News / Science & Technology

New GMO Crops May Raise Herbicide Use

FILE - Soybean plants that were grown from soybean seeds genetically engineered to resist a common weed killer in an undated photo released by Dow AgroSciences.
FILE - Soybean plants that were grown from soybean seeds genetically engineered to resist a common weed killer in an undated photo released by Dow AgroSciences.
A new generation of genetically modified organisms has taken a step toward the market, promising farmers better control of especially troublesome weeds.

But critics say those weeds are a byproduct of the first round of GMOs, and this new round will dramatically increase the use of a more problematic herbicide that environmentalists say may raise health concerns.

A branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has recommended approval of two varieties of soybean and one type of corn developed by Dow AgroScience that can withstand treatment with two popular weed killers: glyphosate, sold under the name Roundup, and 2,4-D, an herbicide that’s been around since the 1940s.

The aim is to give farmers a tool to fight the growing number of weeds that Roundup no longer kills.

Glyphosate-resistant crops first hit the market in the mid-1990s, with seed and chemical giant Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready” crops.

“That was monumental in agriculture. Just monumental,” said University of Georgia weed scientist Stanley Culpepper.

Farmers could apply “one of the most effective, economical and environmentally-friendly herbicides on the planet right over the top of the crop,” he said. “And you could do this without damaging the crop. And at that time, that was simply unheard of.”

Plus, farmers no longer needed to till their fields to control weeds. Leaving the soil undisturbed makes the soil richer in organic matter, which improves water retention and reduces pollution from runoff. And it means fewer trips on the tractor, saving on fuel costs.

Farmers' dream, or nightmare?

They were a farmer’s dream. Herbicide resistant crops quickly came to dominate American agriculture. Last year, they made up 85 percent of the corn, 82 percent of the cotton and 93 percent of the soybeans planted in the U.S.

There was a downside.

“To some degree, it allowed us to be a little too lazy,” Culpepper said.

Farmers used Roundup and nothing else to control their weeds. And they used it over and over again, season after season.

It wasn’t long before weeds were shrugging off the herbicide.

“It’s really Darwinian evolution on steroids,” said senior scientist Doug Gurian-Sherman with the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists.

By 2012, nearly half of U.S. farmers told a private survey they had Roundup-resistant weeds. More than 24 million hectares were infested, nearly double the area from 2010.

Any weed will suck water, nutrients and light from a neighboring crop plant. But for cotton growers in Georgia, palmer amaranth is their nightmare weed. On a good day it can grow five centimeters. It can reach three meters tall. One plant can produce half a million seeds.

“He’s bad. He’s as bad a weed as there ever was,” said Jack Royal, an independent consultant who has been advising farmers on weed control for 36 years.

Controlling this bad weed has required big changes. Farmers with infested fields are going back to older, less benign herbicides. They till their fields more often, which leads to more erosion, decreases soil quality and raises farmers’ fuel costs. Many have even had to resort to hiring help to pull out weeds by hand.

But it’s working. Partly.

“We’re doing extremely well in controlling palmer amaranth,” Culpepper said. “That’s the good news.”

The bad news: weed control that used to cost cotton farmers less than $10 a hectare now costs $30 to $40.

“Bottom line is, we’re not economically sustainable,” Culpepper said.

Next generation of GMOs

That’s where Dow AgroScience’s new Enlist seeds come in.

Farmers planting these seeds would be able to spray their fields with both glyphosate and 2,4-D, which still kills palmer amaranth and many other glyphosate-resistant weeds, without damaging their crops.

“Enlist will be a tool to help address the significant weed control problems that farmers are facing today,” Dow said in a statement.

Use of 2,4-D is likely to double or more if Enlist seeds are approved, according to some estimates.

But Gurian-Sherman recalls that one of the arguments in favor of Roundup-Ready GMOs when they were introduced was that they would allow farmers to use newer, safer herbicides.

“That whole argument is going down the tubes,” he said.

Environmentalists point to studies linking 2,4-D to cancer, hormone disruption and genetic mutations.

But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the evidence is not conclusive and declined one group’s petition to remove it from the market.

The herbicide has another well-known weakness, Royal said. “We’ve used a lot of 2,4-D products. Drift has always been a major problem.”

And when the herbicide drifts, it can damage or kill plants downwind.

That’s potentially a big problem for states like Georgia, with large acreages of commodity crops like cotton and corn alongside farms of fruits, vegetables and nuts.

Dow has produced new formulations aimed at reducing drift. And Culpepper says the industry has made tremendous advances in nozzle designs that reduce fine particles.

Eventually, though, weeds will likely develop resistance to 2,4-D, too, Gurian-Sherman said.

Alternative approaches to weed control

“There are other ways to control weeds,” he added. For example, cover crops that out-compete weeds are showing promise but need more research.

“We know these approaches can be highly productive and lucrative,” but, he added, “the research agenda for decades neglected these sustainable practices in favor of industrial agricultural practices.”

Royal agrees cover crops are one weapon in the weed control arsenal. He also sees a role for the new seeds.

But, he said, one thing the Roundup Ready experience shows: “Some good new technology may come along, but there are no silver bullets.”

A final decision on approval of the new GMO seeds is expected later this year.

You May Like

Unpaid Kurdish Fighters Sign of Economic Woes

Sharp cuts in Kurdistan's budget by Baghdad, falling oil revenue, coping with refugees, inflated public sector have hit regional economy hard More

Koreas Exchange List of Envoys for Family Reunion Talks

Officials will discuss date, venue and number of participants for reunion; Seoul hopes to hold event late this month More

China Targets 197 in Online Speech Crackdown

Nearly 200 punished for 'spreading rumors' online in ongoing crackdown on free speech More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisisi
X
Lisa Bryant
September 02, 2015 6:19 PM
Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Calais School Offers Another Face of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Europe is facing mounting criticism over how it’s handling its biggest migration crisis since World War II. But not all Europeans believe building walls or passing repressive policies are the answer. A school for migrants in the French port city of Calais, is opening doors and building bonds across nationalities. VOA's Lisa Bryant reports.
Video

Video Russia-Japan Relations Cool as Putin Visits China for WWII Anniversary

Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Beijing for commemorations of the 70th anniversary of China's WWII victory over Japan. Putin is expected to visit Japan later this year, but tensions between Tokyo and Moscow over islands disputed since the war, and sanctions over Ukraine, could pour cold water on the plan. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Kurdish Fighters on IS Frontline Ready for Offensive

Finger on the trigger, the Kurdish Peshmerga soldier stared across the dust at a village taken over by Islamic State extremists. The Kurdistan’s Khazir frontline, just 45 minutes from the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul. And at this point, the militants were less than two kilometers away. VOA's Sharon Behn reports.
Video

Video Yemen ‘on Brink of Disaster’ as Medical Shortages Soar

Aid agencies warn Yemen is on the brink of humanitarian disaster – with up to half a million children facing severe malnutrition, and hospitals running out of basic medicines. There are fears Yemen's civil war could escalate as the coalition led by Saudi Arabia tries to drive back Houthi rebels, who seized control of much of the country earlier this year. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Apps Helping Kenyan Businesses Stay Ahead of Counterfeiters

Counterfeit goods in Kenya cost the government as much as $1 billion each year in lost tax revenues. The fake goods also hurt entrepreneurs who find it hard to carve out a niche in the market and retain customers. But as Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi, information technology is being used to try to beat the problem.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.

VOA Blogs