By Tom Philpott
Monsanto’s ongoing humiliation proceeds apace. No, I’m not referring to the company’s triumph in our recent “Villains of Food” poll. Instead, I’m talking about a Tuesday item from the Des Moines Register’s Philip Brasher, reporting that Monsanto has been forced into the unenviable position of having to pay farmers to spray the herbicides of rival companies.
If you tend large plantings of Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” soy or cotton, genetically engineered to withstand application of the company’s Roundup herbicide (which will kill the weeds — supposedly — but not the crops), Monsanto will cut you a $6 check for every acre on which you apply at least two other herbicides. One imagines farmers counting their cash as literally millions of acres across the South and Midwest get doused with Monsanto-subsidized poison cocktails.
The move is the latest step in the abject reversal of Monsanto’s longtime claim: that Roundup Ready technology solved the age-old problem of weeds in an ecologically benign way. The company had developed a novel trait that would allow crops to survive unlimited lashings of glyphosate, Monsanto’s then-patent-protected, broad-spectrum herbicide. It was kind of a miracle technology. Farmers would no longer have to think about weeds; glyphosate, which killed everything but the trait-endowed crop, would do all the work. Moreover, Monsanto promised, Roundup was less toxic to humans and wildlife than the herbicides then in use; and it allowed farmers to decrease erosion by dramatically reducing tillage — a common method of weed control.
There was just one problem, which the Union of Concerned Scientists pointed out as early as 1993, New York University nutritionist and food-politics author Marion Nestle recently reminded us. When farmers douse the same field year after year with the same herbicide, certain weeds will develop resistance. When they do, it will take ever-larger doses of that herbicide to kill them — making the survivors even hardier. Eventually, it will be time to bring in in the older, harsher herbicides to do the trick, UCS predicted.
At the time and for years after, Monsanto dismissed the concerns as “hypothetical,” Nestle reports. Today, Roundup Ready seeds have conquered prime U.S. farmland from the deep South to the northern prairies — 90 percent of soybean acres and 70 percent of corn and cotton acres are planted in Roundup Ready seeds. Monsanto successfully conquered a fourth crop, sugar beets, gaining a stunning 95 percent market share after the USDA approved Roundup Ready beet seeds in 2008. But recently, as I reported here, a federal judge halted future plantings of Roundup Ready beets until the USDA completes an environmental impact study of their effects.
Given what happened to other Roundup Ready crops, it’s hard to imagine that the USDA can come up with an environmental impact study that will exonerate Monsanto’s sugar beet seeds. Today, there are no fewer than 10 weed species resistant to Roundup, thriving “in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres,” The New York Times recently reported. And the ways farmers are responding to them are hardly ecologically sound: jacked-up application rates of Roundup, supplemented by other, harsher poisons.
And as Monsanto’s once-celebrated Roundup Ready traits come under fire, there’s another Roundup problem no one’s talking about: Roundup itself, once hailed as a an ecologically benign herbicide, is looking increasingly problematic. A study by France’s University of Caen last year found that the herbicide’s allegedly “inert” ingredients magnify glyphosate’s toxic effects. According to the study, “the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death” at levels commonly used on farm fields.
Moreover, the annual cascade of Roundup on vast swaths of prime farmland also appears to be undermining soil health and productivity, as this startling recent report shows.
Meanwhile, the endlessly repeated claim that Roundup Ready technology saves “millions of tons” of soil from erosion, by allowing farmers to avoid tilling to kill weeds, appears to be wildly trumped up. According to Environmental Working Group’s reading of the USDA’s 2007 National Resource Inventory, “there has been no progress in reducing soil erosion in the Corn Belt since 1997.” (The Corn Belt is the section of the Midwest where the great bulk of Roundup Ready corn and soy are planted.) “The NRI shows that an average-sized Iowa farm loses five tons of high quality topsoil per acre each year,” EWG writes.
In short, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready technology is emerging as an environmental disaster. The question isn’t why a judge demanded an environmental impact study of Roundup Ready sugar beets in 2010; it’s that no one did so in 1996 before the technology was rolled out. After all, the Union of Concerned Scientists was already quite, well, concerned back then.
In a better world, farmers would be looking to non-chemical methods for controlling weeds: crop rotations, mulching, cover crops, etc. Instead, they’re being paid by Monsanto to ramp up application of poisons. Perhaps the USDA’s main research arm, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will rise to the occasion by funding research in non-chemical weed-control methods? Not likely, since the Obama administration tapped a staunch Monsanto man to lead that crucial agency.
But instead of true innovation, we have the spectacle of Monsanto paying farmers to dump vast chemical cocktails onto land that not only feeds us, but also drains into our streams and rivers.