The gospel of high-tech genetically modified (GM) crops is not sounding quite so sweet in the land of the converted. A new pest, the evil pigweed, is hitting headlines and chomping its way across Sun Belt states, threatening to transform cotton and soybean plots into weed battlefields.
In late 2004, “superweeds” that resisted Monsanto’s iconic “Roundup” herbicide, popped up in GM crops in the county of Macon, Georgia. Monsanto, the US multinational biotech corporation, is the world’s leading producer of Roundup, as well as genetically engineered seeds. Company figures show that nine out of 10 US farmers produce Roundup Ready seeds for their soybean crops.
Superweeds have since alarmingly appeared in other parts of Georgia, as well as South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, according to media reports. Roundup contains the active ingredient glyphosate, which is the most used herbicide in the USA.
GM protesters demonstrate near the French town of Toulouse in March 2008.
Today, 100,000 acres in Georgia are severely infested with pigweed and 29 counties have now confirmed resistance to glyphosate, according to weed specialist Stanley Culpepper from the University of Georgia.
“Farmers are taking this threat very seriously. It took us two years to make them understand how serious it was. But once they understood, they started taking a very aggressive approach to the weed,” Culpepper told FRANCE 24.
“Just to illustrate how aggressive we are, last year we hand-weeded 45% of our severely infested fields,” said Culpepper, adding that the fight involved “spending a lot of money.”
In 2007, 10,000 acres of land were abandoned in Macon country, the epicentre of the superweed explosion, North Carolina State University’s Alan York told local media.
Had Monsanto wanted to design a deadlier weed, they probably could not have done better. Resistant pigweed is the most feared superweed, alongside horseweed, ragweed and waterhemp.
“Palmer pigweed is the one pest you don’t want, it is so dominating,” says Culpepper. Pigweed can produce 10,000 seeds at a time, is drought-resistant, and has very diverse genetics. It can grow to three metres high and easily smother young cotton plants.
Today, farmers are struggling to find an effective herbicide they can safely use over cotton plants.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Monsanto’s technical development manager, Rick Cole, said he believed superweeds were manageable. “The problem of weeds that have developed a resistance to Roundup crops is real and [Monsanto] doesn’t deny that, however the problem is manageable,” he said.
Cole encourages farmers to alternate crops and use different makes of herbicides.
Indeed, according to Monsanto press releases, company sales representatives are encouraging farmers to mix glyphosate and older herbicides such as 2,4-D, a herbicide which was banned in Sweden, Denmark and Norway over its links to cancer, reproductive harm and mental impairment. 2,4-D is also well-known for being a component of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide which was used in chemical warfare in Vietnam in the 1960s.
FRANCE 24 report: French scientist Eric Seralini says research shows Roundup herbicide is highly toxic to human beings.
Questioned on the environmental impact and toxicity of such mixtures, Monsanto’s public affairs director, Janice Person, said that “they didn’t recommend any mixtures that were not approved by the EPA,” she said, referring to the US federal Environmental Protection Agency.
According to the UK-based Soil Association, which campaigns for and certifies organic food, Monsanto was well aware of the risk of superweeds as early as 2001 and took out a patent on mixtures of glyphosate and herbicide targeting glyphosate-resistant weeds.
“The patent will enable the company to profit from a problem that its products had created in the first place,” says a 2002 Soil Association report.
In the face of the weed explosion in cotton and soybean crops, some farmers are even considering moving back to non-GM seeds. “It’s good for us to go back, people have overdone the Roundup seeds,” Alan Rowland, a soybean seed producer based in Dudley, Missouri, told FRANCE 24. He used to sell 80% Monsanto “Roundup Ready” soybeans and now has gone back to traditional crops, in a market overwhelmingly dominated by Monsanto.
According to a number of agricultural specialists, farmers are considering moving back to conventional crops. But it’s all down to economics, they say. GM crops are becoming expensive, growers say.
While farmers and specialists are reluctant to blame Monsanto, Rowland says he’s started to “see people rebelling against the higher costs.”