Who's to Blame for the Superweed Invasion?

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THE VINE OCTOBER 1, 2010

Who's to Blame for the Superweed Invasion?

On Thursday, the House oversight committee held the second of two hearings on a critical question: “Are ‘Superweeds’ an Outgrowth of USDA Biotech Policy?” Evidently, farmers are up against a Superweed invasion, and it’s not pretty. These mutant, herbicide-resistant plants are choking up to 10 million acres—and growing—of U.S. farmland, and farms have struggled to adapt. Here’s CropLife America’s Jay Vroom: “There is nothing particularly ‘super’ about the weeds that have developed resistance to any particular herbicide.”

So who’s to blame? A key suspect is Monsanto’s Roundup, one of the most widely used weed-killers in the country. In the 1990s, Monsanto developed genetically engineered seeds—such as soybean and corn—that were resistant to Roundup. Farmers started buying the seeds and herbicide en masse and spraying with abandon. The result? A new wave of weeds evolved that were resistant to glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup.

As the congressional hearing explored, the problem may have lay with a glitch in regulatory oversight. USDA regulates the Roundup-resistant crop, while the EPA regulates the herbicide itself. But no one was looking at the unintended effects of the combo becoming so widespread—namely, superweeds. Back in a July hearing, the USDA got hammered by scientists and watchdog groups for being “too quick to approve” biotech products.

Agribusiness representatives proposed at least two solutions to the superweed crisis. There’s the low-tech road: Farmers could go back older tillage techniques to remove weeds. These techniques were replaced by herbicide because they produced a lot of run-off—in hindsight, though, that tradeoff doesn’t seem so bad. But, on the other hand, the industry could develop crops that are resistant to even stronger chemical pesticides than Round-up—chemicals like dicamba and 2,4-D. In other words, create new biotech crops that are essentially resistant to Agent Orange. What could go wrong?

(Flickr photo credit: Ski Le Mono)

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