"farmers' embrace of the technology could become a death grip, causing wide-spread herbicide resistance in weeds and spreading crop diseases" -- some US press coverage of the new report from independent agronomist Chuck Benbrook. "His report cites studies that show that the Roundup system makes soybeans more susceptible to disease and insects and reduces the plants' ability to fix nitrogen."
REPORT SAYS MONSANTO'S ROUNDUP COULD BECOME VICTIM OF ITS SUCCESS; SOME FEAR WIDESPREAD HERBICIDE RESISTANCE, MORE CROP DISEASES
Tina Hesman; Of The Post-Dispatch
St. Louis Post-Dispatch May 3, 2001
A new report by a biotechnology consultant suggests that Monsanto Co.'s premier product could soon become a victim of its own success.
Roundup, a herbicide produced by Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, has been hugely successful in recent years. Since the introduction of crop plants that resist the chemical, sales of the product have skyrocketed. Roundup and other glyphosate products made up $ 2.6 billion of Monsanto's $ 5.5 billion in sales last year. Glyphosate is the herbicide's generic name. Farmers have flocked to the technology, buying and spraying more Roundup and planting more herbicide-resistant crops each year. Most of the beans are "Roundup Ready" -- Monsanto's designation for crops that have been genetically modified to withstand herbicide treatment.
Last year, 54 percent of the U.S. soybean acreage was genetically engineered. This year soybean farmers say that 63 percent of their soybean fields will be genetically engineered -- most of that being Roundup Ready soybeans.
But a report posted Wednesday on the Ag BioTech InfoNet Web site by consultant Charles M. Benbrook of the Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center in Sandpoint, Idaho, contends that farmers' embrace of the technology could become a death grip, causing wide-spread herbicide resistance in weeds and spreading crop diseases. "There's a clock ticking now for Roundup," Benbrook said. Farmers are using more herbicide than ever before, despite biotech industry claims to the contrary, Benbrook said. Using U.S. Department of Agriculture data from 1998, Benbrook found that farmers sprayed 11.4 percent more herbicide on Roundup Ready fields than on fields treated with conventional herbicides.
Extrapolating to the 2001 growing season, Benbrook predicts that farmers will spread 0.5 pounds per acre more herbicide on Roundup Ready soybean fields than on fields planted with conventional varieties of soybeans. "You just can't say with a straight face that the Roundup Ready system reduces herbicide use if the measurement you're talking about is pounds per acre," Benbrook said. Other analysts dispute Benbrook's claims. The differences in herbicide use on Roundup Ready and conventional soybean fields are too small to worry about, said Leonard Gianessi of the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy in Washington. The think tank conducted its own analysis of the same data. "We call it a draw," Gianessi said. "It's not worth arguing about."
Benbrook's report says shifts in the types of weeds growing in soybean fields and decreased susceptibility of weeds to the herbicide are causing a slip in Roundup's efficacy. As a result, farmers must use more he rbicide, accelerating the build-up of resistance in weeds. Monsanto disputes the contention that Roundup is losing its potency. "We have no evidence that performance is decreasing," said Harvey Glick, Monsanto's director of global product management.
While a few isolated incidents of weeds developing resistance to Roundup have been documented, most scientists agree that weeds are more likely to become resistant to conventional herbicides, Glick said.
But there are other problems associated with the Roundup system, Benbrook said. University field trials indicate that Roundup Ready soybeans typically yield 5 percent to 10 percent less than conventional soybean varieties, the report states. That drag on yield may be due to the herbicide's effect on a soybean plant's metabolism, and could be a direct result of genetic engineering, Benbrook said. His report cites studies that show that the Roundup system makes soybeans more susceptible to disease and insects and reduces the plants' ability to fix nitrogen.
Soil scientist Robert Kremer and his colleagues at the University of Missouri at Columbia conducted a four-year study of Roundup and fungal infections in soybeans. The researchers found that Roundup Ready soybeans treated with Roundup were more likely to get infected with fungi than the same variety of beans treated with conventional herbicides. Higher incidence of fungal diseases in soybean crops may be a long-term ecological consequence of using the herbicide, but more studies and large-scale monitoring systems are needed to make the determination, Kremer said.
"We could see problems," Kremer said. "But with the data that we have, we can't definitely say it's going to increase disease."
Results of university studies don't often agree with what farmers see in their fields, said Monsanto's Glick. Some farmers are finding that the Roundup system helps them slash production costs. Don Latham, a soybean and corn grower in Alexander, Iowa, said that it costs him $ 22 more to treat an acre of soybeans with conventional herbicides than it does to treat with Roundup. That means it cost Latham 45 cents per bushel more to grow conventional varieties of soybeans than Roundup Ready beans. At a time when soybeans fetch about $ 4.20 per bushel, it's a cost difference farmers can't afford to ignore. "If I can save 45 cents per bushel in production costs, I'm going to do it," Latham said. That's short-term thinking that could backfire, Benbrook said. "If Roundup continues to be used the way it is, it won't be good for anything," he said.
Gunther uses about 85 gallons per year of Monsanto's Roundup herbicide on 460 acres of no-till crops on his farm east of Belleville. A report contends that overuse of the technology could cause wide-spread herbicide resistance in weeds and spread crop diseases. LOAD-DATE: May 3, 2001 [Entered May 03, 2001]