Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Super Bugs and Weeds

A new scientific study by the National Research Council says that for many farmers the use of genetically modified crops had helped to cut the use of pesticides and herbicides, reduced the need for tilling which leads to soil erosion, and improved yields. The two biggest uses for genetic modification are "Roundup Ready" crops which are resistant to Roundup and its chemical knock-offs which allow farmers to spray the weed killer around the crops without risk of damage to the crops, and "BT" seeds which contain bacterial genes allowing the plants to produce an insecticide.

What is interesting to me, though, is that Roundup ready seeds have been in use for only ten years and already the weeds are adapting:
Overuse of this seductively simple approach to weed control is starting to backfire. Use of Roundup, or its generic equivalent, glyphosate, has skyrocketed to the point that weeds are rapidly becoming resistant to the chemical. That is rendering the technology less useful, requiring farmers to start using additional herbicides, some of them more toxic than glyphosate.
You can bet Monsanto, maker of Roundup, and its competitors are working on new formulations. But it sounds just like the stories of over-use of antibiotics and how rapidly bacteria have morphed into antibiotic-resistant super bugs.

Weeds and bacteria and probably real flying bugs are just as "smart" as we are in their own way. They want to survive and multiply too and it is pretty amazing how quickly they are able to adapt and thrive as tougher-to-kill species. Somehow I doubt that this is a battle that we will win in the end. Some super bug will come back to bite us big time eventually.

While I am not opposed in principle to the use of genetically engineered seeds it would be far better if we could find a way to farm and live without going there. The more we grow our own food and the more we support local and organic farming the lighter our environmental footprint. I don't know if we need genetically modified crops to feed the world. I know that I don't need them and neither do you. We have a choice about what we grow and eat.

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