Not so fine down on the farm

2013-07-01 00:00

NOT so long ago, a very big company genetically modified (GM) some crops so that they were resistant to a weed killer that the very big company had made. Half the people in the land cheered and said this was the start of a whole new way of farming. The other half booed and said that these plants were dangerous, and they didn’t want anything to do with them.

One by one, farmers went to the co-op and bought the seeds. And the very big company was very happy, because that meant the farmers would be buying a whole lot of its glyphosate to spray the crops with.

It’s been 15 years since glyphosate-resistant corn was introduced. Recently, some disturbing news has emerged about the consequences of using a herbicide with gay abandon. In May this year, it was reported that a survey of Canadian farmers indicated resistant weeds on just under half a million hectares of farmland. In January, Straus AgriMarketing said: “The problem is also intensifying, with multiple species now resistant on an increasing number of farms. U.S. farmers told us that [25 million hectares] of crop land are infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds, almost doubling since 2010.”

Nature wrote (in an article that was positive about GM crops): “Glyphosate-resistant weeds have now been found in 18 countries worldwide, with significant impacts in Brazil, Australia, Argentina and Paraguay.”

Is this the fault of the very big company, or of GM crops? No! It is, we are now being told, the fault of the farmers.

“This problem arises because farmers are not following the recommendations of scientists and commercial companies. It is the misuse of this technology … that is the issue,” according to a letter writer in a daily newspaper recently.

Nature pointed out that the silly farmers had abandoned their wise practices in favour of liberal splashes of glyphosate. “Farmers had historically used multiple herbicides, which slowed the development of resistance. They also controlled weeds through ploughing and tilling … The GM crops allowed growers to rely almost entirely on glyphosate … Farmers planted them year after year, without rotating crop types or varying chemicals to deter resistance.”

Even the very big company now recommends a mix of herbicides and the use of ploughing to fight resistance developing in weeds. But these crops were originally sold to farmers on the basis that they had lower production costs and meant less use of herbicides. Between 1996 and 2011, according to Nature, herbicide-tolerant cotton reduced herbicide use by 6,1%, so that’s great for a planet staggering under the impact of commercial agri-chemicals.

But those wins aren’t going to last. A study by David Mortensen, a plant ecologist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, predicts that “total herbicide use in the United States will rise from about 1,5 kilograms per hectare in 2013 to more than 3,5 kilograms per hectare in 2025, as a direct result of GM crop use.”

That’s more than double.

So now all the very big companies are desperately working on new crops that will be resistant to a whole new generation of herbicides, and we’d all better practise more sustainable farming, such as ploughing and applying a bouquet of herbicides, rather than just one.

This is one of those subjects that people are very black-and-white about. You’re either pro-GM or you’re anti it. “For both sides, GM foods seem to act as a symbol: you’re pro-agribusiness or anti-science,” wrote Bryan Walsh in Time magazine in May.

Nobody seems to understand or believe me when I say I’m neither. I have always thought that the technology holds immense promise. But ever since I asked a scientist (a decade ago) if scientists really understand the long-term consequences, and she shouted: “We’ve given you 90-day trials, what more do you want?”, I’ve been rather concerned about such a powerful technology being planted so widely without very long-term testing.

And franken-food fears aside, the development of super-weeds is a very concerning unintended consequence. Do we really want to go down the road of never-ending biological warfare?

I’d like to see less of an eggs-in-one-basket approach. Let’s put research and funding into upping our game in food production and distribution in other ways. After all, we don’t have to rely on GM crops to feed the world. If we worked to cut food wastage and improve distribution, I’m told we’d have a glut of food. Oh, and let’s stop blaming the farmers for creating weed resistance. — Fin24.

• Mandi Smallhorne is a journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.