“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, farmers are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing. The first resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Since then, the problem has spread, with 10 resistant species in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.”
Sterile Seed Monopoly
“It’s time to buy seed again, but hundreds of seed companies have gone under in the past two decades. Critics of the big agriculture biotech company Monsanto say its popular Roundup Ready technology is to blame for that. Roundup Ready is a line of gene-modified seeds that inoculate plants against a herbicide, Roundup, also made by Monsanto, that kills just about everything else. Ulrich says his seed costs shot up almost 50 percent last year. That’s because farmers are contractually prohibited from saving seeds and planting them the following year. Farmers face lawsuits if they try to save and replant the genetically modified seed because they don’t own the technology. More than 9 out of 10 soybean seeds carry the Roundup Ready trait. It’s about the same for cotton and just a little lower for corn. Now Monsanto has invented something new, called Roundup Ready 2 Yield. It uses the gene as the original, just placed in a different spot in the genome. Monsanto says that boosts yield. Interesting timing: Monsanto’s patent on Roundup Ready 1 expires in 2014 and with it, a revenue stream of maybe half a billion dollars a year in royalties. That’s unless it can switch farmers over to Roundup Ready 2. Meanwhile, the end of the Roundup Ready patent will very likely give farmers a chance to do something they haven’t for years: plant the seed they’ve harvested. “I don’t care how good Roundup Ready 2 is; if you tell me I can save back my own seed, I’m going to plant my own seed,” Ulrich says. The problem for guys like Ulrich will be finding seed that has just the Roundup Ready gene alone, one not stacked with other patented traits. After all, if he can’t find the seed in the first place, he can’t grow it.”
Nature Predictably Defiant
“In the ancient empire of Sumer 4500 years ago, farmers put sulfur on their crops. The Romans used pitch and grease. Europeans learned to extract chemicals from plants. In 1807, chemists isolated pyrethrum from an Armenian daisy. To stop the San Jose scale, they tried whale oil. They tried kerosene and water. One of the best treatments they found was a mix of lime and sulfur. After a few weeks of spraying, the San Jose scale would disappear. By 1900, however, the lime-sulfur cure was failing. An entomologist named A. L. Melander found some San Jose scales living happily under a thick crust of dried lime-sulfur spray. In the short term, Melander suggested that farmers switch to fuel oil to fight scales, but he warned that they would eventually become resistant to fuel oil as well. In fact, the best way to keep the scales from becoming entirely resistant to pesticides was, paradoxically, to do a bad job of applying those herbicides. By allowing some susceptible scales to survive, farmers would keep their susceptible genes in the scale population. “Thus we may make the strange assertion that the more faulty the spraying this year the easier it will be to control the scale the next year,” Melander predicted.
In 1970 a scientist at the Monsanto Corporation found a chemical that seemed to hold out great hope–glyphosate, also known as Roundup. Glyphosate kills weeds by blocking the construction of amino acids that are essential for the survival of plants. It attacks enzymes that only plants use, with the result that it’s harmless to people, insects, and other animals. Roundup went on the market in 1974. In 1986, scientists engineered plants to be resistant to glyphosate, by inserting genes from bacteria that could produce amino acids even after a plant was sprayed with herbicides. In the 1990s Monsanto and other companies began to sell glyphosate-resistant corn, cotton, sugar beets, and many other crops. But after glyphosate-resistant crops had a few years to grow, farmers began to notice horseweed and morning glory and other weeds encroaching once more into their fields. What’s striking is how many different ways weeds have found to overcome the chemical. What makes the evolution of Roundup resistance all the more dangerous is how it doesn’t respect species barriers. Scientists have found evidence that once one species evolves resistance, it can pass on those resistance genes to other species. They just interbreed, producing hybrids that can then breed with the vulnerable parent species. In a recent interview, Powles predicted that the Roundup resistance catastophe is just going to get worse, not just in the United States but everywhere where Roundup is used intensively. It’s not a hopeless situation, however. Farmers may be able to slow the spread of resistance by mixing up the kinds of seeds they use, even by fostering vulernable weeds in the way Melander suggested.”
“In Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms, No. 09-475, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case which could have an enormous effect on the future of the American food industry. This is Monsanto’s third appeal of the case, and if they win a favorable ruling from the high court, a deregulated Monsanto may find itself in position to corner the markets of numerous U.S. crops, and to litigate conventional farmers into oblivion. Here’s where it gets a bit dicier: from the years 1976 – 1979, Clarence Thomas worked as an attorney for Monsanto. Thomas apparently does not see this as a conflict of interest and has not recused himself. Alfalfa is the fourth most widely grown crop in the United States, behind corn, soybeans, and wheat. Alfalfa is very easily cross-pollinated by bees and by wind. The plant is also perennial, meaning GMO plants could live on for years. “The way this spreads so far and wide, it will eliminate the conventional alfalfa industry,” said Trask. “Monsanto will own the entire alfalfa industry.”"