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Pesticide Use On the Rise as GMO Crops Fail to Maintain Expectations of Sustainability

March 3, 2014

There are new articles in our local newspaper – the Vancouver Sun regarding the use of GMO foods. This blog post was first posted on May 30, 2013.

An article in the Wall Street Journal on May 21, 2013 reported that pesticide use is increasing again in the US – “Many Corn Farmers Go Back to Using Chemicals as Mother Nature Outwits Genetically Modified Seeds” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323463704578496923254944066.html. Following the introduction of GMO corn seeds in 2003, the acreage of corn treated with insecticide dropped from 25% in 2005 to 9% in 2010, which is a substantial decrease. Now apparently two-thirds of corn grown in the US includes the Bt gene. It was reported that farmers are beginning to increase their use of insecticides again because some of the yields have declined by 60% due to the rootworms becoming immune to the gene modification.  And we were all so hoping that GMO was going to dramatically reduce our need for pesticides.

The promises were big. First, we had the development of Roundup®: “Developed in 1974, Roundup® brand agricultural herbicides continue to be a perfect fit with the vision of sustainable agriculture and environmental protection” http://www.monsanto.com/weedmanagement/Pages/roundup-ready-system.aspx. Starting around 1996, Monsanto released GMO seeds that were Roundup® resistant. What this means is that seeds were generated with a gene that rendered the crop immune to Roundup® (glyphosate), which meant that entire fields could be sprayed with the herbicide, which according to the manufacturer, was safe and environmentally friendly.  “This means you can spray Roundup agricultural herbicides in-crop from emergence through flowering for unsurpassed weed control, proven crop safety and maximum yield potential.” http://www.monsanto.com/weedmanagement/Pages/roundup-ready-system.aspx

In 2003, GMO seeds were introduced that included a toxin against insects: “For farmers today, it’s all about getting the most yield out of every acre of corn, while using as few inputs as possible — such as insecticides and nitrogen. Monsanto’s corn traits help farmers do this by providing cutting-edge technology that protects the plant’s yield.”  http://www.monsanto.com/products/Pages/corn-seeds.aspx. Now there is increasing concern about neonicotinoid pesticides.

Somehow the promises that biotechnology will improve the sustainability of our agriculture are not coming true. When we think of sustainability, we consider the social, the environmental and the economics.

1. the promise of safer herbicide – an increasing body of evidence suggests adverse health affects to humans and the environment

2. the promise of less harmful insecticides – an increasing body of evidence that insects adapt quickly and use of harmful insecticides may not decrease as promised

3. the promise of safer crops – a growing body of evidence of the affects of glyphosate and other pesticide and insecticide residues on human health.

3. the promise of increased profits for the farmers – increasing evidence that the net profits for the farmers are not increasing, and in some cases are actually decreasing.

There are a growing number of our food consumers that are not quite as convinced about all of this. “Many countries around the world will not accept imports of genetically modified  foods…American consumers also have shown increasing interest in avoiding genetically  modified foods”  http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Japan+suspends+wheat+imports/8465979/story.html#ixzz2Uyyd3lRM. There is a growing body of scientific evidence that challenges the claims of GMO safety that is getting more difficult to ignore. A former colleague is also now questioning the value of GMO (for more information, you can google Dr. Thierry Vrain).

This makes us think about whether there are alternatives? Some would argue that the only alternative is to go backward as a society. As a soil scientist, I think that the opportunities are boundless to further develop the principles of agroecology – which involves learning and understanding how soil organic matter management and plant diversity can not only resolve some of the pest problems, but also increase yields. We have so much to learn about interactions and synergies between microbes and plants in our plant and soil systems. There is an increasing body of evidence that increasing our learning of these interactions and synergies will be able to provide enough food for our world’s growing population. There is also increasing evidence that this can be done in a manner that improves the social and economic well being of our farmers, improves the sustainability of our environment.

As a scientist and a citizen of this planet, I vote for using our God-given brains to figure out how to benefit from the interactions and synergies between microbes and plants in our plant-soil systems. Safer, more sustainable, more fun….

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