Time sure flies, doesn't it? This spring marks the not-so-happy 20th anniversary of the introduction of Monsanto's flagship "RoundUp Ready" GE crops. USDA approved the first of these pesticide-intensive systems for commodity crops back in 1994. The new products came with big promises: they would fatten farmers' wallets and at the same time feed starving people around the world.
Farmers bought into RoundUp Ready corn, soy and cotton in a big way. Now, 85% of all corn and 90% of all soybeans grown in the U.S. have that trademarked RoundUp Ready gene. RoundUp Ready is king of the hill when it comes to commodity seeds — but not for long. Five years from now, RoundUp Ready may be nothing more than a relic of the past.
Monsanto's RoundUp Ready line of crops revolutionized U.S. agriculture, creating a new, divergent path that changed some very basic tenets of farming. Farmers could no longer save seeds from year to year. They would now pay a premium each year for seeds, always to the largest biotech companies in the world. As a result, independent seed companies rapidly disappeared: in 1996 this country was home to 300 — by 2009 we were down to 100.
But let's look more closely at those benefits that Monsanto promised with the introduction of RoundUp Ready crops 20 years ago, and how the reality matches up on farms across the country.
Promise #1: Save farmers money
How can Monsanto claim that the RoundUp system was ever intended to reduce pesticide use?
With each new GE technology, farmers have been promised increased yields. And RoundUp Ready was no exception. Specifically, farmers were told they could make more money with RoundUp Ready systems by increasing yields and decreasing pesticide costs. Turns out, just the opposite is true: RoundUp Ready corn and soy have consistently underperformed compared to the yield per acre of conventional, non-GE crops.
As for reducing pesticides — I honestly don't understand how Monsanto can continue to claim that the RoundUp system was ever intended to reduce pesticide use. Studies have shown a drastically different story: GE technology has driven up pesticide use 11% — a whopping 527 million pounds — since the year RoundUp Ready crops first hit the fields.
In addition, seed costs have dramatically increased since the introduction of RoundUp Ready. Soybean seed cost per acre has risen 325%. Cotton seed prices have gone up $100 per acre. GE corn seed prices are roughly double that of conventional seed prices, at about $110 per acre. These prices don't include the 'trait fee' — an extra charge added to GE seeds. When RoundUp Ready was first introduced, this trait fee was $4.50 per bag of soybean seeds. Now it's estimated at $17.50.
Promise #2: Feed the world!
This is a big one. Monsanto still uses this messaging as a drumbeat to silence anyone who opposes RoundUp Ready crops — and GE technology in general. According to Monsanto's aggressive PR spin, here's how the "GE is Needed to Feed the World" story goes: GE crops increase yield per acre, thereby simultaneously allowing U.S. farmers to export more grain and farmers around the world to produce local grain, making more calories available to impoverished families around the world.
There are some basic problems with this story. As we've already discussed, GE crops have not, in fact, increased yields. Nor is yield increase the silver bullet that will solve world hunger. According to experts on global hunger, we need accessible, secure, local food systems around the world — not pockets of super-productive grain belts.
The United Nations has released several reports showing that organic and near-organic farming practices are the best bet when it comes to developing these sustainable and sovereign food systems:
[E]vidence shows that organic agriculture can build up natural resources, strengthen communities and improve human capacity, thus improving food security by addressing many different causal factors simultaneously.
Promise #3: Stop weeds for good
In its 1993 petition to the USDA to deregulate RoundUp Ready seeds, Monsanto claimed that it was 'highly unlikely' that the widespread use of its GE technology would lead to glyphosate-resistant weeds. Boy, were they wrong. The frequent dousing of fields with RoundUp has led to more than 20 different species of glyphosate-resistant weeds.
The problem is widespread. Nearly half of all U.S. farmers surveyed by the USDA in 2012 reported glyphosate-resistant weeds. It is especially bad in the South, with 92% of farmers in Georgia, for example, reporting these so-called superweeds.
According to Penn State professor of weed and applied plant ecology Dave Mortensen, glyphosate-resistant superweeds are costing U.S. farmers $1 billion per year.
Crossroads for U.S. farming
The Big 6 are developing new GE seeds to keep farmers on the pesticide treadmill.
So here we are, 20 years later. I call it a crossroads because the RoundUp Ready era is nearly over. Superweeds have defeated this technology. Monsanto knows it, which is why the company has developed a suite of new products to take its place.
In fact, most of the Big 6 are lining up to introduce the next big pesticide-resistant seed technology to replace RoundUp Ready. Each company is staying with essentially the same strategy, but choosing a different old, toxic herbicide to replace glyphosate:
- Monsanto is going with Dicamba
- Dow is putting its energy into 2,4-D
- Syngenta and Bayer are teaming on isoxaflutole.
All of these companies are trying to get farmers to buy their promises once more. To buy the idea that this pesticide-intensive, expensive way of farming is best for farmers and for the world. To keep running down that pesticide treadmill by using more and more toxic chemicals to fight weeds.
And what is the alternative? The alternative is the good news. Just as UN experts have recommended for global production, agroecology can also be the answer here in the U.S. Iowa State University researchers showed in 2012 that crop rotation and fewer chemical inputs would meet or exceed the yields of chemical-intensive agriculture.
It's time to wave 'good-bye' not only to RoundUp Ready, but to all its pesticide-intensive cousins who are about to start knocking on the door. Let's welcome instead those new, cutting edge agroecological methods that can keep promises, not just make them.