Genetically modified crops shrink farming’s pesticide footprint

posted in: Science | 70

By Richard Roush, University of Melbourne and David Tribe, University of Melbourne

Recent news reports claim one in ten Australians believe the world will end on December 21, 2012, based largely on internet gossip about the meaning of ancient stone carvings from the Mayans of Central America. Such is the disturbing power of frightening myths to influence human belief.

No wonder modern apocalyptic mythology about agriculture, sinister stories about pesticides and assertions that genetic engineering of crops break a biological taboo find a very receptive audience, especially among those who don’t ever go to a modern farm.

In truth, there’s a lot to feel good about in the way modern agriculture is shaping up to the big challenges of the present – reducing carbon emissions, preventing soil erosion and minimising any environmental damage by herbicides and pesticides.

Helping the environment

One of the most significant crop management improvements in recent times has been the increasingly common practice of sowing seeds by direct drilling them into the stubble of the previous season’s crop. This approach forgoes a massive amount of soil tillage with the plough. Such minimum-tillage or no-tillage farming means that much less diesel oil is used in tractors and carbon levels can buildup in the soil rather than be released to the atmosphere.

It’s been estimated that the carbon emission savings from introduction of genetically engineered crops that encourage no-till farming are equivalent to removing 19.4 bn kilogram of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere worldwide. This is equal to the carbon emissions savings from removing 8.6 million cars from the road for one year.

Minimal tillage farming also has several other benefits, such as better moisture retention in the soil and reduction in soil erosion.

Genetically modified insect protected cotton on the left, next to a closely related conventional cotton variety on the right which is showing the damage from heavy insect feeding pressure. Greg Kauter, Courtesy of Australian Cotton Growers Research Association Inc, Narrabri, NSW.

Modern crop genetic engineering has provided farmers with much better crop variety options for use in no-till farming. One of these is crops that are tolerant of the herbicide glyphosate. This is the most widely used types of GM crop. Glyphosate-tolerant crops include soya beans, canola, cotton and maize. Glyphosate has much lower environmental impact than chemicals such atrazine, which it replaces. Unlike atrazine, which is banned in the European Union, glyphosate is relatively rapidly degraded in the soil and does not easily leach into water run-off to river basins.

Beating insects, saving farmers

Insect pest management has been completely revolutionised by the introduction crops with built-in insect protection added using modern gene technology. These include insect-protected cotton, which constitutes almost all of the Australian cotton crop, and insect protected-maize, which is widely grown around the world.

An important benefit of this development is protection of farmers and their families from accidental poisoning when spraying crops with synthetic chemicals. Another benefit is the elimination of synthetic chemical run-off into river systems, which is the big success in the switch of Australian cotton growers to genetically-manipulated cotton varieties that started fifteen years ago.

In Australia, genetically engineered cotton has reduced synthetic chemical spraying by about 80%. Worldwide it’s been estimated that in the period 1996-2010, biotechnology crops have allowed pesticide spraying to be reduced by 438,000,000 kg. This saving is equivalent to the pesticide active ingredient used in all the arable crops in the European Union for one-and-a-half crop years.

Ongoing scientific work being carried out in both the public sector and in biotechnology companies is generating options for further improvement of the environmental footprint of farming. New methods of insect protection, which can be stacked within one crop to give multiple layers of safeguards against insects, are now available. This reduces the chances of insects evolving resistance to the crop protection system and such methods are being used to achieve sustainable pest management for the long term.

Aphids on a seed pod. nDroae/Flickr

Another new development is being trialed in the field in the United Kingdom this northern summer. Scientists at Rothamsted Research station have developed varieties of wheat that have an inbuilt natural repellent for aphid pests. This is the same natural insect repellent made by hundreds of plant species, including peppermint and maize.

If this system (which is giving encouraging results in the glasshouse) performs well in the field, it will allow better control of aphids and reduce the need to spray many synthetic chemicals that are currently necessary to control an attack of the insect in wheat. Aphids transmit diseases that reduce crop harvests.

We have largely emphasised the environmental and human health benefits provided by crop biotechnology and outlined how the environmental footprint of pesticides is being significantly reduced using modern methods of gene technology.

But pesticides are used because they improve crop yields, and the assurance of more reliable crop yields provided by deployment of modern crop biotechnology

is becoming increasingly appreciated by food policy experts because of looming insecurities in global food supplies.

Hopefully, readers will realise that most of the sinister prophesies circulating about crop genetic engineering are as useful as the current myth that Mayan hieroglyphics say the world will end in December.

Richard Roush receives research funding from the Grains Research and Development Corporation.

Rick Roush has advised the US EPA on resistance management issues twice in the last 4 years. The US EPA requires a formal disclosure review process to identify any possible conflicts of interest, which Rick has passed. Rick does not work for, consult for, own shares in or receive funding from any private company that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

David Tribe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article except the University of Melbourne, where he is paid for teaching research and community outreach by a standard salary arrangement with the University. He has no relevant affiliations that might entail a conflict of interest in scientific analysis.

The Conversation

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Read the original article.

  • Ex-alt

    Is it not the fertilizers that really do the most harm to the environment?

  • V C Chowdary

    Genetically engineered plants are widely believed to be a major threat to environment. The engineered plants are likely to destroy the germ plasm of this planet. But what does this author suggest?

    Developed countries have as much as 40% incidence of cancer most of which is pesticide,herbicide and fertilizer induced. Is this also a Mayan Myth?

    • I know of no study indicating most cancer is induced by pesticide, herbicide or fertilizer. Some of the top cancer types are lung, prostate, breast, stomach and colon. Smoking is, by far, the strongest link to lung cancer. Prostate is diet linked. Breast cancer has been linked to alcohol consumption and weight. Colon cancer is diet (red meat) and weight related. Stomach cancer is diet and pathogen related. Interestingly, countries in the East often considered to have “good” diets, i.e. Japan, China, etc, have relatively high stomach cancer rates. None the less, cancers induced by pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers does not seem to be supported. I vote for Mayan myth.

      Source: wcrf.org/cancer_statistics/cancer_statistics_data.php

    • Ewan R

      Genetically engineered plants are widely believed to be a major threat to environment

      People are funny like that, they’re willing to believe all kinds of crazy stuff with no supporting evidence. Even in spite of contrary evidence. Lets not confuse what people believe with what actually is. That way lies lunacy.

      The engineered plants are likely to destroy the germ plasm of this planet

      What on earth are you talking about? What is the germ plasm of the planet? Should we be concerned if something which doesn’t exist is destroyed by *waves hands* some unexplained mechanism *waves hands* to do with GM plants?

      Developed countries have as much as 40% incidence of cancer most of which is pesticide,herbicide and fertilizer induced

      In that without pesiticides, herbicides and fertilizers vast swathes of the population would die of malnutrition related disorders and starvation? OK, that I can buy. Could also be a Mayan Myth though.

      I teach a class on food and agriculture to high schoolers, and I am always looking for both sides of the story. There is plenty out there about how bad Monsanto and GMO’s are, and from what I’ve read I believe it. Why else are they banned in so many other countries, and we have such a high cancer rate?

      Seriously if you look at the evidence and believe the nonsense then I am further saddened by the state of education. If this is the first instance you’ve come across that is reasonable and in support of GM crops then you aren’t particularly good at looking for reason. It is also spectacularly silly to simply dismiss anything that comes from the ag sector (unless at the same time you dismiss everything that obviously comes from the other side of the debate, which clearly you don’t) – approach with skepticism yes (again, if you can, if you’re buying the GMOs bad malarky this rather suggests a weakness in this area) but if you’re going to throw it all out then I can tell you now – the bulk of the stuff you read is going to be anti, not because they’re right, but because you’re doing your research wrong.

      • Rita

        “the bulk of the stuff you read is going to be anti, not because they’re right, but because you’re doing your research wrong.” – Wow, Susan was asking for guidance. Seemed like a potential convert – or at least not a fundamentalist “anti” – and you throw mud in her face. No wonder Monsanto has trouble marketing to the general public.

        Susan D. – Cornell did a nice publication: Genetic engineering of plants: research, rhetoric, and reality (Smith and Dawson)

        And for your classroom there is wonderful book: Garden Genetics: Teaching With Edible Plants (Margaret Smith from Cornell also coauthored that)

        • Ewan R

          No wonder Monsanto has trouble marketing to the general public.

          You may have seen my disclaimer, I’m not a PR guy, I don’t have patience for people who buy into nonsense.

          I also give people the benefit of the doubt and figure they’ll go where the facts lead them rather than getting upset that someone was mean to them on the internet.

          • Ewan R

            Reading further, and to Susan’s credit, she appears to be perfectly capable of ignoring tone.

  • Susan D.

    This is the first reasonable article I have read in support of GMO crops. I teach a class on food and agriculture to high schoolers, and I am always looking for both sides of the story. There is plenty out there about how bad Monsanto and GMO’s are, and from what I’ve read I believe it. Why else are they banned in so many other countries, and we have such a high cancer rate? But then I read this and I’m not sure. Can organic and GMO be combined without risk to the people’s and planet’s health? Please send me in a direction where I can become better educated. I am most interested in a non-biased, fact only resource (book, article) that is not being supported by the agro-business sector. Science and facts, not spin and money. Thank you so much for helping me educate the next round of future farmers and eaters.

    • Susan, try the book Tomorrow’s Table by Ronald and Adamchuck.

      One comment in your note scares me – “…from what I’ve read I believe it.” I’m sure I’ve read the same stuff you’ve read, but I think much of it defies common sense. Almost every time I check out one of the GMO horror stories, it turns out to be either false or twisted.

      You also ask why we have such a high cancer rate, implying that perhaps GMOs are causing cancer. Since the introduction of the first GMO crops, the cancer rate in the US has dropped, fairly steadily. I am, of course, referring to age-adjusted cancer rates. As people live longer, the number of cancer diagnoses increases but the fraction of people diagnosed with cancer in any age cohort is decreasing. I don’t mean to suggest that GMOs help prevent cancer, but you can’t connect cancer to GMO agriculture by saying that cancer rates are rising.

    • There is a book by Alan McHuhan published by Oxford U Press that is very good. Pandora’s Picnic Basket in the United states

      http://www.amazon.com/Pandoras-Picnic-Basket-Potential-Genetically/product-reviews/0198506740

      Another great book by Nina Fedoroff and Nancy Brown is Mendel in the Kitchen

      http://www.amazon.com/Mendel-Kitchen-Scientists-Genetically-Modified/dp/0309092051

      Also Academics Review website Genetic Roulette section written by me and Bruce Chassy is useful for myth debunking

      http://academicsreview.org/reviewed-content/genetic-roulette/

      • I’ve read both Pandora’s Picnic Basket and Mendel in the Kitchen and they are both excellent books. I personally like Mendel in the Kitchen better, but not for any content reason.

        That said, both books are fairly dense reads. A somewhat shorter book that covers some of the same points (but not quite as detailed) is Tomorrow’s Table which is by a married couple: plant geneticist and organic farmer. The authors and this book are what got me hooked on agriculture questions and the wide variety of options available to us.

  • Ex-alt

    J D Chowdary,

    I’d like to read more about the 40% cancer rate in developing countries. Could you provide a citation? Who is keeping track?

    Susan D – I’ve found this website, Genera, and the forum to be a valuable source of information from “both sides.” The forum has a lot of good discussions as do the older articles on the home page.

  • ‘In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests that previously posed only minor problems 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.

    Additionally, soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops, and a survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.’

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/oct/19/gm-crops-insecurity-superweeds-pesticides

    • These reports below contradict what you are saying Orphadeus

      What’s more important than quantity of herbicide, is it’s environmental impact quotient, which is very low for glyphosate used with most GM crops.

      Navdanya findings are quite unbelievable and not credible. Total sales of pesticides in India have gone down 20% with Bt cotton.

      NEW REPORTS:
      Plants engineered to repel pests use less pesticides, allowing natural insect predators to thrive and spread to non-GM fields
      Damian Carrington
      guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 June 2012 18.00 BST
      Crops genetically modified to poison pests can deliver significant environmental benefits, according to a study spanning two decades and 1.5m square kilometres. The benefits extended to non-GM crops in neighbouring fields, researchers found.
      Plants engineered to produce a bacterial toxin lethal to some insects but harmless to people were grown across more than 66m hectares around the world in 2011.
      Bt cotton is one type and now makes up 95% of China’s vast plantations. Since its introduction in 1997, pesticide use has halved and the 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.
      “Insecticide use usually kills the natural enemies of pests and weakens the biocontrol services that they provide,” said Professor Kongming Wu at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, who led the research team. “Transgenic crops reduce insecticide use and promote the population increase of natural enemies. Therefore, we think that this is a general principle.”…

      See also:
      A point about insect protected cotton that we didnt have space to make is the good fit with integrated pest management. Eg see here
      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature11153.html#/author-information
      “On the basis of data from 1990 to 2010 at 36 sites in six provinces of northern China, we show here a marked increase in abundance of three types of generalist arthropod predators (ladybirds, lacewings and spiders) and a decreased abundance of aphid pests associated with widespread adoption of Bt cotton and reduced insecticide sprays in this crop. We also found evidence that the predators might provide additional biocontrol services spilling over from Bt cotton fields onto neighbouring crops (maize, peanut and soybean). Our work extends results from general studies evaluating ecological effects of Bt crops by demonstrating that such crops can promote biocontrol services in agricultural landscapes.”

      http://farmersforum.in/policy/study-on-socio-economic-impact-assessment-of-bt-cotton-in-india/

      Part of this report
      Pesticide Use
      It was found that pesticide consumption in the country declined by 23 per cent in the Post-Bt cotton period (2002 to 2009) when compared to the Pre-Bt cotton period (1996 to 2001). Farmers reported that with the introduction of Bt cotton, though Bollworm damage had declined, there was an increased damage of sucking pests not supposed to be controlled by Bt Cotton technology. In the last 2 years the rate of decline in consumption of pesticide has also reduced. Hence, the decline in Cotton yields in recent years, can to some extent, be attributed to increased attacks by sucking pests.

      • This is a very readable and heartwarming version of the news from China on this topic:
        http://the-scientist.com/2012/06/13/gm-crops-offer-natural-pest-control/
        GM Crops Offer Natural Pest Control
        Transgenic cotton plants that produce their own insecticide bolster local insect predator populations, which could serve as better long-term solutions to crop pests.
        By Hayley Dunning | June 13, 2012
        Bt cotton is a genetically modified crop that produces an insecticidal protein toxic to the devastating cotton bollworm pest, reducing the need for broad-based sprays that can kill beneficial arthropod predators like ladybirds and spiders. Now, researchers have found evidence that when Bt crops replace insecticide spraying, predator populations bounce back and provide effective biological pest control, for the Bt crops and possibly surrounding fields. The result comes after a 20-year, 2.6 million hectare study in rural China, published today (June 13) in Nature….

  • pdiff

    Susan D, don’t be put off by Ewan. He’s just grumpy until he gets his tea, crumpets and perhaps a pint later on :). Having been married to a teacher for 30 years, I know how rare it is that they can find the time/resources to actually do research on a topic, so I’m glad to see you make the effort. The materials mentioned above are excellent and I’d second the encouragement for you to check them out and ask further questions if you have them.

  • There appears to be an important difference between the EIQ and the EIQ field use rating (EIQ x kg of product/ac).

    http://www.umanitoba.ca/outreach/naturalagriculture/weed/files/herbicide/less_harmful_e.htm

    Glyphosate has a high EIQ field use rating.

    • Ewan R

      For the limited number of products shown, yes.

      http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ps.1448/full

      Suggests that in reality switching to glyphosate based weed control reduces the EI per unit area (which is what the EIQ field use rating measures)

      http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.arplant.043008.092013

      also suggests the same.

      So no, comparitively the glyphosate system does not have a high EIQ field rating. Seems plant biology isn’t your only weakness.

      • MikeB

        The Annual Reviews (Peggy G. Lemaux) paper you link to is just stupendous. It is one of those “required reading” documents, and I thank you for posting it.

    • That’s interesting, but in terms of the changes in usage before GM to after GM introduction that we are discussing, Orphadeus, EIQ still improves the measure of GM benefits. For example in the table you mention using amount per acre as a measure and considering a switch from Poast herbicide to Ruoundup the ratio before:after based on amount per acre is 1.5, but in terms of EIQ per acre the before to after GM ratio is 3.4 which is indicating a far more favourable situation from the change to GM.

  • Susan D.

    Thank you for the list of books, everyone. I will definitely check these out. Evan, I’m sorry you are so grumpy and off-putting. I am trying to learn the facts so that I can teach the facts, and teach my students to make informed decisions instead of being spun to one side of the debate or the other. I am not “anti” anything except for the destruction of the health of the planet and its species. If GM crops are truly not causing harm to the health of living things that they interact with, and in fact can work within a system of sustainable agriculture with minimal inputs into the pesticide/herbicide waste stream, then that is good news. As an educator, I am very aware of our tendencies to go toward polarities when addressing controversial issues. In order to survive as a species on this planet (and not take everything else down with it), I believe we need to bust through this mindset and work together in the middle. Educators and Scientists need to help each other out, right? Take care – I have some reading to do.

  • While, with regard to EIQ field use rating, the glyphosate may be around 3 times more ‘eco-friendly’ than the Poast, the Ally may be around 55 times less damaging than the glyphosate.

    That was 1.64 for the glyphosate, divided by 0.03 for the Ally.

    • Orph, haven’t you any appreciation for the fact that these are not interchangeable? If I have planted glyphosate resistant soybeans, I can clear the field of weeds with glyphosate, but Ally will kill the soybeans. If I have non-resistant soybeans, I can’t use a herbicide except pre-emergent. This does not make no-till techniques attractive.

      In my mind, the biggie is for corn. The natural control of broadleaf weeds in a cornfield is atrazine. Corn resistant to glyphosate lets us replace atrazine with glyphosate. What’s the EIQ for atrazine?

      Give us, if you can, an example of an actual alternative in which the herbicide resisting plant is causing more environmental damage that an actual alternative.

      • Not to mention that Ally is a sulfonylurea, which as a class of herbicides, are very persistent in the soil (1 to 3 years for replanting after Ally, dependent on the crop and location; none for glyphosate: http://www.ksre.ksu.edu/library/crpsl2/c707.pdf). I’ve also pointed out elsewhere on BF that sulfonylureas can be very potent residually, down to the parts per trillion level. Notice that the use rate for Ally, in the ref you give Orph, is nearly 100x less than glyphosate. There’s a reason for that. It’s hot as s**t. Not what you want in your garden…
        .
        If the EIQ field use rating for glyphosate is really that much higher than Ally given these differences, then I wouldn’t put much stock in it as a measure.

  • Ex-alt

    So, back to my question – isn’t it the fertilizers that are doing the greatest damage to the environment? For instance, dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico have been attributed to agricultural runoff into the Mississippi. Some spots off the Atlantic in NJ are dead zones, allegedly due to fertilizers used by landscapers.

    • Wouldn’t that depend on how you want to define damage or harm. Certainly there is a large effect of nitrogen in terms of the area impacted in the ocean or rivers, but “pesticides” can be damaging through long term effects over time and on a broader spectrum of life. I don’t see comparing or trying to rank these two as fruitful. Both can be problematic and are not necessarily independent. They both need to be approached with a variety of tools to mitigate there deleterious effects.

    • One way fertilizer and pesticide use interacts is with no-till agriculture, made easier on a large scale by herbicide resistance. A field planted with a crop that is resistant to herbicides (ideally more than just glphosate so you can rotate them!) can be tilled less or not at all. Less tilling means less soil erosion and less fertilizer runoff.

  • Ex-alt

    Thanks pdiff and Rachael. Good points. I recently learned about no-till and how much nitrogen is saved and how little soil erosion there is. I was curious about fertilizers because in the Garden State, if and when there is something in the news about dead zones, it is about fertilizer, not the pesticides. I’ve been defining environment as water, soil and air. The fertilizer run-off seemed more detrimental as it was getting into oceans and rivers miles away from the source. Pesticides seem to be presented as a health issue for farm workers or by groups like Environmental Working Group who believes were all eating pesticide residues enough to kill or sicken us if we’re not eating organic. As you can all tell by now, I have a lot to learn. Thanks again.

    • Jason

      You are right to be concerned about fertilizers and run-off. The energy it takes to make the fertilizers is significant (about on par with tractor use on farm) and the efficiency of fertilizer uptake is rather poor.

      The larger issue here is the dominance of annual plants in agriculture. The root systems of annuals are not great at nutrient update. They are adapted to ecosystems with little competition and thus have low resource efficiency.

      Since we massively over-produce annual seed crops, I believe it would be much better to shift agriculture towards perennial plants that can retain soil nutrients and even build them on-site, e.g., legumes.

      Would be great if the big seed companies would work on the genetics of edible perennial seed crops–aside from the perennial forage varieties that already exist and are quite fantastic if you are a ruminant.

      • Hi Jason,

        Since we massively over-produce annual seed crops, I believe it would be much better to shift agriculture towards perennial plants that can retain soil nutrients and even build them on-site, e.g., legumes.

        This seems rational, but pretty lofty and very long term. Wheat and rice, for example, are major staples, used in many forms and culturally embedded world-wide. Is it better to work the good perennial qualities into these crops or do we try to push people off what they know?

  • There are various considerations taken into account when calculating the EIQ. Doubtless you can take one of them. The fact remains that a glass of whisky is not as strong as 10 pints of lager.

    It appears completely unacceptable to use EIQ as a measure of eco-friendly. Clearly it must be the EIQ field use rating.

  • (Glyphosate) ‘Resistant weeds so far cover over 4.5 million hectares in the US alone, while world-wide coverage is thought to have reached at least 120 million hectares by 2010. The US has the worst problem, with 13 different species in 73 different locations. Palmer amaranth now infests over 1 million separate sites in North Carolina alone, while Horseweeds have infested 100,000 sites in Delaware. In Argentina, 100,000 acres of soya crop lands is now infested with Johnson Grass.

    The lack of glyphosate resistant weeds prior to the introduction of RR (Roundup Ready) crops genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate, led GM proponents to argue that glyphosate resistance would not be a likely problem following the introduction of RR crop farming. However, since their commercialisation in 1996, resistant weed species have been emerging at a rate of 1 per year. Most worryingly, the spread of resistant weeds seems to be increasing dramatically. Up until 2003, 5 resistant populations had been documented. Since 2007, there has been a 5-fold increase in the spread of resistant weeds.’

    http://www.i-sis.org.uk/Monsanto_defeated_by_herbicide_resistant_superweeds.php

    Is that true?

    • Is that true?

      Yes and no. Glyphosate resistant weeds: Yes, been known for years. There are management strategies to counter this, also known for years. So what. Nothing new here Orphy.

      The lack of glyphosate resistant weeds prior to the introduction of RR (Roundup Ready) crops …

      This total BS. Herbicide resistant weeds have been around long before RR crops (I’ll also have you note that the original RR crops were not GMO either). Resistant weeds exist naturally in nature all by themselves. Herbicide exposure selects for them. It does not create them. I can guarantee you that Ally resistant weeds already exist somewhere out there without any Ally ready crop. Try a new line of argument Orphy….

    • Here’s a graph of weed resistance to different classes of pesticides from http://www.weedscience.org/. Glyphosate is in the glycine class. As you can see, there’s a lot of herbicide resistant weeds! Most have nothing to do with genetic engineering. There has been a bit of an uptick of glyphosate resistance since the introduction of Roudndup Ready crops, but it’s no more than we would expect when any herbicide is used.

      Ally actually has 2 active ingredients: sulfonylurea (class ALS inhibitors) and triazolinone (class PPO inhibitors), so it would presumably take 2 mutations for plants to become resistant. Unfortunately, though, there’s a lot of ALS resistant weed biotypes and a more than a few PPO resistant biotypes already.

      • Thank you! I actually found a PDF (I think on the EPA’s website) showing resistant plants to various classes of herbicide by state and which caused issues. I can’t find it now, but this is much more effective for showing the point that if you use an herbicide a lot, resistant plants will develop.

        • I like pictures 🙂 It’s so much easier to see it in a graph, especially when you want to compare the different pesticide modes of action over time. What I really want to do is take this graph and try to add a 3rd dimension – acres sprayed or gallons used of each herbicide type per year. That would maybe help get at the problem that pdiff brings up below. Is the increase in resistant ecotypes really increasing in response to more of that herbicide being used? Or is the usage consistent while more resistant ecotypes are being found?
          One thing that I find especially interesting about this graph is that weed resistance to glycine mode of action (glyphosate) seems to be leveling off. I hope that is a trend that continues!

      • Nice graph Anastasia. It is also worth noting that much of these trends are probably also due to more interest in, and better detection of, resistant biotypes. There was a big push in weed research to find these critters in the 80’s and 90’s.

        • Super good point! It’s probably like so many health conditions that seem to have increased but really it’s just that people are more aware of them so more people are going to their doctors and getting diagnosed.

      • Ally actually has 2 active ingredients: sulfonylurea (class ALS inhibitors) and triazolinone (class PPO inhibitors), …

        I’m not aware of this. Is this a specific formulation?

        • Maybe it is a different formulation! To get that info, I just googled Ally mode of action and found this but now that I look again, that’s “Ally Express” which may be different.

          • I believe Express is a mix, most likely developed to combat things like ALS resistance.

            Also, on the varying levels of observed resistance for certain modes of action, some of this may be pathway related. Herbicides target specific points in the metabolic pathways, like ALS (acetolactate synthase). Herbicide blockage at some of these points may be more easily circumvented by the weed populations than others, hence more resistance to that type. PPO (protoporphyrinogen oxidase), on the other hand, may be harder to bypass.

  • Interesting graph, the PPO inhibitors (eg Ally) looks the best if you are going to use one. However, I’ve noticed a contradiction. The graph does not show a 5 fold increase in glyphosate resistant weeds since 2007. The 5 fold increase since 2007 is widely reported and presumably refers to the number of acres.

    “The reported extent of infestation in the United States has increased dramatically since just November of 2007, when glyphosate-resistant populations of eight weed species were reported on no more than 3,251 sites covering up to 2.4 million acres.”

    http://phys.org/news203697204.html

    Do you have a graph for that?

    • Sorry, the article continues:

      ‘In the summer of 2009, glyphosate-resistant weeds were reported on as many as 14,262 sites on up to 5.4 million acres, and the most recent summary indicates 30,000 sites infested on up to 11.4 million acres, according to Mortensen. In a period of three years, the number of reported sites infested by glyphosate-resistant weeds has increased nine fold, while the maximum infested acreage increased nearly fivefold.’

      • In addition to not showing the acreage spreading of resistance, the graph does not distinguish by minor resistance and major resistance.

        The coincidence between glyphosate resistant weeds appearing after the genetic modification to make the crops glyphosate resistant does not appear to guarantee that the reason was increased usage.

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18181145

    • The graph does not show a 5 fold increase in glyphosate resistant weeds since 2007. The 5 fold increase since 2007 is widely reported and presumably refers to the number of acres.

      Phhhhht! Did you even read the comments above!?

    • There difference is in the way they are counting.
      This image counts resistant ecotypes (also called biotypes)
      while the article you reference counts 1) sites and 2) acres. All three are relevant information, but are not the same ways to count.

      The PhysOrg article says “During the period since the introduction of glyphosate-resistant crops, the number of weedy plant species that have evolved resistance to glyphosate has increased dramatically, from zero in 1995 to 19 in June of 2010,” which exactly matches the image shown above.

      The journal article you link to “Gene flow from glyphosate-resistant crops” is interesting, but seems to be based largely on a non-peer reviewed study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that is known to be anti-biotechnology (hardly an unbiased source). Frankly I don’t know how the reviewers let that one slide.

      Anyway, if we look at the paper in depth, it shows that there are only a few crop species with potentially receptive relatives in the US – namely, canola and to a lesser extent sugar beet (although in most cases beet is harvested a full year before flowering even happens). So, pollen mediated gene flow from cultivated plants to weeds or wild populations is only a problem in a few specific circumstances.

      There are two other potential sources of non-pollen mediated gene flow: adventitious presence and mixing. Adventitious presence is plants from seeds dropped accidentally during the previous year that can establish a wild population. Mixing can occur when harvesting and other machinery are not cleaned out completely between harvesting. Both of these can happen with GM or non-GM seed and should be avoided in general.

      • OrchidGrowinMan

        Ummm,

        Equisetum, Ranunculus and Calystegia are resistant to glyphosate, and were before glyphosate existed. I’m pretty sure there are other examples, perhaps even just some biotypes, of plants whose opportunity to become noxious, or more so, came when competition was knocked-down. That doesn’t mean that herbicides fail, just that they are not magic bullets. If these weeds were less of a problem than others before herbicides, then they are probably less of a problem than the other weeds would be without herbicides.

  • ‘Gene flow can also produce glyphosate-resistant plants that may interfere with weed management systems.’

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18181145

    That appears to be worded kindly.

  • leo hood

    so are we to provide forage for these insects and their predators outside of farm fields? can we create dedicate land,to bringing back balanced Eco-systems too? or is the GE concept just made to create more food for our ever growing populations?

    • Insects that eat crops are literally taking food from humans. Should we just accept that they’re going to eat up a certain percentage of the crop? They carry plant diseases just as a mosquito can carry disease from human to human, and insect damaged crops are more susceptible to fungus and rotting – so the problem of insects on crops is even larger than them just taking a bite. It’s just not realistic to say that we should live in harmony with these pests, many of which aren’t native to the area they are infesting anyway.

      There seem to be two strategies here, neither of which is perfect:
      1) Attempt farm intensively such that you are producing as much food as possible on as little land as possible so you can leave other land areas for nature. That’s nice but great care needs to be taken to keep tools of farming, including fertilizer and pesticides away from the natural lands.
      2) Attempt to farm “in harmony with nature” such that you are including more biodiversity in the form of plants, animals, etc on your farm. That’s nice but yields are so much lower that you need more land.

      The third way is a combination of the two. Careful selection of modern intensive farming methods combined with things like inter-cropping and no-till to result in higher yields with reduced impact. Genetic engineering can help us do this. For example, Bt used to control insect pests means less broadcast spraying that kills insects that aren’t actually harming the crop. So, yes, the GE concept is to create more food, but to create that food with reduced environmental impact. Take a look at our recent post about genetically engineered papaya for another view of how genetic engineering can act in harmony with nature.

  • hoodleo

    o.k so fist of all, there are too many of us and we have to learn to live by some ecological rules. no one population should take over the entire planet destroying or innovating our way through all other species right? if plants or insects aren’t native to the area then usually, we brought them there. do we never question why we have pests, pathogens etc.. and just come up with a solution without really knowing what the problem is? how were the papaya being grown? was there any simple technique we could of used instead on the ground? I would like to see what the issue is in-depth but instead I’m told its solved by someone way more qualified and i shouldn’t ask questions. Is it possible that there was a simpler solution?

    • o.k so fist of all, there are too many of us and we have to learn to live by some ecological rules.

      Handwaving….handwaving … Ecological rules … handwaving…

      What the hell are “Ecological Rules”? This smells distinctively of a naturalistic fallacy. That we’re all out of balance with “Nature (TM)”. What would your “rules” be? Living in “harmony” with nature? Agriculture of ANY KIND is non-natural. It is it’s own type of ecosystem. I suggest you read some Charles Mann.

      no one population should take over the entire planet destroying or innovating our way through all other species right?

      This type of thing happens all the time in “Nature”. It’s the way “Nature” works, you know, dog eat dog world. Part of the Natural Ecosystem.

      do we never question why we have pests, pathogens etc..

      Uhh, only all the time!

      how were the papaya being grown? was there any simple technique we could of used instead on the ground?

      Read the Man Behind the Rainbow post and links. TL;DR: Traditional breeding was a fail. The only simple answer on the ground was to continually cut down forest on new uninfested ground, until that was infested or stop growing a healthy nutritious fruit. GE stopped that destruction of “natural” forest and allows the fruit to be grown. Still think GE is evil?

      I would like to see what the issue is in-depth but instead I’m told its solved by someone way more qualified and i shouldn’t ask questions. Is it possible that there was a simpler solution?

      You keep saying this. Perhaps it happens. Perhaps it’s happened to you. In general, it is not true. If you can not correctly understand the technical issues, however, you should not think that you can make qualified opinions on the subject. Either you rely on someone else to do so for you, or you educate yourself on the subject so that you can understand. The articles on sites like this can help you do the later.

      Is it possible that there is a simpler solution? Do you really think no one asked that? Do you think everyone in the field just automatically said “Hey! Lets find some technically advanced way to do this!” Seriously! In the forums, you accused scientists of always “finding the quick and easy” way, yet now we’re accused of picking the “non simple” way. Can’t win with you, can we?

    • Ewan R

      o.k so fist of all, there are too many of us

      How nice of you to volunteer to rectify the problem, I’ll leave this on your desk and quietly close the door.

      no one population should take over the entire planet destroying or innovating our way through all other species right?

      False dichotomy albeit a common one, population certainly needs to be controlled, I’d argue that doing this through political means and lifting people out of poverty (and providing access to sex education and birth control)is a far more admirable goal than simply throwing up your hands and letting people starve to death.

      I believe PDiff has the rest covered.

    • “o.k so fist of all, there are too many of us…” Scary how this discussion starts off talking about superweeds and ends up on over-population.
      Is the real agenda of the anti-GE movement to forcibly reduce the world’s population by opposing new technologies that might help not only solve some of the problems caused by earlier agricultural technology, but also help the rest of the world develop- thereby causing hardship and starvation? This will have the opposite effect – as Ewan says, birth rate goes down with increasing prosperity and security, starting with food security.
      Unfortunately the environmental movement shares common roots with the eugenics movement and population control was one of its early goals- see “Merchants of Despair” by Robert Zubrin.
      On the other hand, I would have thought that if you buy the scare stories about GE crops, you would welcome them as a means of population control- they will give us cancer! allergies! superweeds will be created that will take over the planet like the Triffids! the genes will escape and wipe out civilisation!

  • hoodleo

    graham . no, people starve because of distribution issues and are kept down by taxes among many other things. we have an obesity problem in the west alongside famines elsewhere. we do need some kind of population control ask any ecologist. please dont try to make me out as some kind of crackpot. just because im not pro gm doesnt mean i’m an idiot!

    • Yes people do starve because of distribution issues, for instance in India at the moment, but that’s not the only reason or the only remedy. The issue is not just under-nutrition, there is malnutrition, and biofortification with vitamin A and iron are GM options, and it not just about nutrition — its farmer poverty too. More productive farming means less poverty, as shown in China and India overtime, and may well happen in Africa.

      As far as population control why rely on ecologists? They have misjudged it badly in the past (Paul Ehrlich for instance).

      Better farming method may in fact be a pre-condition for better population outcomes, along with other important issues such as education for girls.

      • Mikeb

        This issue of population increase–which Graham derides as “eugenics” above (which ranks as a irresponsible, inflammatory comment, much like the worst anti-GM rhetoric)–is simple to understand but most difficult to remedy:

      • leo hood

        hi david, i dont belive that gm is a good basis for getting nurishment from food. i dont see why good agricultural practices aren’t used to nourish the soil therefore the plant and person alike. i also dont believe that more productivity for one farmer will mean an automatic reduction in poverty. there are many other factors there. first of all, distribution is still a problem and the people who cant afford food now will not be able to afford food just because of the higher production of it. i know that biotech companies are giving out cheap, royaly free seed now, but what about the future? i am under the asumption that the farmers cannot replant the crop and have to either buy new seed or ask for permission. the end result is all we see on when we look at famine on the news, it is not solely the weather at fault but lack of eduation about farming practices, deforestation, stolen land, tribal and race issues, displacement. people who soley believe that agriculture is the main solution have to understand that socio-ecological models are sorely needed. saying that one ecologist got it wrong is the same as saying one driver crashed on the road – stop all cars! thanks for writing back to me in a sensible and constructive manner. its just too hard for some people on here to do.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socio-ecological_system

        the use of agroforestry and agroecology will help this.

        http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/newsroom/media_coverage/un-report-calls-shift-agro-ecology

        • Pity you may not be reading this Leo, but for other reades here is where I see things differently than you.

          LEO i dont see why good agricultural practices aren’t used to nourish the soil therefore the plant and person alike.
          DAVID Some nutrients such as vitamin A in rice are impossible to improve by soil manipulation.

          LEO i also dont believe that more productivity for one farmer will mean an automatic reduction in poverty.
          DAVID Its not automatic, but low productivity is a terrible trap, and good productivity helps provide better outcomes

          LEO there are many other factors there. first of all, distribution is still a problem and the people who cant afford food now will not be able to afford food just because of the higher production of it.
          DAVID But it help make it easier

          LEO i know that biotech companies are giving out cheap, royaly free seed now, but what about the future? i am under the asumption that the farmers cannot replant the crop and have to either buy new seed or ask for permission.
          DAVID Thats not a necesary part of GM and not true when patents expre, and not true for Gloden Rice and not true in China

          LEO the end result is all we see on when we look at famine on the news, it is not solely the weather at fault but lack of eduation about farming practices, deforestation, stolen land, tribal and race issues, displacement.
          DAVID Well yes, the world is complex

          LEO people who soley believe that agriculture is the main solution have to understand that socio-ecological models are sorely needed. saying that one ecologist got it wrong is the same as saying one driver crashed on the road – stop all cars! thanks for writing back to me in a sensible and constructive manner. its just too hard for some people on here to do.

          DAVID There are a lot of rural poor who can be helped by better tools. The tools alone wont solve the problems, but throwing away good tools makes the problem harder to solve,

    • Population control in an organized, enforced fashion gets into questionable ethical status really fast. But we know how to do “population control” without things like forced abortions, thank god. The key is helping women to pull themselves out of poverty so their daughters can pursue education. The Gates Foundation has some good materials about this, and some success stories.

      • leo hood

        thank you anastasia, i’m going to leave the site, even though there are some sane people such as yourself on here writing. i’m being accused of being a nazi and a hippy all at the same time. thank you for helping me understand how gm could be usefull.

        • Holy Cr*p Leo. If you’re that thin skinned, you will indeed have a tough time of it. Sorry you think you need to “leave the site”.

          For me, I spent a fair amount of time after our volleys looking at agroforestry. Too bad you left so soon. There were some interesting points to be had there. For the interest of others here, I posted some of them in the Forums.

          Later Leo…

          Forum Post

  • @Mikeb you ignore the main point which is that in what was a technical thread on superweeds and GE crops, Leo- who argues against GE entirely without any facts or understanding of the issues- lets slip his real concern: over-population.

    Why? I think it is obvious: like most anti-GE activists and ideologues, it is not so much that he is concerned that use of GE might create superweeds or poison bees etc, his main concern is that it might actually help feed more people more effectively. This he does not want- because ““o.k so fist of all, there are too many of us…”

    You then escalate this tack with a link to Al Bartlett, who’s misleading and scare-mongering analysis is firmly in the tradition of eugenicists such as Ehrlich. The exponential phase of population growth ended some 20 years ago- see my blog post on population here:

    http://skepteco.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/7-billion-hearts-and-minds/

    Zubrin describes how, as eugenics- which had become influential in US foreign policy before WWII- fell into disrepute with the fall of Nazi Germany, it was re-invented as an environmental problem of “over-population” -promoted by the likes of Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome.

    The environmental narrative has not really moved on since then: over-population and the “Limits to Growth”. But in reality such “limits” are dependent on technology; hence opposition to new technological development in GE and agriculture, nuclear energy, frakking etc- environmentalists tend to be opposed to such things on principle.

    But in reality such limits are dependent on technology; hence opposition to new technological development in GE and agriculture, nuclear energy, frakking etc- environmentalists tend to be opposed to such things on principle– regardless of the evidence for safety and proper regulation etc, they don’t want these advances to succeed.

    It is essentially an anti-modernist, anti-human ideology.

  • Mikeb

    “You then escalate this tack with a link to Al Bartlett, who’s misleading and scare-mongering analysis is firmly in the tradition of eugenicists such as Ehrlich.”

    There you go again: If someone points out that you lie, you just repeat the lie. That’s the end of the conversation. Bartlett is explicit about the remedy and it involves nothing even remotely resembling eugenics.

    • But isn’t representing human growth as just the arithmetic of exponential human growth a woefully simplistic and inaccurate model. With demographic transitions, the exponential math model is simply wrong. It’s not inability to comprehend exponential graphs that’s the issue — it’s faulty models of changes in human culture over time. Paul Ehrlich got it wrong. Forget about the eugenics red herring.

  • Maybe you could tell me what, specifically, is Al Bartlett’s “remedy” is- I cannot watch the whole 1hr episode now because of poor internet connection. I have been familiar with Bartlett’s material for many years, but have never heard him suggest a remedy- other than vague references about “population control”- to repeat, Bartlett’s anlysis of exponential growth is completely out of date, misleading, incorrect and based on scare-mongering about “over-population”. So why do you link to it?

    I have not said anywhere that Bartlett’s remedy explicitly involves eugenics- nor does Ehrlich, nor would you be likely to hear such a solution expressed outside a neo-Nazi group. The point stands that the “over-population” scare is a rebranding of the eugenics movement. Fred Pearce gives a good account of this history in his book PeopleQuake.

    These are uncomfortable facts but if you are not familiar with them I urge you to look into it before rushing to others of lying.

    The point is, there is no scientific position on what constitutes the carrying capacity of the planet- this is purely an ideological formulation.

    I ask the question once again- why does Leo resort to vague claims of “there are too many of us” in a forum discussion on superweeds? Why to you link to Bartlett in support of his concern? If you don’t consider yourselves as being examples of surplus humanity, who do you mean? Perhaps you are concerned about the extreme fecundity of wealthy Nordic blond people, but somehow I doubt it.

  • leo hood

    so because there is no scientific proof that there is a carrying capacity we should carry on regardless, knowing how much damage humans (including me) have caused? if you hadnt noticed-maybe you havent actually read the article above? – this article contains the heading ‘beating insects saving farmers’ and then goes on to talk about pest management using GE crops. did you actually look up any information about human overpopulation? because i am certain that a ‘carrying capacity’ isnt the be all and end all of having too much of any one species. there are usually checks for other species but we have over come and adapted as humans are known to do. climate change has been proven and even if gentic engineering saves us the ecological costs of farming – which i very much doubt it will. we are still in serious trouble. the more population, the more resource depletion and the subsequent pollution. I am not necessarily anti GE and everybody assumed this. I accuse a lot of you of Anthropocentrism and speciesism i.e the ‘pests are evil and we need to eat dont we?’ kind of attitude. I have plenty to eat, i try to eat more than the atypical four grains and the small amount of choices given regarding the fruit, veg, and seed types that are sold. I fear that the future wont hold even the current amount of choice. i will sign off of this website now as i didnt come here to be attacked by morons, i came on here for a discussion and to find out more about GE foods. I was questioning motives and possible damage to biota. i was going to challenge what land would look like and talk about why aesthetics are important. i am sorry that i spoke about things that were not just about gentics or the specific issues on the page but the issues ARE political,social and ecological. please do not answer this. esp not with wisecracks about hippies or unenlightened luddites or so forth. bye

    • I don’t think a single scientist views pests as evil. As an entomologist, I don’t take this attitude. In fact, I find their biology fascinating which is why I study them.

      However, GE options allow us to target pests far more accurately than we can with synthetic insecticides. Figuratively speaking, why not hang up the grenade launcher in favor of the sniper rifle?

      As previously mentioned, GE also allows us to change the nutrient content of crops to add more of what’s needed in some regions and could potentially allow us to steal tricks other plants use to acquire nutrients.

      Nobody’s claiming GE will be the thing that saves the world, but it’s definitely one of the most potentially powerful tools in our arsenal.