Super Weeds Pose Growing Threat to U.S. Crops

Use of Roundup instead of crop rotation and multiple herbicides has created resistant weeds in the U.S.

Reuters
September 20, 2011

(Reuters) – Farmer Mark Nelson bends down and yanks a four-foot-tall weed from his northeast Kansas soybean field. The “waterhemp” towers above his beans, sucking up the soil moisture and nutrients his beans need to grow well and reducing the ultimate yield. As he crumples the flowering end of the weed in his hand, Nelson grimaces.

“When we harvest this field, these waterhemp seeds will spread all over kingdom come,” he said.

Nelson’s struggle to control crop-choking weeds is being repeated all over America’s farmland. An estimated 11 million acres are infested with “super weeds,” some of which grow several inches in a day and defy even multiple dousings of the world’s top-selling herbicide, Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.

The problem’s gradual emergence has masked its growing menace. Now, however, it is becoming too big to ignore. The super weeds boost costs and cut crop yields for U.S. farmers starting their fall harvest this month. And their use of more herbicides to fight the weeds is sparking environmental concerns.

With food prices near record highs and a growing population straining global grain supplies, the world cannot afford diminished crop production, nor added environmental problems.

“I’m convinced that this is a big problem,” said Dave Mortensen, professor of weed and applied plant ecology at Penn State University, who has been helping lobby members of Congress about the implications of weed resistance.

“Most of the public doesn’t know because the industry is calling the shots on how this should be spun,” Mortensen said.

Last month, representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture and the Weed Science Society of America toured the Midwest crop belt to see for themselves the impact of rising weed resistance.

“It is only going to get worse,” said Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy at the Weed Science Society of America.

MONSANTO ON THE FRONT LINE

At the heart of the matter is Monsanto Co, the world’s biggest seed company and the maker of Roundup. Monsanto has made billions of dollars and revolutionized row crop agriculture through sales of Roundup and “Roundup Ready” crops genetically modified to tolerate treatment with Roundup.

The Roundup Ready system has helped farmers grow more corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops while reducing detrimental soil tillage practices, killing weeds easily and cheaply.

But the system has also encouraged farmers to alter time-honored crop rotation practices and the mix of herbicides that previously had kept weeds in check.

And now, farmers are finding that rampant weed resistance is setting them back – making it harder to keep growing corn year in and year out, even when rotating it occasionally with soybeans. Farmers also have to change their mix and volume of chemicals, making farming more costly.

For Monsanto, it spells a threat to the company’s market strength as rivals smell an opportunity and are racing to introduce alternatives for Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds.

“You’ve kind of been in a Roundup Ready era,” said Tom Wiltrout, a global strategy leader at Dow AgroSciences, which is introducing an herbicide and seed system called Enlist as an alternative to Roundup.

“This just allows us to candidly get out from the Monsanto story,” he said.

Did USDA Deregulate All New GMO Crops?

by Tom Philpott
Mother Jones
July 8, 2011

It’s a hoary bureaucratic trick, making a controversial announcement on the Friday afternoon before a long weekend, when most people are daydreaming about what beer to buy on the way home from work, or are checking movie times online. But that’s precisely what the US Department of Agriculture pulled last Friday.

In an innocuous-sounding press release titled “USDA Responds to Regulation Requests Regarding Kentucky Bluegrass,” agency officials announced their decision not to regulate a “Roundup Ready” strain of Kentucky bluegrass—that is, a strain genetically engineered to withstand glyphosate, Monsanto’s widely used herbicide, which we know as Roundup. The maker of the novel grass seed, Scotts Miracle Gro, is now free to sell it far and wide. So you’ll no doubt be seeing Roundup Ready bluegrass blanketing lawns and golf courses near you—and watching anal neighbors and groundskeepers literally dousing the grass in weed killer without fear of harming a single precious blade.

Which is worrisome enough. But even more worrisome is the way this particular product was approved. According to Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program, the documents released by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) along with the announcement portend a major change in how the feds will deal with genetically modified crops.

Notably, given the already-lax regulatory regime governing GMOs (genetically modified organisms, click here for a primer), APHIS seems to be ramping down oversight to the point where it is essentially meaningless. The new regime corresponding with the bluegrass announcement would “drastically weaken USDA’s regulation,” Gurian-Sherman told me. “This is perhaps the most serious change in US regs for [genetically modified] crops for many years.”

Understanding why requires a brief history of the US government’s twisted attempts to regulate GMOs. Since the Reagan days, federal regulatory efforts have been governed by what’s known as the Coordinated Framework for Regulation of Biotechnology. Despite its name, the Coordinated Framework amounts to a porous hodgepodge of regulations based on the idea that overseeing GMOs required no new laws—that the novel technology could be effectively regulated under already-existing code.

Long story short, it means that the USDA theoretically regulates new GMO crops the same way it would regulate, say, a backyard gardener’s new crossbred squash variety. Which is to say, it really doesn’t. But that’s absurd. GM crops pose different environmental threats than their nonmodified counterparts. The most famous example involves the rapid rise of Roundup Ready corn, soy, and cotton, which were introduced in the mid-late 1990s and now blanket tens of millions of acres of US farmland. Spraying all of that acreage every year with a single herbicide has given rise to a plague of Roundup-resistant “superweeds,” forcing farmers to apply more and more Roundup and also resort to other, far-more-toxic products. Crops that aren’t engineered to withstand an herbicide could never have created such a vexation.

From the start, in a tacit acknowledgement that modified crops really are different, the USDA has resorted to a fiction that allows it to at least nominally regulate GMOs, Gurian-Sherman told me. A ’50s-era law called the Plant Pest Act gave the USDA power to restrict the introduction of organisms that might, well, harm plants. Genetically modified crops technically qualified as “plant pests” because industry scientists used DNA “promoters” derived from natural plant pathogens, most notably cauliflower mosaic virus, to amplify the genetic traits they introduced into new crops. “These promoters ensure that the desired trait is always ‘on,’ that is, expressed,” Gurian-Sherman explains.

The promoters—short stretches of DNA—are not themselves expressed by the engineered plant. In other words, the cauliflower mosaic virus used to bolster, say, Roundup Ready soybeans, poses no threat to actual cauliflower plants. In addition to promoters, GMO developers also use plant-pest substances at other points in the genetic-modification process—but again, they don’t express themselves in the finished project. “The Plant Pest Act was always just a regulatory hook to give the USDA authority to regulate engineered crops,” notes Gurian-Sherman. “Everyone—the industry, industry watchdogs, the USDA—always knew it was a fiction.”

Yet the fiction has endured. The industry accepted it, Gurian-Sherman says, because cursory oversight gave companies from a “fig leaf…They could say that their crops are regulated and have been deemed ‘safe’ by the USDA.” GMO foes accepted it as well, he adds, because without the plant-pest fiction, the USDA would have no authority to regulate genetically modified crops. Indeed, this plant-pest business has given activists important tools to force better oversight. For instance, the USDA is required by the National Environmental Policy Act to assess the environmental impact of the novel crops it regulates, and by the Endangered Species Act to gauge potential impact of GM crops on endangered species. Well, in recent years, the Center for Food Safety has successfully sued the agency for failing to conduct proper environmental-impact statements and endangered-species analyses for crops it removed from its plant-pest list.

Then, in 2000, Congress passed the Plant Protection Act, which broadened the Plant Pest Act slightly, adding one more regulatory hook (Gurian-Sherman’s words) to the USDA’s sparse GMO-regulation toolkit. That was the “noxious weed” status—any engineered crop that threatens to go rogue in the field and become a hard-to-control weed may be regulated.

That, roughly speaking, is where things stood. Until last Friday.

Obviously, a regulatory regime based on a lie was never really durable. Gurian-Sherman says the plant-pest schtick has been wearing thin for years now, because the industry has begun using nonpest material to develop novel crops. “If the companies don’t use plant pests, then the USDA ostensibly doesn’t have a legal hook to regulate the crops,” he says. To compensate, Gurian-Sherman says, the agency has resorted to tacitly acknowledging that it has no jurisdiction, but doing so quietly to avoid exposing the fiction.

But the agency’s decision on Scotts Miracle Gro’s Roundup Ready bluegrass may have changed all that. Scotts essentially shattered the code of silence in a Sept. 13, 2010 letter (PDF) to the USDA, which the agency released Friday. The company declared:

Because Kentucky bluegrass itself is not a plant pest, no plant pest components will be involved in the transformation, and the native plant genomes that will be used are fully classified, there is no scientifically valid basis for concluding that transgenic Kentucky bluegrass is or will become a plant pest within the meaning of the Plant Protection Act.

Based on that impeccable logic, the company went in the for the kill: “Scotts requests that [USDA] confirm that Kentucky bluegrass modified
without plant pest components…is not a regulated article within the meaning of the current regulations.”

In its July 1 response, the USDA agreed: “[N]one of the organisms used in generating this genetically engineered (GE) glyophosphate tolerant Kentucky bluegrass…are considered to be plant pests,” so Roundup Ready bluegrass “does not meet the definition of a ‘regulated article’ and is not subject” to the Plant Protection Act. In other words, go forth and multiply.

Read Full Article…

Monsanto’s Roundup Triggers Over 40 Plant Diseases

New Diseases Endanger Human and Animal Health

By Jeffrey Smith
January 19, 2011

While visiting a seed corn dealer’s demonstration plots in Iowa last fall, Dr. Don Huber walked passed a soybean field and noticed a distinct line separating severely diseased yellowing soybeans on the right from healthy green plants on the left (see photo). The yellow section was suffering from Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS), a serious plant disease that ravaged the Midwest in 2009 and ’10, driving down yields and profits. Something had caused that area of soybeans to be highly susceptible and Don had a good idea what it was.

The diseased field on the right had glyphosate applied the previous season. Photo by Don Huber

Don Huber spent 35 years as a plant pathologist at Purdue University and knows a lot about what causes green plants to turn yellow and die prematurely. He asked the seed dealer why the SDS was so severe in the one area of the field and not the other. “Did you plant something there last year that wasn’t planted in the rest of the field?” he asked. Sure enough, precisely where the severe SDS was, the dealer had grown alfalfa, which he later killed off at the end of the season by spraying a glyphosate-based herbicide (such as Roundup). The healthy part of the field, on the other hand, had been planted to sweet corn and hadn’t received glyphosate.

This was yet another confirmation that Roundup was triggering SDS. In many fields, the evidence is even more obvious. The disease was most severe at the ends of rows where the herbicide applicator looped back to make another pass (see photo). That’s where extra Roundup was applied.

Don’s a scientist; it takes more than a few photos for him to draw conclusions. But Don’s got more—lots more. For over 20 years, Don studied Roundup’s active ingredient glyphosate. He’s one of the world’s experts. And he can rattle off study after study that eliminate any doubt that glyphosate is contributing not only to the huge increase in SDS, but to the outbreak of numerous other diseases. (See selected reading list.)

Roundup: The perfect storm for plant disease

Sudden Death Syndrome is more severe at the ends of rows, where Roundup dose is strongest. Photo by Amy Bandy.

More than 30% of all herbicides sprayed anywhere contain glyphosate—the world’s bestselling weed killer. It was patented by Monsanto for use in their Roundup brand, which became more popular when they introduced “Roundup Ready” crops starting in 1996. These genetically modified (GM) plants, which now include soy, corn, cotton, canola, and sugar beets, have inserted genetic material from viruses and bacteria that allows the crops to withstand applications of normally deadly Roundup.

(Monsanto requires farmers who buy Roundup Ready seeds to only use the company’s Roundup brand of glyphosate. This has extended the company’s grip on the glyphosate market, even after its patent expired in 2000.)

The herbicide doesn’t destroy plants directly. It rather cooks up a unique perfect storm of conditions that revs up disease-causing organisms in the soil, and at the same time wipes out plant defenses against those diseases. The mechanisms are well-documented but rarely cited.

  • The glyphosate molecule grabs vital nutrients and doesn’t let them go. This process is called chelation and was actually the original property for which glyphosate was patented in 1964. It was only 10 years later that it was patented as an herbicide. When applied to crops, it deprives them of vital minerals necessary for healthy plant function—especially for resisting serious soilborne diseases. The importance of minerals for protecting against disease is well established. In fact, mineral availability was the single most important measurement used by several famous plant breeders to identify disease-resistant varieties.
  • Glyphosate annihilates beneficial soil organisms, such as Pseudomonas and Bacillus bacteria that live around the roots. Since they facilitate the uptake of plant nutrients and suppress disease-causing organisms, their untimely deaths means the plant gets even weaker and the pathogens even stronger.
  • The herbicide can interfere with photosynthesis, reduce water use efficiency, lower lignin , damage and shorten root systems, cause plants to release important sugars, and change soil pH—all of which can negatively affect crop health.
  • Glyphosate itself is slightly toxic to plants. It also breaks down slowly in soil to form another chemical called AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid) which is also toxic. But even the combined toxic effects of glyphosate and AMPA are not sufficient on their own to kill plants. It has been demonstrated numerous times since 1984
  • The actual plant assassins, according to Purdue weed scientists and others, are severe disease-causing organisms present in almost all soils. Glyphosate dramatically promotes these, which in turn overrun the weakened crops with deadly infections.

    Glyphosate with sterile soil (A) only stunts plant growth. In normal soil (B), pathogens kill the plant. Control (C) shows normal growth.

“This is the herbicidal mode of action of glyphosate,” says Don. “It increases susceptibility to disease, suppresses natural disease controls such as beneficial organisms, and promotes virulence of soilborne pathogens at the same time.” In fact, he points out that “If you apply certain fungicides to weeds, it destroys the herbicidal activity of glyphosate!”

By weakening plants and promoting disease, glyphosate opens the door for lots of problems in the field. According to Don, “There are more than 40 diseases of crop plants that are reported to increase with the use of glyphosate, and that number keeps growing as people recognize the association between glyphosate and disease.”

Roundup promotes human and animal toxins

Photo by Robert Kremer

Some of the fungi promoted by glyphosate produce dangerous toxins that can end up in food and feed. Sudden Death Syndrome, for example, is caused by the Fusarium fungus. USDA scientist Robert Kremer found a 500% increase in Fusarium root infection of Roundup Ready soybeans when glyphosate is applied (see photos and chart). Corn, wheat, and many other plants can also suffer from serious Fusarium-based diseases.

But Fusarium’s wrath is not limited to plants. According to a report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, toxins from Fusarium on various types of food crops have been associated with disease outbreaks throughout history. They’ve “been linked to the plague epidemics” of medieval Europe, “large-scale human toxicosis in Eastern Europe,” oesophageal cancer in southern Africa and parts of China, joint diseases in Asia and southern Africa, and a blood disorder in Russia. Fusarium toxins have also been shown to cause animal diseases and induce infertility.

As Roundup use rises, plant disease skyrockets

When Roundup Ready crops were introduced in 1996, Monsanto boldly claimed that herbicide use would drop as a result. It did—slightly—for three years. But over the next 10 years, it grew considerably. Total herbicide use in the US jumped by a whopping 383 million pounds in the 13 years after GMOs came on the scene. The greatest contributor is Roundup.

Over time, many types of weeds that would once keel over with just a tiny dose of Roundup now require heavier and heavier applications. Some are nearly invincible. In reality, these super-weeds are resistant not to the glyphosate itself, but to the soilborne pathogens that normally do the killing in Roundup sprayed fields.

Having hundreds of thousands of acres infested with weeds that resist plant disease and weed killer has been devastating to many US farmers, whose first response is to pour on more and more Roundup. Its use is now accelerating. Nearly half of the huge 13-year increase in herbicide use took place in just the last 2 years. This has serious implications.

As US farmers drench more than 135 million acres of Roundup Ready crops with Roundup, plant diseases are enjoying an unprecedented explosion across America’s most productive crop lands. Don rattles off a lengthy list of diseases that were once under effective management and control, but are now creating severe hardship. (The list includes SDS and Corynespora root rot of soybeans, citrus variegated chlorosis (CVC), Fusarium wilt of cotton, Verticillium wilt of potato, take-all root, crown, and stem blight of cereals, Fusarium root and crown rot, Fusarium head blight, Pythium root rot and damping off, Goss’ wilt of corn, and many more.)

In Brazil, the new “Mad Soy Disease” is ravaging huge tracts of soybean acreage. Although scientists have not yet determined its cause, Don points out that various symptoms resemble a rice disease (bakanae) which is caused by Fusarium.

Corn dies young

In recent years, corn plants and entire fields in the Midwest have been dying earlier and earlier due to various diseases. Seasoned and observant farmers say they’re never seen anything like it.

“A decade ago, corn plants remained green and healthy well into September,” says Bob Streit, an agronomist in Iowa. “But over the last three years, diseases have turned the plants yellow, then brown, about 8 to 10 days earlier each season. In 2010, yellowing started around July 7th and yield losses were devastating for many growers.”

Bob and other crop experts believe that the increased use of glyphosate is the primary contributor to this disease trend. It has already reduced corn yields significantly. “If the corn dies much earlier,” says Bob, “it might collapse the corn harvest in the US, and threaten the food chain that it supports.”

A question of bugs

In addition to promoting plant diseases, which is well-established, spraying Roundup might also promote insects. That’s because many bugs seek sick plants. Scientists point out that healthy plants produce nutrients in a form that many insects cannot assimilate. Thus, farmers around the world report less insect problems among high quality, nutrient-dense crops. Weaker plants, on the other hand, create insect smorgasbords. This suggests that plants ravaged with diseases promoted by glyphosate may also attract more insects, which in turn will increase the use of toxic pesticides. More study is needed to confirm this.

Roundup persists in the environment

Monsanto used to boast that Roundup is biodegradable, claiming that it breaks down quickly in the soil. But courts in the US and Europe disagreed and found them guilty of false advertising. In fact, Monsanto’s own test data revealed that only 2% of the product broke down after 28 days.

Whether glyphosate degrades in weeks, months, or years varies widely due to factors in the soil, including pH, clay , types of minerals, residues from Roundup Ready crops, and the presence of the specialized enzymes needed to break down the herbicide molecule. In some conditions, glyphosate can grab hold of soil nutrients and remain stable for long periods. One study showed that it took up to 22 years for glyphosate to degrade only half its volume! So much for trusting Monsanto’s product claims.

Glyphosate can attack from above and below. It can drift over from a neighbors farm and wreak havoc. And it can even be released from dying weeds, travel through the soil, and then be taken up by healthy crops.

The amount of glyphosate that can cause damage is tiny. European scientists demonstrated that less than half an ounce per acre inhibits the ability of plants to take up and transport essential micronutrients (see chart).

As a result, more and more farmers are finding that crops planted in years after Roundup is applied suffer from weakened defenses and increased soilborne diseases. The situation is getting worse for many reasons.

  • The glyphosate concentration in the soil builds up season after season with each subsequent application.
  • Glyphosate can also accumulate for 6-8 years inside perennial plants like alfalfa, which get sprayed over and over.
  • Glyphosate residues in the soil that become bound and immobilized can be reactivated by the application of phosphate fertilizers or through other methods. Potato growers in the West and Midwest, for example, have experienced severe losses from glyphosate that has been reactivated.
  • Glyphosate can find its way onto farmland accidentally, through drifting spray, in contaminated water, and even through chicken manure!

    Wheat affected after 10 years of glyphosate field applications.

Imagine the shock of farmers who spread chicken manure in their fields to add nutrients, but instead found that the glyphosate in the manure tied up nutrients in the soil, promoted plant disease, and killed off weeds or crops. Test results of the manure showed glyphosate/AMPA concentrations at a whopping 0.36-0.75 parts per million (ppm). The normal herbicidal rate of glyphosate is about 0.5 ppm/acre.

Manure from other animals may also be spreading the herbicide, since US livestock consume copious amounts of glyphosate—which accumulates in corn kernels and soybeans. If it isn’t found in livestock manure (or urine), that may be even worse. If glyphosate is not exiting the animal, it must be accumulating with every meal, ending up in our meat and possibly milk.

Add this threat to the already high glyphosate residues inside our own diets due to corn and soybeans, and we have yet another serious problem threatening our health. Glyphosate has been linked to sterility, hormone disruption, abnormal and lower sperm counts, miscarriages, placental cell death, birth defects, and cancer, to name a few. (See resource list on glyphosate health effects.)

Nutrient loss in humans and animals

The same nutrients that glyphosate chelates and deprives plants are also vital for human and animal health. These include iron, zinc, copper, manganese, magnesium, calcium, boron, and others. Deficiencies of these elements in our diets, alone or in combination, are known to interfere with vital enzyme systems and cause a long list of disorders and diseases.

Alzheimer’s, for example, is linked with reduced copper and magnesium. Don Huber points out that this disease has jumped 9000% since 1990.

Manganese, zinc, and copper are also vital for proper functioning of the SOD (superoxide dismustase) cycle. This is key for stemming inflammation and is an important component in detoxifying unwanted chemical compounds in humans and animals.

Glyphosate-induced mineral deficiencies can easily go unidentified and untreated. Even when laboratory tests are done, they can sometimes detect adequate mineral levels, but miss the fact that glyphosate has already rendered them unusable.

Glyphosate can tie up minerals for years and years, essentially removing them from the pool of nutrients available for plants, animals, and humans. If we combine the more than 135 million pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides applied in the US in 2010 with total applications over the past 30 years, we may have already eliminated millions of pounds of nutrients from our food supply.

This loss is something we simply can’t afford. We’re already suffering from progressive nutrient deprivation even without Roundup. In a UK study, for example, they found between 16-76% less nutrients in 1991, compared to levels in the same foods in 1940.

Livestock disease and mineral deficiency

Roundup Ready crops dominate US livestock feed. Soy and corn are most prevalent—93% of US soy and nearly 70% of corn are Roundup Ready. Animals are also fed derivatives of the other three Roundup Ready crops: canola, sugar beets, and cottonseed. Nutrient loss from glyphosate can therefore be severe.

This is especially true for manganese (Mn), which is not only chelated by glyphosate, but also reduced in Roundup Ready plants (see photo). One veterinarian finds low manganese in every livestock liver he measures. Another vet sent the liver of a stillborn calf out for testing. The lab report stated: No Detectible Levels of Manganese—in spite of the fact that the mineral was in adequate concentrations in his region. When that vet started adding manganese to the feed of a herd, disease rates dropped from a staggering 20% to less than ½%.

Veterinarians who started their practice after GMOs were introduced in 1996 might assume that many chronic or acute animal disorders are common and to be expected. But several older vets have stated flat out that animals have gotten much sicker since GMOs came on the scene. And when they switch livestock from GMO to non-GMO feed, the improvement in health is dramatic. Unfortunately, no one is tracking this, nor is anyone looking at the impacts of consuming milk and meat from GM-fed animals.

Alfalfa madness, brought to you by Monsanto and the USDA

As we continue to drench our fields with Roundup, the perfect storm gets bigger and bigger. Don asks the sobering question: “How much of the hundreds of millions of pounds of glyphosate that have been applied to our most productive farm soils over the past 30 years is still available to damage subsequent crops through its effects on nutrient availability, increased disease, or reduced nutrient of our food and feed?”

Instead of taking urgent steps to protect our land and food, the USDA just made plans to make things worse. In December they released their Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Roundup Ready alfalfa, which Monsanto hopes to reintroduce to the market.

Alfalfa is the fourth largest crop in the US, grown on 22 million acres. It is used primarily as a high protein source to feed dairy cattle and other ruminant animals. At present, weeds are not a big deal for alfalfa. Only 7% of alfalfa acreage is ever sprayed with an herbicide of any kind. If Roundup Ready alfalfa is approved, however, herbicide use would jump to unprecedented levels, and the weed killer of choice would of course be Roundup.

Even without the application of glyphosate, the nutritional quality of Roundup Ready alfalfa will be less, since Roundup Ready crops, by their nature, have reduced mineral . When glyphosate is applied, nutrient quality suffers even more (see chart).

The chance that Roundup would increase soilborne diseases in alfalfa fields is a near certainty. In fact, Alfalfa may suffer more than other Roundup Ready crops. As a perennial, it can accumulate Roundup year after year. It is a deep-rooted plant, and glyphosate leaches into sub soils. And “Fusarium is a very serious pathogen of alfalfa,” says Don. “So too are Phytophthora and Pythium,” both of which are promoted by glyphosate. “Why would you even consider jeopardizing the productivity and nutrient quality of the third most valuable crop in the US?” he asks in frustration, “especially since we have no way of removing the gene once it is spread throughout the alfalfa gene pool.”

It’s already spreading. Monsanto had marketed Roundup Ready alfalfa for a year, until a federal court declared its approval to be illegal in 2007. They demanded that the USDA produce an EIS in order to account for possible environmental damage. But even with the seeds taken off the market, the RR alfalfa that had already been planted has been contaminating non-GMO varieties. Cal/West Seeds, for example, discovered that more than 12% of their seed lots tested positive for contamination in 2009, up from 3% in 2008.

In their EIS, the USDA does acknowledge that genetically modified alfalfa can contaminate organic and non-GMO alfalfa, and that this could create economic hardship. They are even considering the unprecedented step of placing restrictions on RR alfalfa seed fields, requiring isolation distances. Experience suggests that this will slow down, but not eliminate GMO contamination. Furthermore, studies confirm that genes do transfer from GM crops into soil and soil organisms, and can jump into fungus through cuts on the surface of GM plants. But the EIS does not adequately address these threats and their implications.

Instead, the USDA largely marches lock-step with the biotech industry and turns a blind eye to the widespread harm that Roundup is already inflicting. If they decide to approve Monsanto’s alfalfa, the USDA may ultimately be blamed for a catastrophe of epic proportions.