Monsanto’s Superweeds Saga Is Only Getting Worse
You’d like to think there are certain types of corporate malfeasance that really only exist in the realm of Hollywood fantasy. For example, the soulless biotech company that, through a combination of shortsighted greed and scientific hubris, decides to play God with Mother Nature—only to unleash a host of unintended consequences, which said company then refuses to acknowledge and instead continues to pursue its reckless technology to devastating ends. Sounds like the plotline of dozens upon dozens of dystopian sci-fi flicks, right? Or maybe it’s just the ongoing saga of Monsanto and the superweeds.
Yes, the story has taken far longer to unfold than any feature film, but still, your average teen who’s taken a semester of biological sciences would get the gist in a flash: A generation ago, Monsanto rolled out its patented line of genetically engineered crops that, in a (diabolical?) bit of corporate synergy, were designed to survive being doused with the company’s trademark weed killer Roundup, made with the herbicide glyphosate.
Monsanto billed its “crop system”—the “Roundup Ready” GMO seeds combined with Roundup itself—as a revolutionary boon to farmers: higher yields with fewer chemicals. Yep, fewer chemicals. It’s worth remembering today, when the use of glyphosate has soared more than tenfold in the past decade, that the original bill of goods Monsanto sold to farmers centered on the argument that because Roundup Ready seeds could withstand glyphosate, farmers wouldn’t have to use as much of the chemical to kill all those nuisance weeds.
That’s not exactly what happened, as we’re reminded once again by the latest Monsanto-related headlines this week.
As NPR reports, a scourge of superweeds that have become resistant to glyphosate is plaguing soybean farmers in parts of Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. They’re not alone. This graph from the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds shows how the number of unique cases of herbicide resistance in weeds in the U.S. shoots off like a rocket in the years following Monsanto’s introduction of Roundup Ready GMO seed in the mid-1990s.
Monsanto’s own solution to this escalating problem would seem as laughably predictable as a bad Hollywood sequel if it weren’t all too real: Let’s roll out more GMO crops designed to withstand being doused with even more weed killer. Monsanto calls its next-generation line of GMO soybeans “Xtend,” and these are capable of not only surviving heavy applications of glyphosate but an older, more potent herbicide known as dicamba.
Federal regulators have yet to approve the new dicamba-based weed killer Monsanto formulated to pair with its dicamba-resistant GMO soybeans. But that apparently hasn’t stopped some desperate farmers from spraying dicamba anyway. Because the chemical has a nasty tendency to drift to neighboring fields, Monsanto’s new GMO crops aren’t only upending the natural order, they appear to be upending the social order in tight-knit farming communities too: Neighbors are accusing neighbors of illegally spraying dicamba and killing off crops that haven’t been engineered to tolerate the chemical. Dozens and dozens of complaints have been filed in Missouri and in Arkansas, but that may only be the beginning in the next chapter of the Monsanto saga. If the company’s new herbicide wins federal approval and certain farmers start spraying it, surrounding farmers might have no choice but to plant Monsanto’s dicamba-resistant GMO crops too—or risk their own crops dying from herbicide drift.
As one crop scientist at the University of Arkansas tells NPR: “[These farmers are] afraid they’re not going to be able to grow what they want to grow. They’re afraid that they’re going to be forced to go with that technology.”
That is, of course, until the next generation of superweeds develops its own resistance.