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More herbicide use reported on genetically modified crops

A report has found that farmers are using more herbicides on genetically engineered soybeans, corn, and cotton because of resistant weeds.

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Farmer John Reifsteck from Illinois, says he used to have a problem with root worms that chewed the roots off his corn plants, causing them to fall over. Now that he’s growing genetically modified corn, the worms no longer come. That’s because genetically engineered corn plants contain a toxin that is safe for humans, but repels the worms.

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“It irritates their stomach, they don’t like it, they quit feeding, and they move away,” Mr. Reifsteck explains.

Before bioengineering, Reifsteck used a toxic insecticide on his corn, which he described as “the most dangerous product that I handle.” He had to wear a respirator and rubber gloves, and have blood tests, he says. Now he doesn’t need to treat the corn as much because it’s engineered to repel worms on its own.

“I’m happy or I wouldn’t be using them,” he says about genetically engineered crops.

Karen Batra, the spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, and Bob Callanan, of the American Soybean Association, also say that farmers are happy with bioengineered crops. That the majority of farmers adopted the technology speaks for itself, they say. They also point out that the Organic Center’s report considered all herbicides as one group, without making a distinction between the more toxic herbicides, which are now being used less, and weed-killers such as Roundup, which are generally considered more benign.

On the issue of weed resistance, Mr. Callanan of the Soybean Association has a different solution. Although he admits that resistance to Roundup became a problem about three years ago, he says the best way to tackle weed resistance is with new technology. A soybean called Liberty Link, that is engineered to be resistant to a different type of herbicide, is currently being introduced. Rotating Liberty Link and Roundup Ready crops will reduce resistance, he says.

“Every farmer I know is using less herbicides than they ever had in the past. It’s a cleaner, better crop than it was,” Callanan says about genetically engineered soybeans.

But organic food advocates say that the bioengineering industry is on a slippery slope, and as scientists engineer plants to be resistant to new types of herbicides, more chemical residues are going to end up in food and in the environment.

Efforts are currently underway to engineer a corn variety that is resistant to 2,4-D, which is considered a carcinogen, says Bill Freese, a policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety who worked on the report.

If the project is successful, farmers will be able to spray the herbicide directly on the corn, rather than use hooded sprayers or spray before seedlings sprouted as they have done in the past, he says.

“That’s bad news because that will mean more residues on the corn,” Mr. Freese says. “We see that as very much the wrong approach because it’s going to mean even more use of these nasty herbicides, more pollution of the environment, and more impact on farmers as well as consumers.”

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.