Latin American farmers giving up on GM soy as superweeds plague their fields

Jun 09, 2016 12:00 AM

Genetically modified crops are beginning to lose their appeal in Latin America because of the unstoppable spread of herbicide-resistant superweeds, according to one expert, former DuPont agronomist Alberto Bianchi.

Soybeans are one of the most prolific and prominent crops throughout Latin America, and this is especially true in Brazil and Argentina, according to AgroLink.com. But the crop could fail to generate billions of dollars in annual income and might even cease to be competitive and attractive to farmers throughout the region if there are new herbicides to combat the glyphosate-resistant superweeds.

That warning comes from Bianchi, who is now a private consultant in Argentina who no longer works for DuPont. Bianchi says that soy has passed out of the "extreme simplicity for weed control" stage and into a much more complex stage because of the "repeated use of pretty much the same product," which is glyphosate (used most commonly in commercial crops to control broadleaf weeds).

'Emergence of new superweeds is very strong'
Bianchi says he believes that, especially over the past five years, "there has been a violent spread of a great many species of [resistant superweeds], often types that plague large expanses of Argentina."

Prior to the introduction of RR soybeans -- that is, Roundup Ready soybeans, compliments of agri-giant Monsanto -- and until about four years ago, Bianchi says, "one or two types of superweed were identified that were known" for being difficult to get rid of, and which "attracted the attention of the whole world." However, "[n]ow there is another group of threats," he says, which are appearing in different regions of Argentina where soybeans are cultivated, from the border with Bolivia in the north to the south of the Buenos Aires province.

He says the emergence of these new superweeds, which are "very strong and resistant to glyphosate application," is being seen in all regions, albeit with variations in type. That is "a serious problem," Bianchi said, noting "without euphemisms" that the situation today is "worse than before" the world was introduced to GMO soybeans resistant to glyphosate; the elimination of superweeds is becoming far more complex.

This is mostly because, today, "the superweeds are stronger than before," he says, adding that some "are already resistant to herbicides that were used before." That limits the range of possible products to use now.

Bianchi says the other part of the problem lies in the fact that "the chemical industry, the generator of all of these technologies, has not launched a new herbicide with a new mode of action for almost 30 years." As a result, "today we have to fight pests worse than 15 or 20 years ago, but with fewer weapons than we had before." That problem not only affects soybean crops, he said, but also "other crops as well."

That said, "soybean is a major crop that occupies more than 20 million acres and draws attention from all over the world," Bianchi noted.

The critics were right
The United States is experiencing its own glyphosate-related superweed problem. In 2012, Reuters reported that weed resistance had spread to more than 12 million acres of American farmland, mostly in the southeast, along with the corn- and soybean-growing areas of the Midwest.

"Many of the worst weeds, some of which grow more than six feet and can sharply reduce crop yields, have become resistant to the popular glyphosate-based weed-killer Roundup, as well as other common herbicides," Reuters said.

It wasn't as if the problem was not foreseen.

Former FDA Food Advisory Committee member Marion Nestle, writing in The Atlantic May 2012, stated that she was on the panel when it approved production of genetically modified foods in 1990.

"At the time, critics repeatedly warned that widespread planting of GM crops modified to resist Monsanto's weed-killer, Roundup, were highly likely to select for 'superweeds' that could withstand treatment with Roundup," Nestle wrote.

The critics were right.

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