Monday, August 13, 2012

The Use of Herbicides Seems to Be Generating Superweeds

Considerable attention has been focused on the means by which encounters with antibiotics lead to the development of strains of bacteria that are immune to the antibiotics. These are often referred to as "superbugs." This inevitable evolution can be slowed by judicious administration of antibiotics, but it is not clear that the process can be controlled. The result is that ever stronger—or more clever—formulations must be developed to counter these new strains. One has to stop and consider what might be the ultimate outcome of this escalation. Will superbugs always win in the end? What kind of nasty diseases might arise in the future? These issues were considered in India: Politics, Greed, and the Attack of the Superbugs.

It was rather disconcerting to discover that a similar process occurs with herbicides and weeds. Plants can develop a tolerance for herbicides and become resistant. In the process of reading about this issue, I discovered more than I ever wished to know about industrial agriculture and the use of herbicides.

The home gardener is probably familiar with Monsanto’s product Roundup. Roundup is a very effective weed killer. So effective that one is careful to not allow spray to reach food-producing plants. Who would wish to introduce such an effective poison into their food chain? Well—a lot of people it turns out.

Big-time food producers aren’t going to pick by hand weeds from around their plants, and blanket spraying of effective weed killers will tend to kill the cash crop as well. The solution is to use genetic engineering (GE) to develop crops that are resistant to Roundup so that they can be sprayed with the herbicide and survive to provide a food product. The next time you buy fresh produce and are advised to wash it before eating, you might want to pay attention.

An article by Renee Cho discusses many of the issues associated with GE crops.
"So far, only two GE applications have been available commercially: one produces herbicide tolerant (HT) crops so that fields can be sprayed with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide (made with the toxin glyphosate) and crops remain unharmed; the second transfers the toxic gene for Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) into the plant to act as a built-in pesticide."

Cho provides us with this chart:

What does it mean—exactly—to have food crops containing a built-in pesticide? That sounds scary. I will have to learn more about that. If you eat any kind of product containing corn or corn-derived material, it has likely been sprayed with Roundup—and I am sure each kernel was carefully washed before it was processed or fed to another animal in our food chain. The number of things we are ingesting that we were never designed to ingest is growing faster than one can follow.

If spraying food crops with Roundup doesn’t bother you, then perhaps you should note that Roundup-resistant weeds have evolved and are causing a problem. The result is to develop a more potent herbicide to spray on our food crops. I came across an article with this provocative title: ‘Agent Orange Corn’ Debate Rages As Dow Seeks Approval of New Genetically Modified Seed.
"A new kind of genetically modified crop under the brand name of "Enlist" -- known by its critics as ‘Agent Orange corn’ -- has opponents pushing U.S. regulators to scrutinize the product more closely and reject an application by Dow AgroSciences to roll out its herbicide-resistant seeds."

"The corn has been genetically engineered to be immune to 2,4-D, an ingredient used in Agent Orange that some say could pose a serious threat to the environment and to human health. Approval by the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency would allow farmers to spray it far and wide without damaging their crops, boosting profits for the agribusiness giant."

"Some farmers have argued that the new herbicide, a combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Monsanto's bestselling Roundup weed killer -- is necessary to combat weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate alone."

It seems we have the same situation encountered in the antibiotic-bacteria matchup. Herbicides result in herbicide-resistant weeds, thus generating the need for stronger herbicides that will force the development of another generation of "superweed" and so on..... One has to wonder what will be the end of this process.

It is always dangerous to mess with Mother Nature. It is rather frightening to learn how often we are doing it.

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