One of the many promises of using genetically engineered seeds is that over time, pesticide and herbicide use will decrease. The resistant seeds create an almost sterile crop culture, relieving farmers of the costly nuisances of pests and weeds. It's the farming meets technology promise. But many farmers are finding that's not the case at all.
Now, biotech and chemical companies including Dow AgroSciences and Monsanto, are exploring new, stronger pesticide and herbicide options, like 2,4-D which is one half of the infamous Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange.
Many farmers who adopted GMO seeds and herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup, initially saw decreases in weeds and pests like the rootworm. But after just a few growing seasons, "superweeds" and pesticide-resistant insects found their way back into crops, now unfazed by Roundup, costing farmers money in crop losses, and in using extra applications of the chemicals.
2,4-D-resistant genetically modified corn and soybeans may soon be approved by the USDA, allowing farmers to apply this toxin onto many U.S. grown crops. According to the Huffington Post, "2,4-D has had limited use in corn and soybean farming because it becomes toxic to the plants early in their growth. The new seeds would allow farmers to use the weed killer throughout the plants' lives."
The seeds would now be resistant to both glyphosate and 2,4-D, giving farmers the option/benefit of using both chemicals.
And farm advocates are concerned about "possible health risks from increased use of 2,4-D and the chemical's tendency to drift beyond the area where it is sprayed, threatening neighboring crops and wild plants," reports the Post.
Right now, there are restrictions on where the seeds can be planted, and The Center for Food Safety and the environmental group Earthjustice have threatened to take legal action if restrictions on the seeds are lifted.
But in the meantime, many farmers are increasing the pesticide applications they're using on their GMO crops, just to deal with the resistant weeds and insects. There's no reason to think that once 2,4-D (or any other chemical) is approved by the USDA that the same scenario won't play out again: Farmers will see initial success in using the chemicals, but over time, bugs and weeds will become more resistant and farmers will be forced to apply heavier doses of chemicals.
Even in non-GMO crops like fruits and vegetables grown in California, pesticide and herbicide use seems to be on the rise. An investigation by a Bay Area TV station (KTVU) of fruit and vegetable samples collected from California farmers markets found that 83 percent of samples contained harmful pesticide residue. California is the nation's largest grower of fruits and vegetables.
KTVU also reported that the state found an increase of growers blatantly violating pesticide laws. The station reported: " KTVU discovered pesticide violations are up sharply over last year. The state fined one Watsonville strawberry grower three months ago for intentionally using an illegal pesticide on his entire crop."
But there's good news, too.
Modern Farmer reports an increase in the number of farmers abandoning pesticide-intensive crops like GMOs. " In pockets across the nation, commodity growers are becoming fed up with [GMO] traits that don’t work like they used to."
Farmers are taking cues from customers. So the more organic foods we buy, the more will be grown, too.
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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