[permaculture] GM Crops Facing Meltdown in the USA

Patrick forgeadams at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 10 20:42:58 EST 2010

GM  Crops Facing Meltdown in the USA
Major crops genetically modified for just two traits - herbicide
tolerance and insect resistance – are ravaged by super weeds and
secondary pests in the heartland of GMOs as farmers fight a losing
battle with more of the same; a fundamental shift to organic farming
practices may be the only salvation Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Please circulate widely, keeping all links unchanged, and submit to
your government representatives demanding an end to GM crops and
support for non-GM organic agriculture

Two traits account for practically all the genetically modified (GM)
crops grown in the world today: herbicide-tolerance (HT) due to
glyphosate-insensitive form of the gene coding for the enzyme targeted
by the herbicide, 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase (EPSPS),
derived from soil bacterium Agrobacterium  tumefaciens, and insect-resistance due to one or more toxin genes  derived from the soil bacterium Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis).
Commercial planting began around 1997 in the United States, the
heartland of GM crops, and increased rapidly over the years. By now, GM
crops have taken over 85-91 percent of the area planted with the three
major crops, soybean, corn and cotton in the US [1]] (see Table 1),
which occupy nearly 171 million acres.

    Table 1. GM crops grown in 2009 in the USA
    Percent of Total Area
        ALL GM

The ecological  time-bomb that came with the GM crops has been ticking away, and is  about to explode. 
 HT crops encouraged the use of herbicides, resulting in
herbicide-resistant weeds that demand yet more herbicides. But the
increasing use of deadly herbicide and herbicide mixtures has failed to
stall the advance of the palmer super weed in HT crops. At the same
time, secondary pests such as the tarnished plant bug, against which Bt
toxin is powerless, became the single most damaging insect for US

Monster  plants that can’t be killed
It is the Day  of the Triffids - not the
genetically modified plants themselves as alluded to in John Wyndham’s
novel - but “super weeds that can’t be killed” [2], created by the
planting of genetically modified HT crops, as seen on ABC TV news. 
 The scene is set at harvest time in Arkansas October 2009.
Grim-faced farmers and scientists speak from fields infested with giant
pigweed plants that can withstand as much glyphosate herbicide as you
can afford to douse on them. One farmer spent US$0.5 million in three
months trying to clear the monster weeds in vain; they stop combine
harvesters and break hand tools. Already, an estimated one million
acres of soybean and cotton crops in Arkansas have become infested.
 The palmer amaranth or palmer pigweed is the most dreaded weed. It
can grow 7-8 feet tall, withstand withering heat and prolonged
droughts, produce thousands of seeds and has a root system that drains
nutrients away from crops. If left unchecked, it would take over a
field in a year. 
 Meanwhile in North Carolina Perquimans County, farmer and extension
worker Paul Smith has just found the offending weed in his field [3],
and he too, will have to hire a migrant crew to remove the weed by hand.
 The resistant weed is expected to move into neighbouring counties.
It has already developed resistance to at least three other types of
 Herbicide-resistance in weeds is nothing new. Ten weed species in
North Carolina and 189 weed species nationally have developed
resistance to some herbicide. 
 A new herbicide is unlikely to come out, said Alan York, retired
professor of agriculture from North Carolina State University and
national weed expert

Glyphosate-resistant  weeds from widespread planting of HT crops
Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the US and the world
at large. It was patented and sold by Monsanto since the 1970s under
the trade name and proprietary formulation, Roundup. Its popularity
shot up with the introduction of HT crops. Data from the US Department
of Agriculture indicate that the use of glyphosate on major crops went
up by more than 15 fold between 1994 and 2005 [4]. The EPA estimated in
2000-2001 that 100 million pounds of glyphosate are used on lawns and
farms every year [5], and over the last 13 years, it has been applied
to more than a billion acres [6]. 
 It did not take long for glyphosate-resistant weeds to appear, just
as weeds resistant to every herbicide used in the past had appeared.
The Weed Science Society of America reported nine weed species in the
United States with confirmed resistance to glyphosate [6]; among them
are strains of common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), common  waterhemp (Amaranthus rudis), giant ragweed (Ambrosia  trifida), hairy fleabane (Conyza bonariensis), horseweed  (Conyza canadensis), Italian ryegrass (Lolium multiflorum),  johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), rigid ryegrass (Lolium  rigidum), and palmer pigweed (Amaranthus palmeri).

Glyphosate-resistant  palmer super weed
Glyphosate-resistant palmer pigweed first turned up in late 2004 in
Macon County, Georgia, and has since spread to other parts of Georgia
as well as to South Carolina, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee,
Kentucky and Missouri [7]. An estimated 100 000 acres in Georgia are
severely infested with pigweed and 29 counties have now confirmed
pigweed resistance to glyhosate, according to weed specialist Stanley
Culpepper at the University of Georgia. In 2007, 10 000 acres of
glyphosate-resistant pigweed infested land were abandoned in Macon
 Monsanto’s technical development manager Rick Cole was reported
saying that the problems were “manageable”. He advised farmers to
alternate crops and use different makes of herbicides. Monsanto sales
representatives are encouraging farmers to mix glyphosate and older
herbicides such as 2,4-D, banned in Sweden, Denmark and Norway on
account of links to cancer and reproductive and neurological damages.
It is a component of Agent Orange used in Vietnam in the 1960s.
 Farmers in  Georgia are reported to be going back to conventional non-GM crops.
 Weed scientists at the University of Georgia estimate that an
average of just two palmer amaranth plants in every 6 m length of
cotton row can reduce yield by at least 23 percent [8]. A single weed
plant can produce 450 000 seeds. Many fields in Arkansas, Tennessee,
New Mexico, Mississippi and most recently, Alabama are also infested.
 Paraquat is recommended for use in conservation tillage programmes,
mixed with up to three other herbicides, each with a different mode of
action. Scientists at the University of Tennessee have seen palmer
weeds resistant not only to glyphosate but also to the sulfonylurea
herbicide trifloxysulfuron-sodium

Glyphosate  resistance with the greatest of ease
Critics have been predicting glyphosate-resistant weeds before HT
crops were introduced, simply through cross-pollination between HT
crops and wild weedy relatives. But they had neglected the ‘fluid
genome’ mechanisms that can alter genomes and genes in response to
environmental stimuli, enabling most weed plants to become herbicide
resistant independently of cross-pollination. I drew attention to these
mechanisms in my book Genetic  Engineering Dream or Nightmare, the Brave New World  of Bad Science and Big Business [9] first published in 1997/1998. 
 Researchers led by Todd Gaines at Colorado State University, Fort
Collins in the United States investigated glyphosate-resistant palmer
pigweed populations from Georgia. They found that the gene coding for
the enzyme EPSPS responsible for metabolising glyphosate herbicide was
amplified (multiplied) 5 to 160-fold in glyphosate-resistant plants
compared with glyphosate-susceptible plants [10]. The level of gene
expression was positively correlated with gene copy number. Fluorescent
staining for the gene showed that the amplified gene copies were
present on every chromosome. 
 Gene amplification is one of the most common physiological
responses of cells and organisms to ‘selective’ agents in their
environment, known at least since 1980s [9].
 Glyphosate resistance has been confirmed in 16 weed species as of
2009 [10]. The mechanisms identified so far include reduced glyphosate
uptake, and/or mutations in the EPSPS gene that make it less
susceptible to inhibition by the herbicide. Glyphosate-resistant palmer
pigweed is the first case of resistance based on gene amplification. It
confirms the ease with which resistance to obnoxious agents can evolve
[9], and the futility of this ‘chemical warfare’ against nature.

Tarnished  plant bug the single most damaging pest for cotton
The tarnished plant bug infested 4.8 million acres of US cotton in
2008 [11] making it the single most damaging pest for cotton. Another
insect, the fleahopper ranked 5th, and infested 2.3 million acres. 
 The Cotton Belt of the United States, extending from the San
Joaquin Valley of California to Southeastern Virginia, has largely seen
off the boll weevil and tobacco budworm since the introduction of Bt
cotton, which now accounts for 65 percent of the area planted with
cotton (Table 1 [1]). But, as in India and elsewhere [12, 13] (Farmer  Suicides and Bt Cotton Nightmare Unfolding in India, Mealy  Bug Plagues Bt Cotton in India and Pakistan, SiS 45), secondary pests are posing serious problems, especially the  tarnished plant bug.
 The tarnished plant bug (TPB), Lygus  lineolaris, has been
a cotton pest for as long as records were kept. Before 1995, it was
controlled with insecticides targeting other insect pests such as
tobacco budworm and boll weevil. According to researchers at the
Mississippi State University Delta Research and Extension Center [14],
since the widespread adoption of Bt-cotton and eradication of the boll
weevil, less insecticide have been used; and as a result, the tarnished
plant bug has become the primary insect pest of cotton.
 Additional insect control costs are coming from increasing foliar
sprays, higher technology fees and pest resistance, said Jeff Gore,
research entomologist at the Delta Research and Extension Center,
speaking at the 2010 Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans [15] 
 In 1995 planting an acre of cotton cost $12.75 to $24; in 2005,
planting Bollgard, Roundup Ready cotton with a ‘Cadillac’ seed
treatment would have cost about $52 an acre. Now in 2010, with Bollgard
II and Roundup Ready Flex, farmers will be spending $85 or more an
 “In Mississippi, we have growers who are spending well over $100
for foliar insect control. You add that onto technology fees and seed
treatments, you understand why our cotton acreage is decreasing.” Gore
 To compound the problem, TPB has become resistant to several
classes of insecticides, particularly in the Delta regions of the
Mid-South states [14].
 While TPB is a pest of cotton throughout the growing season, it is
particularly damaging during the flowering period, when the pest
reproduces copiously, so both adult and immature stages of TPB feed on
cotton during the flowering period. Most feeding occurs
on reproductive structures. The pests insert their mouthparts into
squares and small bolls. It is not uncommon for TPB to cause near-total
crop loss in the absence of effective control in some areas of the
 Mid-South growers consulted Gore about planting a non-Bt variety,
especially with the higher costs of Bt technology [15]. “We have a few
growers planting small acreages of non-Bt cotton, and they’re probably
going to see benefits from that.
 “But if we start shifting back to non-Bt cotton, I promise you, the
tobacco budworm will come back, and we don’t want to be making foliar
applications for resistant tobacco budworms, in addition to treating
tarnished plant bugs. The amount of money we would have to spend in
that situation would be astronomical.”
 TPB has been the No. 1 pest in the Mid-South for the past four to
five years, and is driving a lot of cotton growers out of the
Mississippi Delta, no longer able to afford the cost of sprays.
 Gore revealed that spider mites are also gaining a reputation as
‘budget busters’ in the South, along with aphids and stink bugs.
 Like TPB, spider mites are becoming resistant to the insecticides
used to control them. “Over the past 15 years, we’ve essentially
doubled our application rates with Bidrin and tripled our application
rates with acephate. So we’re not only spraying more often, we’re
applying higher rates that cost more.” Gore said.
 He pointed out that a side-effect of relying on neoniccotinoids for
plant bug control is some resistance has developed in cotton aphids.
“We're starting to hear lots of complaints from consultants across the

More of the  same is futile
It is disappointing though predictable that the only official
academic advice given to farmers is more of the same conventional
practices that created the problems in the first place, spraying more
and spraying mixtures of different kinds of pesticides, including those
banned for being too toxic. Industry, meanwhile, is ready to sell
varieties with more stacked GM traits; up to eight at double the seed
price [16].
 Disappointing too is the persistent effort by some governments and
government scientists to promote the failed GM technology, which as I
made clear, was already obsolete since the early 1980s [9]. A Sciencexpress
paper (indicating quick publication, probably without peer review)
entitled “Food security: the challenge of feeding 9 billion people”
[17] co-authored by UK chief scientist Prof. John Beddington among
others, while somewhat dismissive of current GM crops, nevertheless
holds out promises we’ve heard for more than 30 years. “The next decade
will see the development of combinations of desirable traits and the
introduction of new traits such as drought tolerance. By mid-century
much more radical options involving highly polygenic traits may be
feasible.” It went on to promise “cloned animals with engineered innate
immunity to diseases” and more.
 Glyphosate and Roundup, still advertised as ‘less toxic to us than
table salt’ in a pamphlet from the Biotechnology Institute promoting HT
crops as ‘Weed Warrior’ [18], is in fact highly toxic as new findings
indicate [19, 20] (Death  By Multiple Poisoning, Glyphosate and Roundup, SiS 42; Ban  Glyphosate Herbicides Now, SiS 43).   Thirteen years of GM crops in the USA has increased overall pesticide  use by 318 million pounds [21] (GM  Crops Increase Herbicide Use in the United States, SiS 45). The extra disease burden on the nation from that alone is  considerable. 
 India has  learned bitter Lessons  from Bt Cotton
[22] in a saga of worsening farm suicides and, in common with the USA,
an ecological disaster in secondary and new cotton pests, resistant
pests, new diseases, and above all, soils so depleted in nutrients and
beneficial microorganisms that they would cease to support the growth
of any crop in a decade. Their only salvation is a return to organic
agriculture, which has already proven far more sustainable and
profitable than Bt cotton [12]. This may apply also to the USA.

A fundamental  shift in farming practices needed now
The organic market has been booming in the United States despite the
economic downturn. According to a new report from the US Department of
Agriculture, retail sales of organic food went up to $21.1 billion in
2008 from $3.6 billion in 1997 [23] (see Fig. 1). The market is so
active that organic farms have struggled at times to produce sufficient
supply to keep up with the rapid growth in consumer demand, leading to
periodic shortages of organic products.


Figure 1  Growth in US  organic market 1997 to 2008
Certified organic acres more than doubled from 1.3 million acres in
1997 to a little over 4 million acres in 2005 (0.5 percent of all
agricultural land in the US). In the same period, the number of organic
farms increased from 5 021 to 8 493, and the average size of certified
organic farms went from 268 acres to 477 acres. 
So why are US farmers failing to taking advantage of the rapidly
expanding market? It is thought [23] that potential organic farmers may
opt to continue with conventional production methods because of “social
pressures from other farmers nearby who have negative views of organic
farming”, or because of an inability to weather the effects of reduced
yields and profits during the transition period. This is not surprising
on account of the persistent negative propaganda carried out by GM
proponents, including government regulatory agencies, against organic
agriculture. (See for example the recent attempt by UK Food Standards
Agency to prove organic food is no more nutritious than conventional
food, which backfired [24] (UK  Food Standards Agency Study Proves Organic Food Is Better, SiS
44). The usual claims are that organic agriculture yields less and
require more energy than conventional agriculture, and organic produce
no more nutritious or healthy, but less hygienic than conventional
produce. These false claims are all thoroughly  refuted in ISIS report Food  Futures Now: *Organic *Sustainable *Fossil Fuel Free [25],  with evidence from the published scientific literature, as well as  other studies. 
Most relevant for US farmers is a study by Kathleen Delate of Iowa
State University and Cynthia A. Cambardella of the US Department of
Agriculture assessing the performance of farms during the three-year
transition it takes to switch from conventional to certified organic
production [26]. The experiment lasting four years (three years
transition and first year organic) showed that although yields dropped
initially, they equalized in the third year, and by the fourth year,
the organic yields were ahead of the conventional for both soybean and
Our report [25] also documents the enormous potential for reducing
greenhouse emissions – even to the extent of freeing us entirely from
fossil fuels – through organic agriculture and localised food (and
renewable energy) systems. It is a unique combination of the latest
scientific analyses, case studies of farmer-led research, and
especially farmers’ own experiences and innovations that often confound
academic scientists wedded to outmoded and obsolete theories, of which
GM technology is one glaring example.
 At about the same time our report was released, the International
Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for
Development (IAASTD) was also published. IAASTD was the result of
three-year deliberation by 400 participating scientists and
non-government representatives from 110 countries around the world
[27]. It came to the conclusion that small scale organic agriculture is
the way ahead for coping with hunger, social inequities and
environmental disasters [28] (“GM-Free  Organic Agriculture to Feed the World[”, SiS 38). 
 A fundamental shift in farming practice is needed right now, before the agricultural meltdown is complete.


More information about the permaculture mailing list