Contrary to what Monsanto would have us believe, a new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe suggests that pesticide use has been on the rise thanks to the adoption of GMO technology for growing up to 95% of the nation’s corn, soybeans and cotton.
The biotech seed and agrichemical company has a stranglehold on American industrial agriculture, with more than 170 million acres of American farmland taken up for its products, including RoundUp Ready crops that are genetically engineered to survive repeated applications of the company’s RoundUp herbicides. As a result, according to the study, so-called “superweeds” are proliferating and farmers are trying to manage the situation with heavier applications of RoundUp.
What Monsanto Claims
In its campaign against California’s Prop 37 GMO labeling initiative, Monsanto and its cohorts argue that the technology “has been used for nearly two decades to grow varieties of corn, soybeans and other crops that resist diseases and insects and require fewer pesticides.” Likewise, on its website, the company claims that its GMO technology has allowed farmers to “decrease the overall use of herbicides.”
Charles Benbrook, however, author of the new study and research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, “shreds that claim,” as Tom Philpott put it in a piece for Mother Jones.
Counterclaims from the New Study
Between 1996 and 2011, Benbrook found, overall pesticide use increased by 404 million pounds, or about 7%, in the U.S. Bt crops, which contain a gene that make them toxic to crop-destroying insects, have reduced insecticide use by 123 million pounds, but herbicide-resistant crop technology has led to a 527 million pound increase in the application of herbicides.
“By 2011,” Philpott writes, “farms using Roundup Ready seeds were using 24 percent more herbicide than non-GMO farms planting the same crops, Benbrook told me. What happened? By that time, ‘in all three crops [corn, soy, and cotton], resistant weeds had fully kicked in,’ Benbrook said, and farmers were responding both by ramping up use of Roundup and resorting to older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D.”
At the same time, Bt crops are beginning to fail as well and, as Benbrook told Philpott, farmers in the Midwest are being advised to spray additional insecticides to protect them.
Next: Monsanto’s Response to the Study’s Findings
Monsanto’s Response to the Study’s Findings
As of yet, Monsanto has not commented and says it is reviewing the study, which was the first to examine federal data on pesticide use.
In areas where the study may be open to criticism, writes Tom Laskawy for Grist, it’s no fault of Benbrook’s, who had to come up with a model to estimate pesticide use. “It’s the fact that, in 2008, the Bush USDA all but stopped tracking pesticide use. It was supposedly for budgetary reasons — but it is fishy that the last year of USDA data (2006) more or less coincides with widespread adoption of Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready crops.”
Fishy indeed. And yet USDA data is one of very few sources scientists have for studying genetically modified crops. On Grist, Laskawy refers to a 2009 New York Times article that reported some of the ways in which the industry obstructs independent research:
Biotechnology companies are keeping university scientists from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of the industry’s genetically modified crops, according to an unusual complaint issued by a group of scientists.
… [W]hile university scientists can freely buy pesticides or conventional seeds for their research, they cannot do that with genetically engineered seeds. Instead, they must seek permission from the seed companies. And sometimes that permission is denied or the company insists on reviewing any findings before they can be published, they say.
Is Monsanto expected to lay down its arms and concede that, as Benbrook’s study suggests, GMO technology has not reduced but has rather increased pesticide use? Not in the least. Yet, even if it did, it would hardly register as a loss for the agribusiness giant. In the study’s conclusion, Benbrook writes:
A majority of American soybean, maize, and cotton farmers are either on or perilously close to a costly herbicide and insecticide treadmill. Farmers lack options and may soon be advised, out of necessity, to purchase HR crop cultivars resistant to multiple active ingredients and to treat Bt corn with once-displaced corn insecticides. The seed-pesticide industry is enjoying record sales and profits, and the spread of resistant weeds and insects opens up new profit opportunities in the context of the seed industry’s current business model.
It’s Monsanto’s world, and it’s hard to avoid living in it. The biotech industry controls the seeds, the technology, the data, the research and a lot of America’s farmland and food supply. But that’s where initiatives like California’s Prop 37 come in. If it passes this November, consumers can finally choose whether they want to be party to a business built on unethical exploitation.