Could Superweeds Mean the End of Genetically Engineered Crops?

Superweeds could be the final nudge needed to prompt an about-face on America’s acceptance of GE foods.

Forget the lowly dandelion. There’s a bigger menace threatening the American landscape: “superweeds,” agricultural intruders that are all-but-impossible to kill because they’ve evolved a resistance to traditional chemical herbicides. These virulent growers are choking out the country’s corn, cotton, and soybeans, costing farmers millions of dollars in lost crops. Superweeds have spread their roots to more than 12 million acres of American crop fields so far, and they show no signs of being uprooted.

The superweed problem now runs so deep that it’s captured national political attention. A summit of weed experts convened in Washington, D.C. last week to discuss how to manage the growing issue of out-of-control superweeds. Countless media outlets covered the saga. A scary nickname like “superweeds”—the “pink slime” of agricultural policy—doesn’t hurt. Farming woes have rarely been so sexy.

Shining the national spotlight on superweeds will hopefully bring us closer to a fix for the rogue plants that are destroying our food supply. But there’s another benefit to the superweed hype—it helps build public awareness around genetically engineered crops. Superweeds could be the final nudge needed to prompt an about-face on America’s acceptance of GE foods.

Superweeds have spread thanks to the industry-wide adoption of GE plants on American farms—namely, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops. The industrial ag firm engineered a suite of corn, cotton, soybean, and other plants resistant to its own herbicide, Roundup, which it’s been selling to farms since 1980. Monsanto promised that if farmers doused their fields with Roundup, valuable crops would thrive while weeds died. Big ag billed its Roundup Ready crops as a way to save farmers money while decreasing the use of chemical herbicides, as a targeted application of Roundup could do the work of a suite of products. It worked: Today, superweeds’ roots in American agriculture run deep. About 85 percent of America’s corn, 88 percent of its cotton, and 91 percent of its soybeans are now genetically modified.

But nature proved to be too smart for Monsanto’s scientists. Roundup Ready crops worked well for several years, but weeds soon became accustomed to routine Roundup sprayings. The same weeds that once fell victim to Roundup’s noxious chemicals are beginning to withstand the dousing and build up a resistance to it. Farmers are forced to spray on even more herbicide to save their crops, a practice that costs cash-strapped growers more money and results in greater chemical exposure for wildlife and the surrounding environment.

Superweeds are a blight on America’s agricultural fields. But the publicity surrounding superweeds has been a boon to anti-GE activists, who have labored to convince consumers of just why they should be wary of genetically-modified foods on their plates. Take “Just Label It!,” an ambitious advocacy campaign that’s urging the Food and Drug Administration to mandate that all GE foods come with labels. Food safety and environmental groups have been pushing the FDA to do this for years, but only recently has the support behind such a proposal accelerated. Just Label It’s organizers and its 500 partners recently delivered a petition to the FDA with more than 1.1 million consumer signatures, more than the agency has received on this issue than ever before.

Now, opposition is growing to the latest GE crop poised for approval: Dow’s “Enlist” suite of GE corn, cotton, and soy crops, designed to be resistant to 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, also known as the active ingredient in Agent Orange. Environmentalists and consumers, now familiar with Roundup Ready’s disastrous environmental impacts, are fighting this GE crop like never before. Protestors are urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reject the approval of Enlist crops, and they have been so vocal that the USDA even extended the public comment period on the first Enlist crop up for approval, GE corn.

Until recently, Monsanto and other purveyors of GE crops have had little incentive to change their business models. Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and the crops the company engineered to survive it still make up half of the company’s annual profits, which total in the billions. Public pressure over superweeds could be the issue that breaks GE food’s reign—if superweeds don’t destroy those crops first.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Jo Naylor.

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