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Jun 4, 2010

WSJ: Superweeds Trigger New Arms Race

Pigweed, one of the weeds
that has been developing
resistance to glyphosate/RoundUp
On 4 June 2010 the Wall Street Journal reported on a the growing ineffectiveness of the popular herbicide RoundUp.  The result has been an invest of millions of dollars into research and development (R&D).

Chemical companies such as Dow Chemical, DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, Bayer, BASF and Syngenta are all developing their own lines of herbicide tolerant (HT) GE seeds that will be resistant to their own new and/or old herbicides lines. 
According to John Jachetta, a Dow AgroSciences scientist and president of the Weed Science Society of America, the challange poses a "very significant opportunity ...for chemical companies ... It is a new era."

David Mortensen, a weed scientist at Pennsylvania State University predicts that the demand for HT seeds and herbicides will only continue to grow.  "As a result, he says, the amount of herbicide sprayed on just one major crop, soybeans, could climb roughly 70%."

Many of the new R&D on herbicides in concentrating on "build[ing] them on a Roundup Ready platform, so to speak—putting their new herbicide-tolerant genes into crops that already carry tolerance for Roundup."

Monsanto's patent on glyphosate in RoundUp expired in 2000.  It is facing stiff competition from genetic brands manufactured in China.  The company is also confronting another key patent expiration in 2014 on a key gene in its HT soybeans. 
According to Charles Benbrook, chief scientist at the Organic Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, RoundUp has been known for years for "its ability to kill almost anything green yet leave a relatively small environmental footprint, being less toxic to wildlife and people than most weedkillers. ... If glyphosate isn't the safest herbicide, it is damn close."

However, weeds are becoming resistant.  "At least nine species have developed immunity to it. They've spread to millions of acres in more than 20 states in the Midwest and South."

Many of the new seed and herbicide lines are still in the R&D phase.  Others are being field tested and have not been finally approved by the USDA. 

A new line by Dow AgroSciences will allow farmers to apply the old herbicide 2,4-D (introduced 65 years ago) to corn crops.  The weeds will die off but genetic traits bred into the corn will keep it growing after the application of herbicide.  Dow hopes to see this product line commercialized by 2013.  It is working on a similar line for HT soybeans and HT cotton.  All product lines will have to address the fact that the Natural Resources Defense Council petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban 2,4-D based on research that it disrupts hormones in trout, rodents and sheep. Dow is preparing rebuttal data. The EPA hopes to provide an answer to this petition in fall 2010.

For more see: Kilman, Scott.  "Superweed Outbreak Triggers New Arms Race," The Wall Street Journal, 4 June 2010.

About Margaret

CEO and Curator (The Food Museum) | Managing Director and Chief Editor (GR2 Global LLC) | Educator (UCLA PhD) | Researching and writing on global food issues, nutrition and health, sustainability, history (preservation), conservation (natural resources), and design.
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