Friday, August 15, 2014

First Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria; Now Herbicide-Resistant Weeds

Nearly all of the corn and soybeans planted in this country have been genetically modified to make them resistant to a common herbicide called Roundup (glyphosate). Such genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be sprayed with Roundup during the growing season to kill weeds without harming the crop.

Given what we know about how the over-use of antibiotics has led to the appearance of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, what did we think would happen when we began spraying GMO crops heavily with a single herbicide? Why, of course - Roundup-resistant weeds! According to a recent New York Times article, an invasive Roundup-resistant weed called palmer amaranth (carelessweed) is already sweeping northward from the south, wreaking havoc on farmers’ fields.

Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup and the developer of the GMO seeds most farmers now plant, is planning even more genetic modification of corn and soybeans to make them resistant to other herbicides as well, allowing farmers to spray more than one herbicide on their crops. Each new modification will buy farmers some time in the perpetual battle against weeds (and also enrich Monsanto). But it’s not hard to see that in the long run this is a losing game; the over-use of any herbicide will ultimately lead to the emergence of herbicide-resistant weeds. Adaptation and evolution are hallmarks of the natural world. Farmers will have to develop other approaches (in addition to just spraying herbicides) to combat weeds effectively.

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