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.

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