Evolution in Action: Roundup Ready Crops Create Roundup-Resistant Superweeds

By Andrew Moseman | May 5, 2010 12:51 pm

CornIs the Roundup Ready revolution coming to a close? In the early 1990s, agribusiness giant Monsanto introduced its line of genetically modified crops that could tolerate the pesticide Roundup, allowing farmers to spray it far and wide without worrying about damaging their product.

Now, reports are bubbling up about the increased resistance some weeds are showing to Roundup, which could be the source of great worry, as 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of corn currently grown in the United States are the Roundup Ready varieties.

[F]armers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said [The New York Times].

And for the environmentally-minded, here’s something else to consider:

That threatens to reverse one of the agricultural advances bolstered by the Roundup revolution: minimum-till farming. By combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, farmers did not have to plow under the weeds to control them. That reduced erosion, the runoff of chemicals into waterways and the use of fuel for tractors [The New York Times].

For an in-depth take, and a historical reminder of how weeds have always evolved to thwart our means of killing them, check out DISCOVER blogger Carl Zimmer’s post.

Related Content:
The Loom: How To Make a Superweed
80beats: Biotech Potato Wins European Approval; May Signal a Larger Shift on GM Crops
80beats: India Says No to Genetically Modified Eggplants
80beats: GM Corn and Organ Failure: Lots of Sensationalism, Few Facts
80beats: Bee Killer Still at Large; New Evidence Makes Pesticides a Prime Suspect
DISCOVER: “Frankenfoods” That Could Feed the World

Image: flickr / Peter Blanchard

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment
  • Scott

    Is Everyone forgetting about the decades of increase yields , reduced erosion, reduced pesticides, and increased profits for farmers? I DO NOT work for Monsanto but I do think they helped farmers and agriculture (albeit with great profit to themselves). Yes, there is a growing problem with glyphosate resistant weeds and this will need to be addressed but why crucify the company that made the product without any blame going to the people who used it?

  • Matt

    What Scott said. Andrew is too biased to point out the benefits.

  • john smith

    Dear Scott, Monsanto only helped themselves. They ruined both farmers and agriculture (please, do some search on that). And yes, I blame both the greedy company and greedy farmers. As for the resistant weeds, it was bound to happen. And when they fix that, it will happen again, sooner or later. You can not really win over Nature.

  • Scott

    John Smith, Please explain what you mean by “some research”. Please do not assume you are more educated on this subject. I find it strange that all the attacks are against Monsanto. Hershey knows their products contain sugar and sugar, when abused, can cause obesity. There is a huge problem with childhood obesity and yet I have never heard anyone attacking Hershey. I object to the attacks against one company when they are just as profit hungry as the rest. When doctors over prescribed antibiotics and resistances were formed no one blamed the pharmaceutical companies. They blamed the doctors and the patients that requested them. What is the difference this time?

  • Scott

    BTW I Enjoy Hershey products and buy them frequently. I only used them as an example. I have no animosity against Hershey and did not mean to single them out. I only used them because their name is well recognized.

  • Brian Too

    The problem with Roundup Ready was that the concept was flawed from the beginning. That’s why people are against Monsanto. Many farmers trusted them or felt that they had no choice. It’s Monsanto that has the scientists, agriculturists, risk assessors, and specialists of every stripe. A farmer is the opposite, a generalist (but yes it was foolish to buy into Monsanto’s hype anyways).

    Roundup was and is a biotoxin. It was developed to sterilize soils of all plant life. My grandparents were farmers and it was well known in the farming communities that, for certain tough weeds, Roundup was the only effective treatment. However don’t expect to grow anything else there for a while! When you used Roundup you were dropping the hammer, so to speak.

    Roundup Ready was a concept that you create one, single exception to the sterilization process. It’s the farming monoculture taken to the extreme. You spray a field and wipe out everything except your Roundup Ready crop.

    Just one problem. You cannot control pollen, nor gene swapping, cross-fertilization, mutation, nor any of the other aspects of nature in an open field. What do you think Wild Oats are? Rice?? Wild Oats are closely related to tame oats and that is just one example of a possible cross-pollination scenario.

    The case study of antibiotic resistance was already well known and scientifically studied. It’s a fine analogy. If you saturate an environment with a toxin and leave even 1 survivor, you promote resistance. Biology 101. With spray drift and volunteer seeding, low level exposure to Roundup and survivors were a dead certainty. There were multiple mechanisms at work to promote Roundup resistance. Roundup Ready was doomed to fail from the beginning.

    Monsanto might as well have made their slogan “Spray poison and watch your field thrive! Together we’ll destroy Roundup!”

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    Never saw that coming.

  • Max E

    The benefits of round-up ready crops that people are saying weren’t reported are implicit in the use of the words ’round-up ready.’ The benefits are obvious and are described in detail.

    The issue with blaming Monsanto and not the farmer’s who use it, is that farmer’s weren’t made aware in all cases of the possible risks associated with breeding these crops. Monsanto has sold them a product to help make their farming easier, and gifted them with large plots of weeds that are potentially invulnerable to chemical warfare. And there’s no doubt that the next scientific advance that will be able to wipe out these weeds will come from the mouths of Monsanto, will cost more, and feed more and more profits their way.

    It’s wild. I mean, it’s starting to sound like a super-villain plot.

  • bruce

    Watch the documentary ” The World According to Monsanto”
    And their ride that used to be at Disneyland SUCKED, just like everything they do.

  • http://clubneko.net nick

    Instead of GMOing our current food to resist horrible chemicals, we should be GMOing the weeds to produce friendlier weeds. I mean, that’s how we got corn, right? nutritionally poor plant that grew everywhere… Imagine if those foxtails you can’t get rid of were foodtails….

  • m

    John smith – try working on a farm. then come back and tell me they are “greedy”.

    Loose a crop to an invasive plant or insect, with all the hard work you invested along with it, then come back and tell us how “greedy” farmers are.

    as you so eloquantly said “please, do some research on that”

  • http://www.monsantoblog.com Kathleen

    There is a post on the Monsanto blog addressing the New York Times article and one of our employee’s thoughts on the piece. It is important to note that overuse isn’t the reason for Roundup resistant weeds it is over reliance. Read more here:

    Roundup Resistant “Superweeds” in the News – Beyond the Rows

    Thanks so much,

    Kathleen
    Monsanto Company

  • http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org Bill Freese

    In response to Kathleen, Monsanto, and others who blame farmers for resistant weeds. Monsanto long advised farmers that they could “overrely” on Roundup (as Kathleen says), using it on Roundup Ready crops year after year, without risk of glyphosate-reistant weeds developing. An Iowa State University weed scientist chastized Monsanto for this several times, in 2003 and 2004 when it was already apparent Roundup-resistant weeds were on the march — see http://www.weeds.iastate.edu/mgmt/2003/monad.shtml and http://www.weeds.iastate.edu/mgmt/2004/twoforone.shtml.

    Their scientists assured us for many years that weeds harboring mutations that make them Roundup-resistant were so rare that resistant weeds would never evolve in any significant way. These assurances have proven quite profitable for the company. Monsanto has changed its tune now, but clearly bears a big share of the blame for the Roundup-resistant weed epidemic.

  • Ken

    I am not a farmer, but I do live in Iowa. Farmers are attacked at every turn. They are at the mercy of government regulations on pesticide, herbicide, water and land use. Throw in government farm programs, environmental groups, seed and chemical companies, grain marketers, etc. – all of which bombard the farmer with information and sometimes condemnation.

    Every farm family that I know has great concern for the environment, and their practices are much improved over the past few decades. Their biggest issue is that they must continue to scale their operations up to compete for profitability. Most farmers yern for the more simple operations of the past, but they know that to earn a living they need to keep growing – just like any business.

    This is the problem in every industry in the US and most of the developed world. Large scale anything leads to a concentration of inputs, products and bi-products. Anything too concentrated has negative effects on the environment – even natural products.

    The answer lies with “us,” the consumer. If we all demand organic, natural foods we could eliminate the effects of concentration, pesticides, herbicides…have cleaner water, live healthier lives, decrease cancers, obesity, etc. The farmers would like nothing better! However, then the question becomes, “who is going to feed the rest of the world?”

  • Mark Shapiro

    Exactly what you’d expect from the company that developed ‘Agent Orange’. Monsanto is disgusting!

  • http://www.lenaldis.co.uk Len Aldis

    I am at present in Vietnam celebrating the 35th anniversary of the liberation of Southern Vietnam and the reunification of the country. On each of my visits I have seen the results of Monsanto’s work, that of Agent Orange, sprayed for over ten-years on South Vietnam.

    Thousands of Vietnamese have died from Agent Orange and today there are over 4,000,000 suffering from various illnesses and severe deformaties. Monsanto’s Agent Orange has affected three generations and will, if not already, affect the fourth.

    There are many thousands of American Veterans who served in Vietnam and are also affected by Agent Orange. Now we read how wonderful Roundup is??????
    I do wish that employees and supporters of Monsanto would wake up to the real world and see the horrific damamge that products of Monsanto has and continues to do to the people and land of many countries, the sooner a world-wide embargo is placed on their products the safer the world will be.

  • http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org Bill Freese

    Len, it’s worse than you think. Dow (another big manfacturer of Agent Orange) is coming out with 2,4-D resistant corn and soybeans. 2,4-D is one component of Agent Orange. And Dow is selling these new crops as a “solution” to Roundup-resistant weeds! This is the way pesticide companies think. Resistant weeds are not a problem. They’re an opportunity to foist new (and old) toxic pesticides on us. It’s the pesticide-treadmill, but now in fast forward thanks to genetic engineering. We should have never allowed pesticide companies to buy up the seed supply.

    For the EIGHT herbicide-tolerant crops awaiting rubber-stamp approval by our USDA, see Petitions for Nonregulated Status Pending at http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/not_reg.html.

    For Roundup’s extreme toxicity to frogs, see: http://www.pitt.edu/~relyea/Site/Roundup.html.

    Ken, I agree with you. Farmers get jacked around by everybody, especially Monsanto. Monsanto has persecuted THOUSANDS of farmers for (allegedly) saving and replanting its patented Roundup Ready soybean seeds, and collected tens of millions of dollars from them. See http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/Monsantovsusfarmersreport.cfm. Yes, this has got to be one of the most unethical companies ever.

    There are non-chemical methods to control weeds – some cover crops (rye, black oats) do a great job of suppressing weeds in follow-on crops. See Matt Liebman, ISU agronomist, for more. http://www.agron.iastate.edu/personnel/userspage.aspx?ID=646

  • JJ

    maybe if more people understood how evolution actually works, this wouldn’t be such a big shocker!

  • someguy

    You guys that are sticking up so valiantly for Monsanto should remember one thing “Terminator Seed”. And ask yourselves, How much do they really help the farmers? Also that “terminator gene trait” could potentially spread to other plants as well. (fun)

    We as a people need to ask ourselves “do we really need to rely so heavily on petrochemicals?” Look at what they do to the to the ground via chemical fertilizers, look at what they do to your body via prescription drugs. Take a deep breath in a polluted city. Go swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. ( too soon? sorry BP) We could have achieved any (of the many) forms of alternative energy long ago, but the people who make the decisions apparently love to destroy the environment, while pretending that they are helping all of us.

  • someguy

    Quote from Len…the sooner a world-wide embargo is placed on their products the safer the world will be.

    I totally agree. Let these dinosaurs die off already

    Also, I highly recommend you all watch The Future of Food.

  • Jane Forster

    Did anyone actually check out the Monsanto blog that Monsanto’s new PR person “Kathleen” posted? Wow; it’s like Hallmark, Bible study and Family Circus all rolled up into one evil package. Are they serious?

  • http://www.lenaldis.co.uk Len Aldis

    Bill, while in Ho Chi Minh City I took the opportunity to call at the office of Dow Chemicals, I had already faxed them that I was coming. However, the director nor the manager would see me they sent out two young ladies to say they could not discuss Agent Orange with me and suggested I contact their office in Switzerland………

    They did hand me a statement that was outrageous and untrue, and I told them so. I had it published in some online newspapers.

    The last two lines of the statement read: “Today, the scientific concenus is that when the collective human evidence is reviewed, it doesn’t show that Agent Orange caused veteran’s illnesses.”

    If Dow Chemical can make that statement, how can anyone ever believe what they say on any other matter.

  • Mark Shapiro

    Here’s a link regarding Len’s visit to Dow in HCMC

    http://agentorangezone.blogspot.com/2010/05/dow-chemical-says-agent-orange-is.html

  • Randy

    For Scott and all the other brain dead entities; there are absolutely NO benefits from GMOs, other than the bottom line (try doing some REAL research), for Monsanto. Monsanto is pure evil. They have opened Pandora’s box and we are all suffering. Within a few more years, there will be no real food left. All we will have to eat will be frankenfoods and chemical poisons. The effects on society are already obvious to anyone still capable of rational thought. Diabetes, heart disease, dementia, cancers, etc., are all on the rise. I see more and more (middle aged and younger) people, walking with canes, in wheelchairs and scooters…this society is ALREADY dead – they’re just too stupid to realize it!

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