The Latest News From the GMO Front: Insecticide Use Is Down, But Herbicides Are Off the Charts

Over a 16-year period, herbicide use has increased by 527 million pounds.
A Greenpeace activist displays a rather creative sign to show his opposition to genetically modified maize crops. (Thierry Roge / Reuters)
Oct 1, 2012
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

We recently reported on findings that showed that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide and genetically modified maize causes tumors and organ damage in rats. As if that isn’t worrying enough, a new study by Charles Benbrook, a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, brings even more bad news.

Summarizing Benbrook's findings, Reuters reports, “U.S. farmers are using more hazardous pesticides to fight weeds and insects due largely to heavy adoption of genetically modified crop technologies that are sparking a rise of ‘superweeds’ and hard-to-kill insects."

“Genetically engineered crops have led to an increase in overall pesticide use, by 404 million pounds from the time they were introduced in 1996 through 2011 . . . Of that total, herbicide use increased over the 16-year period by 527 million pounds while insecticide use decreased by 123 million pounds.”

MORE: Russia Blocks Imports of Monsanto's GMO Corn

A reduction in insecticide use has been touted as one of the benefits of genetically-modified crops. In fact, this past June, The Guardian reported that China’s Bt cotton is now growing on 95% of the country’s plantations and, “Since its introduction in 1997, pesticide use has halved and a study showed this led to a doubling of natural insect predators such as ladybirds, lacewings and spiders. These killed pests not targeted by the Bt cotton, in cotton fields, but also in conventional corn, soybean and peanut fields."

But while insecticide use was dropping, concern over the rise in the use of herbicides has been brewing for the past several years. In 2009, The Ecologist stated, “Pesticide-use in the US has increased significantly since the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops . . . the adoption of GM BT corn and cotton had led to a reduction in insecticide use . . . But the uptake of other GM crops resistant to herbicides in the same period led to an increase in herbicide use of 382 million pounds. That left an overall figure of 318 pounds of additional pesticides being used.”

And they referred to an astute observation from a report entitled, “Impacts of Genetically Engineered Crops on Pesticide Use,” that said, “A rise in herbicide use is not news to farmers, but it is to the public which still harbors the illusion, fed by misleading industry claims and advertising, that biotechnology crops are reducing pesticide use.”

In an eerie 2011 prequel to the results of Benbrook’s study, Organic Connections quoted Bill Freese, a Science Policy Analyst with the Center for Food Safety as saying, “One Iowa weed scientist was telling me that people are expecting these weeds to explode in Iowa in the next year or two. They’re creeping from the East and the South into the Midwest and people are starting to see them somewhat in the North. Studies out there are already showing that weeds are going to evolve resistance to this and other herbicides too. So probably we’ll have weed populations resistant to multiple herbicides—kind of like an arms race between the crops and the weeds. They engineer a new resistance into a crop, and then you use tons of that herbicide and the weeds develop resistance to the herbicide. It’s totally unsustainable agriculture, bad for the environment and human health.”

Reuters noted that, “Monsanto officials had no immediate comment [on Benbrook’s findings]. ‘We're looking at this. Our experts haven't been able to access the supporting data as yet,’ said Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher.”

Their response should make for some interesting reading.

Does this news make you even more hesitant about genetically-engineered crops, or are you not really all that surprised by the results of Benbrook’s study?

Lawrence Karol is a writer and editor who lives with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet staffer and enjoys writing about design, food, travel and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence |

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