Weeds and insects fight back. More market for sprays, then.

Tom Philpott at Mother Jones isn’t impressed by GM crops. That’s genetically modified crops, also called genetically engineered (GE) crops or biotech crops. Mr Philpott says that GM crops are failing.

GM crops were supposed to reduce the need for pesticides. Pesticides are herbicides (weedkillers, including glyphosate marketed as Roundup) and insecticides (bug killers, including Bt toxin).

On the strength of anti-pesticide promises, Roundup Ready crops which resist glyphosate, and Bt crops which make their own Bt toxin, have become the most popular crop varieties in the States. It’s probably no coincidence that ‘superweeds’ have evolved to resist glyphosate and ‘superinsects’ have evolved to resist Bt toxin.

Somebody called amaize, commenting on a blog post of mine, said that superweeds aren’t ‘super’ because they’d become herbicide-susceptible if the selection pressure were removed. That could be so. On the other hand, evolution works only on variation that’s already there. If a weed population consists only of Roundup-resistant weeds, they might stay as superweeds into the future.

Mr Philpott shows graphs of how much pesticide American farmers have been spraying in recent years. They’re spraying more. [Edit] My fellow blogger Daniela at The Noah Project tells us more about how Roundup is selling better and better.

Wasn’t this supposed to be what GM crops would prevent? I’ve mentioned before that I call this an arms race between the biotech giants (Monsanto and others) and the canny little weeds and insects. I’ve mentioned health risks associated with Roundup and I’m gestating a blog post about risks associated with Bt toxin.

This might be good news for the biotech industry, though. Food and Water Watch tells us that when you control the seeds market and your GM crops stop working, you can sell more pesticide. Food might get riskier, ecosystems might get damaged, people still might not get fed. But the cash registers ring.

Here in Europe we should listen to Owen Paterson, head of the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) when he tells us to be sure that we don’t ‘miss out’ and get ‘left behind’ the marvellously sprayed American agricultural industry. Never mind the other kinds of biotech and the non-biotech strategies to feed the world, as mentioned on this blog and in many other people’s words. Biotech such as Marker Assisted Selection (MAS) and non-biotech strategies such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM).

Never mind fancy ideas like MAS and IPM. We need the good old GM crops! Yeah, right.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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4 Responses to Weeds and insects fight back. More market for sprays, then.

  1. EqFe says:

    Roundup ready seed was developed so that crops could tolerate more herbicides, since they were already not working as well as they had. You and I would think that given that it was predictable, that superweeds would develop, big Agra, frocused on short term profits didn’t care.
    Many American have bought into the idea, that Round up quickly breaks down and is harmless. You would not believe the number of people buying gallons of Roundup in big box stores.
    I think that GMO seed has great promise, but so far it hasn’t been realized.

    • argylesock says:

      What GM would you like to see?

      Do you know a good telling of how weedkiller (Roundup?) was already losing its power before Roundup Ready seeds were released? I’d not heard of that piece of history.

  2. Eqfe says:

    I’m glad that you asked, I had it wrong. It seems that Roundup was just as deadly to conventional crops as it was to weeds which was why Round up ready was developed. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roundup_(herbicide)

    • argylesock says:

      That’s an interesting Wikipedia article. Not peer reviewed, as they’re not on that site, but still I found it informative. Makes me notice how little of a chemist I am.

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