faced obstacles beyond funding.

"Coming out of the organic closet could be the beginning of the end of your career," says Scowcroft. Looking outside biotech agriculture is, he says, "like throwing 30 years of the Green Revolution in your boss's face." Today, says John Reganold, an OFRF grantee and apple researcher at Washington State University, academics interested in organic farming "just don't have the money to do what we need to do."

Also the subject of minimal industry attention: so-called orphan crops, like sorghum and cassava, which feed millions of people in the developing world but aren't considered patentable or profitable. UC Davis' Paul Gepts is working to breed a disease-resistant variety of the East African common bean, an important protein source for AIDS sufferers. He's turned to an English charitable group for funding, and all involved have agreed to resist patenting the plant -once a useful variety is developed, the science will be left in the public domain.

While it's clear that funding cash is the carrot used by agribusiness to entice researchers into asking the questions industry is most interested in having answered, there is a stick involved: corporately held patents used to block them from asking others.

That's certainly been Paul Gepts's experience, when he thought he might tackle the question of gene transfer in Mexican maize varieties. The question, though, is a sensitive one for Monsanto, as one of the arguments against transgenic crops is the difficulty in containing their spread -raising the specter of a threat to the world's biodiversity. As the maize he was interested in was patented by Monsanto, Gepts asked the company for some samples. Their response: no way.

When I asked Gepts for his take on Monsanto's motivation for the refusal, I hadn't yet finished the question when he answered: "Avoiding scrutiny," he said. Missouri's Folk seconds the contention that such private claims on science impede research, saying, "Our ability to do science is constrained by the patents held by agribusiness."

All this said, it's not fair to say that there hasn't been resistance against public land-grant schools mutating into institutions of private science. After Novartis had become involved in UC Berkeley's Department of Plant and Microbiology, the school ordered an internal review by the academic senate, which ultimately deemed the relationship "a mistake." Lawrence Busch, a Berkeley faculty member who headed the review said at its conclusion: "I think it is high time for serious discussions of what the devil we want our universities to be."

When Mike Hoffmann -the Cornell entomologist I startled by sharing Bush's proposed budget cuts - recovers from his shock, he offers his take on "what the devil" our universities should be. The principle that should guide Cornell, Berkeley, Missouri and our other land-grant institutions is simple, he says: public funding for the public good. The mission of America's centers of agricultural learning is, he concludes, "to produce new knowledge for the public benefit. That's why we have the land-grant system, and I think it's pretty important."

Nancy Scola is a Brooklyn-based writer who has in the past served as the chief blogger at Air America, an aide to former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, as he explored a run for the presidency, and a congressional staffer on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

top of page