A Probable Carcinogen Is Now the Most Heavily Used Weed Killer in History

But don’t expect a new analysis of glyphosate use to derail Monsanto’s plans for its next-generation herbicides.

(Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba/Getty Images)

Feb 2, 2016
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

One of the promises made at the beginning of Monsanto’s biotech revolution some 20 years ago was that planting crops genetically engineered to withstand weed killer applications would dramatically reduce the amount of chemicals farmers used. So why are we virtually drowning in herbicide today?

An analysis published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe finds that, rather than herald a bright future where farmers had to rely less on chemical herbicides, broad adoption of Monsanto GMO crops designed to withstand the herbicide glyphosate appears to have instead led to a chemical deluge. Today, glyphosate, which Monsanto markets under the brand name Roundup, stands as “the most widely and heavily applied weed-killer in the history of chemical agriculture in both the U.S. and globally,” according to a statement released by the Environmental Working Group in response to the findings.

Indeed, the analysis finds that use of glyphosate has skyrocketed 15-fold since Monsanto introduced its line of Roundup Ready crops in 1996. Although the chemical herbicide has been around since the mid-1970s, some 75 percent of all glyphosate applied to crops during the history of its use has been sprayed in the last 10 years. That equates to 2.4 billion pounds sprayed just in the U.S. from 2004 to 2014, the equivalent of 436 million gallons of Monsanto’s Roundup PowerMax formula.

Put in another, more Web-savvy way, the Environmental Working Group translates that mind-boggling amount as enough to fill some 3 million kiddie pools a foot deep—which, put end to end, would span the country.   

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way—at least not according to the vision Monsanto sold farmers a generation ago. The problem with glyphosate was that it had a nasty tendency to kill crops along with weeds, but Monsanto said it had neatly solved that problem with its line of patented GMO crops. Because those Roundup Ready crops were engineered to thrive even when doused with glyphosate, farmers could use the potent herbicide to kill pesky weeds in less amounts than they might with other types of herbicides.

A bag of Monsanto seed corn with Roundup Ready herbicide on
a farm in Princeton, Illinois. (Photo: Getty Images)

That’s what happened—at first. But within a decade, something “unexpected” occurred—or rather, it was unexpected only if you believe it never dawned on the experts in life sciences at Monsanto that it might happen. Farmers began reporting that certain weeds appeared to have developed a resistance to glyphosate. Instead of using less herbicide, now some farmers were being forced to use much more to combat a growing epidemic of “monster weeds.”

Why does all this matter today, even beyond the staggering amount of glyphosate that’s being applied to American cropland and the broken promises of the agrochemical industry that the deluge represents?

For starters, last year the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, made big news when it classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen, raising significant concerns about the safety for the farmworkers around the world who are charged with applying massive amounts of the herbicide to fields, as well as the health of agricultural communities where use is heaviest.

Second, rather than take a long, hard look at what’s happened in the 20 years since Monsanto sold farmers on the company’s trademarked crop “system,” the big agrochemical giants are instead rolling out a new generation of GMO crops coupled with newly formulated chemical combos.

Despite the withdrawal of the approval of the Environmental Protection Agency late last year, Dow remains committed to getting its Enlist Duo system to market, while Monsanto is developing Xtend, or what might be dubbed “Roundup Ready 2.0.” In an effort to combat the scourge of super weeds, both companies have developed powerful herbicides that pair more chemicals with—you guessed it—more glyphosate.      

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