More Pesticides than Ever

A new study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe shows that “Roundup Ready” crops have increased agricultural herbicide use by 11%—countering the claim Roundup producer Monsanto makes on its website that “Roundup Ready crops have allowed farmers to conserve fuel, reduce tillage and decrease the overall use of herbicides.” Roundup Ready, genetically modified (GMO) crops have had their DNA altered to allow them to withstand high doses of the glyphosate herbicide Roundup. With this modification, farmers could supposedly spray their entire crops with Roundup, killing only the weeds and leaving the crop alive. Ordinarily, if farmers were to spray Roundup (or any other glyphosate-based herbicide) onto a plant, it would rapidly die.

The study found that when Roundup Ready crops were introduced into the market in 1996, herbicide use did initially decrease by 2% for three years—but “superweeds” quickly sprouted with an immunity to Roundup application and subsequently herbicide use skyrocketed. Chuck Benbrook, research professor at Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources and the study’s author, estimates that Monsanto’s Roundup Ready formulation has resulted in an additional 527 million pounds (an 11% increase) of toxic pesticides to be sprayed on U.S. corn, soy and cotton fields between 1996 and 2011.

“It’s been a slowly unfolding train wreck,” Benbrook said. In 2011, farms using Roundup Ready seeds were spraying 24% more herbicide than non-GMO farms planting the same crops, Benbrook added, stating that by that time, “in all three crops, resistant weeds had fully kicked in” and farmers were responding both by accelerating use of Roundup and resorting to older, more toxic herbicides like 2,4-D—half of the formulation of Agent Orange. The dramatic spike could lead to an influx of “herbicide residues in milk, meat, or other animal products” and heightened risk for birth defects and other reproductive problems, the study projected. Aquatic ecosystems and soil organisms that suppress disease-causing organisms and help plants absorb nutrients could be severely impacted as well. Separate studies published this year in the U.S. National Library of Medicine determined that fish had “damage to the liver classified as moderate to severe” when exposed to Roundup and that even lower, non-toxic concentrations decreased testosterone in rats by 35%.

“Before biotech came on the market, we had one airplane in the county to do all the aerial spraying,” said third-generation Iowa farmer Scott McAllister. “Now they bring in seven or eight. We’ve got the same acreage of crops. They’re just spraying more.” McAllister added that he’s seen a rise in the number of children with autism, allergies and cancer around his hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa. According to a report published early last year in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, glyphosate was detected in the majority of air and rain samples taken during two growing seasons in agricultural areas of Mississippi and Iowa.

When asked about the new report, Tom Helscher, director of corporate affairs for Monsanto, said the company is “aware of the study and will review it thoroughly.”