On October 19, the Des Moines (Iowa) Register reported that U.S.-based global agritech firm, Monsanto, had begun offering first-time rebates for (non-Monsanto made) soybean herbicides, and increased rebates for cotton herbicides, where a growing resistance to its patented Roundup herbicide had become evident.
The rebates are aimed at preventing even more acreage from becoming infested with weeds that have demonstrated superior resistance to Roundup, a glyphosate-based weed killer engineered to be used on Monsanto’s biotech seed varieties called Roundup Ready, which were introduced in 1996 with engineered resistance to Monsanto’s patented herbicide.
This first-time offering on soybean herbicides other than Roundup is clearly an admission, by Monsanto, that its patented herbicide is not only ineffective against certain weeds, but that its increasing use over time may in fact be the impetus behind that resistance.
In fact, as a recent New York Times article pointed out, the resistance may be similar to antibiotic resistance in humans engendered by increasing use of antibiotics over the last five decades – a resistance that has led to deadly strains of bacteria known as MRSAs (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
Whatever the cause, Roundup-resistant weeds like rigid and Italian ryegrasses, waterhemp, goosegrass, plaintain, fleabane, horseweed, ragweed and Palmer amaranth (pigweed) have become particularly difficult to eradicate, most notably in the South, where farmers who grew up relying on herbicides have been reduced to using hoes like generations before them to eliminate weeds.
There, acres of cotton have been added in hopes of greater prosperity, thanks to massive subsidization by the U.S. government (some of which even reaches Brazilian farmers!), and now these same farmers are finding that the dollars they planned on pocketing are being eaten up by costs associated with removing the virtually indestructible pigweed.
So, how prevalent are Roundup Ready crops? Reports suggest that 93 percent of U.S. soybeans, and 80 percent of corn, are bioengineered to be glyphosate-tolerant. For Monsanto, this means half a billion dollars a year – profits that will disappear unless the company can steer farmers to Roundup Ready 2 in the next 4 years (the patent on the Roundup Ready 1 family expires in 2014).
For Monsanto, the increased costs of rebates, which can run to about $12 per acre or more (though Monsanto is only admitting to half that cost), suggest that profit-driven corporations may have overestimated their ability to force Nature into a mold that delivers profit first and food for the world’s hungry second.
The problem with weeds in general is that certain genetically diverse species (ryegrass, amaranth, and ragweed, for example) are more likely to develop herbicide resistance, and those that are already resistant to other types of herbicide are more likely to develop Roundup resistance as well. This is because glyphosate resistance spreads by both pollen and seed.
Scientists now argue that farmers need to adapt to a broader platform of herbicides to compensate for Roundup’s failure. Bill Freese, a chemist with the Center for Food Safety, argues against that, suggesting instead that farmers revert to older practices like cover-cropping, which retard weeds. Otherwise, Freese noted, U.S. crops will face an “herbicide treadmill”, with former herbicide overuse coming back to “kick us in the butt.”
Even at $12 an acre, the rebates would offset no more than 35 percent of the cost of extra weed killers. Monsanto says costs will even out because Roundup is less expensive now. Unfortunately, failure to use effective herbicides has been shown to cut yields; in the case of soybeans, as much as 8 bushels per acre, and it is this drum that Monsanto supporter and weed specialist Michael Owen of Iowa State University is beating when he suggests that the environmental benefits of Roundup-resistant crops will be lost if the weed resistance problem isn’t managed.
The environmental benefits are arguable. In fact, a 2008 report by a consortium of entities including the World Bank, the UN and the World Health Organization, or WHO, concluded that “modern biotechnology would have very limited contribution to the feeding of the world in the foreseeable future.” – an assessment that caused the biotech sector to pull out of the study when they realized they couldn’t foist their agenda on the assembled scientists, government agencies and NGOs.
A 2009 study by the prestigious Union of Concerned Scientists has also concluded that GM crops, such as those provided via Monsanto’s patented seeds, do not provide greater yields than conventional, or natural, seeds. In fact, one current intergovernmental project on GM crops in five African countries has opponents crying foul after similar projects in India and Latin America destroyed local farmers and indigenous food species without providing proof that GM yields were any higher.
Surprisingly, Monsanto is offering the rebates even on competitor’s products. Some say this is astonishingly generous for a corporation whose focus on the bottom line is more than myopic. Others say the move smacks of desperation, as Monsanto begins paying the fiddler for a decade-long dance as a monopoly seed supplier which sues farmers and hounds them out of business even where GM crops are the result of accidental genetic drift (see the case of Percy Schmeiser).
I say it’s karma. If what goes around comes around, Monsanto ought to start watching its corporate back instead of that bottom line.
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