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October 24, 2011

Herbicide resistance rises in GM crops

by Sean Poulter

Intensive farming of genetically modified crops is creating dangerous, spray-resistant superweeds, a new study has claimed. To date crops such as soya have been genetically modified to withstand spraying with powerful chemicals, such as Monsanto’s Roundup.

However, the fall-out of this GM system is that weeds in the fields have developed a resistance to the chemical. The biggest concern is pigweed, which is now rife across the southern states of America. It grows at a rate of more than one inch a day and
reaches a height of three metres. The problem is so severe that farmers have had to resort to the expense of hiring labourers to tour fields with scythes to clear them.

The so-called perfect super-weed is extremely hardy, produces 10,000 seeds at a time and will smother commercial crops in the same field.

Other crops such as maize and cotton have also been altered to make them
resistant to certain pests. However, recent research suggests some of the toxins included in GM food plants have reached the bloodstreams of pregnant women and their unborn babies. The harms this may cause are not yet known.

GM crops were first sold in the US about 15 years ago and are now grown in 29 countries on about 3.7billion acres around the world. Billions of dollars have been spent on the technology. Commercial crops, however, have not yet delivered the benefits touted by their makers, such as improved nutrients or drought resistance.

The authors of the Global Citizens? Report on the State of GMOs said: ‘’The genetic engineering miracle is quite clearly faltering in farmers?’’

It said the biggest issue is the greatly increased use of synthetic chemicals as part of the farming regime. The study reported that, in China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests have increased 12-fold since 1997.

A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat them.

It is claimed that pesticide use in India has increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced. And soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops.

The report highlights the fact that GM technology has allowed three biotech firms to gain a stranglehold over large elements of farm production.

Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, the world’s three largest GM companies,
now control nearly 70 per cent of global seed sales. This allows them to charge high prices both for seeds and the chemicals used with them. The study accuses Monsanto of gaining control of over 95 per cent of the Indian cotton seed market and pushing up prices.

High levels of indebtedness among farmers is thought to be behind many of the 250,000 deaths by suicide of Indian farmers over the past 15 years.

Vandana Shiva, director of the Indian organisation Navdanya International, which co-ordinated the report, said: ‘‘The GM model of farming undermines farmers trying to farm ecologically. Choice is being undermined as food systems are increasingly controlled by giant corporations and as chemical and genetic pollution spread. Co-existence between GM and conventional crops is not possible because genetic pollution and contamination of conventional crops is impossible to control.

‘‘Choice is being undermined as food systems are increasingly controlled by giant corporations and as chemical and genetic pollution spread. GM companies have put a noose round the neck of farmers. They are destroying alternatives in the pursuit of profit.’’

Dr Mark Buckingham, deputy chairman of the GM industry’s Agriculture and Biotechnology Council insisted the technology has huge potential benefits.

He said: ‘‘From India to South Africa, millions of farmers already value the positive impact GM technology can have on their operations. The world’s population is set to reach nine billion by 2050. Significant increases in crop yields are required or policy makers will struggle to address the most vital need of hunger and nutrition,
particularly in developing countries.

‘‘From additional vitamins in key food crops such as rice to disease-resistant crops, GM technology is providing additional tools for farmers to tackle some of the challenges they face. Drought tolerance technology is also being developed, which will allow crops to withstand periods of low soil moisture.’’

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