Anyone involved with anti-GMO protests in the late 90s/early noughties will remember the amount of ridicule we got for suggesting that the technology would lead to the evolution of ‘superweeds’. We we hate to say we told you so, but Treehugger has just filed the following report…
Happy pigweed and lambsquarters enjoying themselves in a soybean field. Image by pawpaw67 via Flickr
The road to hell is paved with unintended consequences. I’m convinced that, if we don’t get our act together, this slight edit on the old adage about good intentions will be humanity’s downfall. Oops, we didn’t mean for BPA to do that! PCB and DDT are accumulating where?
Now, thanks to Monsanto’s corporate “genius” we have so-called superweeds. Click through for the view from the farm.
Superweeds are not a new consequence of genetically modified crops. A recent article in the New York Times tells us that the first glyphosate resistant weed was found in 2000 in a Delaware soybean field. In the past 10 years 10 more resistant species have been discovered in 22 states, mostly in corn, soy and cotton fields.
The Times sums up how superweeds came to be and what it might mean for farmers and for food prices.
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”
Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.
The silver lining in all of this is that Monsanto’s unbalanced dominance of the U.S. ag sector could be in danger as farmers and the public lose confidence in their products. Science and on farm experience are leading to the same conclusion that common sense already assumes. A food system with a foundation built on patented seeds that will withstand patented herbicides can only led to trouble.
Note: There’s a great supplement to this NYT story that has farmers and food system thinkers adding their two cents. Michael Pollan offers up this tidbit, “What a surprise! Roundup-resistant weeds have shown up in fields that have been doused with Roundup! Shocking!”
More on Monsanto
Study Finds Monsanto’s GMO Corn Causes Organ Damage in Rodents
The Fight Over the Future of Food: Monsanto, GMOs, and How to Feed the World
Monsanto “Seedless” Corn Sold To South African Farmers
Germany Bans Planting of Monsanto GM Corn
Out, Monsanto! No GMOs in National Wildlife Refuge, Says Federal Judge
Monsanto and Michael Pollan Talk About Creating a World That Can Feed Itself
And if Superweeds weren’t bad enough, here’s some of Roundup’s other claims to fame (Taken from Wikipedia where full annotation can be found)…
Human and mammalian health effects
By 2000, a review published in a Monsanto sponsored journal, conducted by Ian C. Munro (a member of the Cantox scientific and regulatory consulting firm whose role is defined as to “protect client interests while helping our clients achieve milestones and bring products to market”) concluded that “under present and expected conditions of new use, there is no potential for Roundup herbicide to pose a health risk to humans”. That study only reviewed experiments where glyphosate and POEA were used alone and not as a mixture as in Roundup. Monsanto uses that study as the main source to support Roundup safety for humans.
A 2008 scientific study has shown that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro, even at low concentrations. The effects were not proportional to the main active ingredient concentrations (glyphosate), but dependent on the nature of the adjuvants used in the Roundup formulation.
Deliberate ingestion of Roundup in quantities ranging from 85-200 ml has resulted in death within hours of ingestion, although it has also been ingested in quantities as large as 500ml with only mild or moderate symptoms following ingestion. There is a reasonable correlation between the amount of Roundup ingested and the likelihood of serious systemic sequelae or death. Ingestion of >85 mL of the concentrated formulation is likely to cause significant toxicity in adults. Gastrointestinal corrosive effects, with mouth, throat and epigastric pain and dysphagia are common. Renal and hepatic impairment are also frequent and usually reflect reduced organ perfusion. Respiratory distress, impaired consciousness, pulmonary oedema, infiltration on chest x-ray, shock, arrythmias, renal failure requiring haemodialysis, metabolic acidosis and hyperkalaemia may supervene in severe cases. Bradycardia and ventricular arrhythmias are often present pre-terminally. Dermal exposure to ready-to-use glyphosate formulations can cause irritation, and photo-contact dermatitis has been reported occasionally; these effects are probably due to the preservative Proxel (benzisothiazolin-3-one). Severe skin burns are very rare. Inhalation is a minor route of exposure, but spray mist may cause oral or nasal discomfort, an unpleasant taste in the mouth, tingling and throat irritation. Eye exposure may lead to mild conjunctivitis, and superficial corneal injury is possible if irrigation is delayed or inadequate.
A 2000 in vitro study on mouse MA-10 cells concluded that Roundup inhibited progesterone production by disrupting StAR protein expression.
A 2005 in vitro study on human placental JEG3 cells concluded that the glyphosate disruption of aromatase is facilitated by adjuvants of the Roundup formulation.
A 2009 in vitro experiment with glyphosate formulations on human liver HepG2 cells has observed endocrine disruption at sub-agricultural doses, where a Roundup formulation showed to be the most active formulation. The effects were more dependent on the formulation than on the glyphosate concentration.
A 2009 study on rats has found that Roundup is a potent endocrine disruptor causing disturbances in the reproductive development when the exposure was performed during the puberty period.
A 1998 study on mice concluded that Roundup is able to cause genetic damage. The authors concluded that the damage was “not related to the active ingredient, but to another component of the herbicide mixture“.
A 2009 in vitro experiment with glyphosate formulations on human liver cells has observed DNA damages at sub-agricultural doses, where a Roundup formulation showed to be the most active formulation. The effects were more dependent on the formulation than on the glyphosate concentration.
A 2000 review of the toxicological data on Roundup concluded that “for terrestrial uses of Roundup minimal acute and chronic risk was predicted for potentially exposed nontarget organisms”. It also concluded that there were some risks to aquatic organisms exposed to Roundup in shallow water.
A 2009 study has concluded that while physiological pH decreases glyphosate uptake in animal cells; Roundup formulation contains surfactants that increases membrane permeability allowing cellular uptake at physiological pH.
Fish and aquatic invertebrates are more sensitive to Roundup than terrestrial organisms. Glyphosate is generally less persistent in water than in soil, with 12 to 60 day persistence observed in Canadian pond water, yet persistence of over a year have been observed in the sediments of ponds in Michigan and Oregon.
The EU classifies Roundup as R51/53 Toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.
Although Roundup is not registered for aquatic uses and studies of its effects on amphibians indicate it is toxic to them, scientists have found that it may wind up in small wetlands where tadpoles live, due to inadvertent spraying during its application. A recent study found that even at concentrations one-third of the maximum concentrations expected in nature, Roundup still killed up to 71 percent of tadpoles raised in outdoor tanks.
A 2010 study has found that long-term exposition to environmental relevant concentrations of a Roundup formulation causes metabolic disruption in leporinus obtusidens.
Environmental degradation and effects
When glyphosate comes into contact with the soil, it can be rapidly bound to soil particles and be inactivated. Unbound glyphosate can be degraded by bacteria. Glyphosphate has been shown to increase the infection rate of wheat by fusarium head blight in fields that have been treated with glyphosphate. A 2009 study using a RoundUp formulation has concluded that absorption into plants delays subsequent soil-degradation, and can increase glyphosate persistence in soil from two to six times.
In soils, half lives vary from as little as 3 days at a site in Texas, to as much as 141 days at a site in Iowa. In addition, the glyphosate metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid was shown to persist up to 2 years in Swedish forest soils.
A recent study concluded that certain amphibians may be at risk from glyphosate use. One study has shown an effect on growth and survival of earthworms. The results of this study are in conflict with other data, and have been criticized on methodological grounds. In other studies, nitrogen fixing bacteria have been impaired, and also crop plant susceptibility to disease has been increased.
False advertising and scientific fraud
In 1996, Monsanto was accused of false and misleading advertising of glyphosate products, prompting a law suit by the New York State attorney general. Monsanto had made claims that its spray-on glyphosate based herbicides, including Roundup, were safer than table salt and “practically non-toxic” to mammals, birds, and fish.
Environmental and consumer rights campaigners brought a case in France in 2001 for presenting Roundup as biodegradable and claiming that it left the soil clean after use; glyphosate, Roundup’s main ingredient, is classed by the European Union as “dangerous for the environment” and “toxic for aquatic organisms”. In January 2007, Monsanto was convicted of false advertising. The result was confirmed in 2009.
On two occasions, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has caught scientists deliberately falsifying test results at research laboratories hired by Monsanto to study glyphosate. In the first incident involving Industrial Biotest Laboratories, an EPA reviewer stated after finding “routine falsification of data” that it was “hard to believe the scientific integrity of the studies when they said they took specimens of the uterus from male rabbits”. In the second incident of falsifying test results in 1991, the owner of the lab (Craven Labs), and three employees were indicted on 20 felony counts, the owner was sentenced to 5 years in prison and fined 50,000 dollars, the lab was fined 15.5 million dollars and ordered to pay 3.7 million dollars in restitution. Craven laboratories performed studies for 262 pesticide companies including Monsanto.
Monsanto has stated that the studies have been repeated, and that Roundup’s EPA certification does not now use any studies from Craven Labs or IBT. Monsanto also said that the Craven Labs investigation was started by the EPA after a pesticide industry task force discovered irregularities.
Difference between regulatory registered and commercialized formulations
In November 2009, a French environment group (MDRGF) accused Monsanto of using chemicals in Roundup formulations not disclosed to the country’s regulatory bodies, and demanded the removal of those products from the market.