Monsanto is losing the press

Ah, high summer. Time to read stories about the declining effectiveness of GMO-seed giant Monsanto’s flagship products: crops engineered to resist insects and withstand herbicides.

Back in 2008, I felt a bit lonely participating in this annual rite—it was mainly just me andreporters in a the Big Ag trade press. Over the past couple of years, though, it’s gone mainstream. Here’s NPR’s star agriculture reporter Dan Charles, on corn farmers’ agri-chemically charged reaction to the rise of an insect that has come to thumb its nose at Monsanto’s once-vaunted Bt corn, engineered to contain the bug-killing gene of a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis:

It appears that farmers have gotten part of the message: Biotechnology alone will not solve their rootworm problems. But instead of shifting away from those corn hybrids, or from corn altogether, many are doubling down on insect-fighting technology, deploying more chemical pesticides than before. Companies like or that sell soil insecticides for use in corn fields are reporting huge increases in sales: 50 or even 100 percent over the past two years.

And this, from a veteran observer of the GMO-seed industry who—in my view—sometimes errs on the side of being too soft on it.

The Wall Street Journal’s Ian Berry got the ball rolling early this year with a May reportbearing the evocative headline “Pesticides Make a Comeback: Many Corn Farmers Go Back to Using Chemicals as Mother Nature Outwits Genetically Modified Seeds”:

Insecticide sales are surging after years of decline, as American farmers plant more corn and a genetic modification designed to protect the crop from pests has started to lose its effectiveness. The sales are a boon for big pesticide makers, such as American Vanguard Co. and Syngenta.

All the attention on superinsects has taken the major-media spotlight off of the “superweeds” that have evolved to shrug off copious doses of Roundup, the herbicide that’s supposed to make Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops immune to weed problems. But that doesn’t mean these thug weeds have stopped working their magic. They’re “gaining ground” in Iowa, heart of the US corn/soy belt, reports the Cedar Rapids-based Gazzete. And farmers are responding just as they did in the South, where Roundup-resistant weeds have had been rampant for at least five years: with a chemical deluge. Here’s one of several anecdotes in the Gazzette piece on that illustrate this familiar theme:

Tracy Franck, who farms 2,400 acres in Buchanan County with his dad and son, said they “are putting on more Roundup every year to kill the same amount of weeds.” They, like most other farmers in their area, are also applying a pre-emergent residual herbicide to help control the glyphosate [the active ingredient in Roundup]-resistant weeds that are just beginning to show up in their fields. “We are starting to see some lambs quarter and giant ragweed that are tough to kill,” he said.

(As someone who likes to eat lambs quarter, a delicious, nutrient-dense green, I’m sorry to see it emerge as a target of chemical warfare.)

Meanwhile, Food and Water Watch has just come out with a damning report called “Superweeds: How Biotech Crops Bolster the Pesticide Industry.” The nutshell: the rise of Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton in the mid-1990s has given rise to a boom in use of herbicides.

 

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