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Feature Story

Engineering An Environmental Disaster

Despite growing concerns of genetically engineered crops, government officials continue to rubber stamp their approval. In early 2011, the USDA announced the approval of Monsanto's genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa.
Photo courtesy of Jessica Reeder

America's supermarkets are awash in genetically modified foods. Over the past decade, biotech companies like Monsanto have dominated dinner tables with crops like corn, soybeans and canola modified to survive lethal doses of herbicides, resulting in increased herbicide use, a surge in herbicide-resistant weeds, and the contamination of organic and conventional crops. According to the Center for Food Safety , more than half of all processed food in U.S. grocery stores—items like cereals, corn dogs and cookies—contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients.

“This technology is a one-trick pony,” says George Kimbrell, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety. “They don’t help us feed the world, they don’t fight climate change, and they don’t help us better the environment. They just increase pesticides and herbicides. That’s what they do.” (Listen to an interview with George Kimbrell.)

Currently, 85 percent of GE crops are designed to resist herbicides. Companies like Syngenta, Bayer and Dow have all created their own herbicide tolerant seeds, modified to withstand the company’s corresponding herbicide treatment. But it’s Monsanto, the world leader in GE seed production, that has benefited the most from biotechnology by packaging its Roundup Ready line of GE seeds with its Roundup herbicide. Monsanto, whose roots began in creating toxic chemical concoctions like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT, is now the world’s leading producer of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide. (See Monsanto’s chemical history timeline.)

But what’s good for Monsanto’s business isn’t so great for people or the environment. That's why in 2007, Earthjustice, together with the Center for Food Safety, challenged the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s decision to allow Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar beets on the market, arguing that the agency failed to adequately assess both its environmental and economic impacts.

“The main problem for the public at large is increased chemicals in the environment,” says Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “But you also have consumers’ as well as farmers’ choice being adversely affected. Nobody really wants Monsanto controlling their diet, but that is in fact what’s happening.” (Listen to an interview with Paul Achitoff.)

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready products have increased herbicide use and the prevalence of superweeds for two reasons. One, farmers no longer need to worry about overdosing their crops with herbicide, so they tend to spray more of it. Two, just as antibiotic overuse has resulted in antibiotic resistant drugs, constant use of Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, has spawned an epidemic of glyphosate-resistant superweeds across the U.S. According to a report by The Organic Center , which drew primarily from USDA’s own data, GE crops are responsible for increasing herbicide use by 383 million pounds in the U.S. over the first 13 years of their commercial use.

This finding came as no surprise to weed scientists, ecologists, agronomists, environmental groups and farmers who, prior to the approval of GE crops, had openly warned the government and industry that the Roundup Ready system was a technology custom designed to promote the emergence of resistant weeds, says Charles Benbrook, The Organic Center’s chief scientist. (Listen to an interview with Charles Benbrook.)

Unfortunately, no one listened, and now farmers across the country, frustrated with glyphosate’s inability to kill weeds, are turning to older, more toxic chemicals like 2,4-D, Paraquat and Dicamba to kill out-of-control weeds. In addition, cotton farmers who have been especially affected by glyphosate resistant superweeds like palmer amaranth (a.k.a. “pigweed”), which can grow stalks as big as a man’s wrist and are tough enough to break cotton harvesting equipment, have hired crews of men to manually remove the weeds. (See superweeds interactive map.)

In fact, superweeds have become so bad that in 2009, after years of denial, Monsanto itself finally admitted to the existence of glyphosate-resistant weeds. So what’s the company’s solution?

“Spray more,” says Benbrook. “Their proposed solution is to produce genetically engineered crops resistant to multiple herbicides, so farmers can spray three or four different herbicides at the same time in the hopes that at least one of the modes of action will still work. It’s a strategy that’s comparable to pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out.”

In addition to their seedy record on herbicide increases and superweeds, GE crops also have a history of contaminating non-GE crops. Since nature knows no bounds and doesn’t recognize artificial limits, GE crops are able to cross-pollinate with unmodified seeds of the same variety or ones in the same family, regardless of so-called “buffer zones.” In 2010, Carol Mallory-Smith, a professor of weed science at Oregon State University, discovered genetically engineered creeping bentgrass in irrigation ditches in Oregon that traveled miles from test plots in nearby Idaho.

GE seeds can also get accidently mixed in with non-GE seeds during the production process. In 2006, after it was discovered that trace amounts of GE rice had been accidently mixed with conventional rice, several countries that don’t allow GE foods either banned some varieties of rice imports or imposed new testing requirements on rice traders. The “minor” mishap significantly disrupted U.S. rice exports, which garner close to $1 billion per year.

According to the Center for Food Safety, there have been more than 200 contamination episodes since GE crops were introduced, costing farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales. In 2008, the Government Accountability Office compiled a report that highlighted the challenges of containing regulated GE crops “given the porous nature of biological systems and the potential for human error.” According to the report, representatives from the biotech industry, agricultural commodity growers and consumer advocacy organizations admitted that “future unauthorized releases of low levels of regulated GE material are likely to occur.”

The likeliness of contamination worries both organic and conventional farmers alike. Frank Morton, an organic seed farmer in Oregon’s bountiful Willamette Valley, became a participant in Earthjustice’s GE sugar beet case after discovering that genetically engineered sugar beets had been planted in the valley. Since sugar beets are pollinated by wind, pollen from Roundup Ready beets could easily contaminate non-GE beets and other sexually compatible species, such as Swiss chard.

“We were never consulted by the USDA or anybody else about whether GE seeds would have any impact on us,” said Morton. “As an organic grower, if I'm contaminated by genetically modified crops, then I can't sell my seeds. I think I have as much right to grow seeds and market seeds as anybody.” (Listen to an interview with Frank Morton.)

Despite the growing concerns of GE crops, government officials continue to rubberstamp their approval. In early 2011, the USDA announced the approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa, despite a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that found that the threat of transgenic contamination is harmful and onerous to organic and conventional farmers, among other things.

In response to that decision, in 2011 Earthjustice, together with the Center for Food Safety, filed a lawsuit on behalf of growers and consumers against the USDA for failing to properly assess GE alfalfa’s environmental impacts, including the release up to 23 million more pounds of toxic herbicides into the environment each year.

“We have every reason to think that the same problems [with previous GE crops] will continue to occur with this type of crop because the situation isn’t really any different,” said Earthjustice’s Achitoff. “There aren’t any enforceable controls that are in place to prevent these problems from happening.”  

Published in June 2011.

Listen: Down to Earth

Resources: TIMELINE


Monsanto is the world leader in genetically engineered seed production. But what's good for Monsanto's business isn't so great for people or the environment.
View Timeline: Monsanto's Chemical Romance


Learn about three superweeds: pigweed, horseweed, and ragweed. View Graphic. (Illustration: Matt Lau)

Take Action: Say No to GMOS

Genetically modified foods are ubiquitous in U.S. grocery stores. Here's how to avoid them:

1. Buy organic.

Foods certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture are guaranteed to be devoid of any genetically modified ingredients.

2. Eat your fruits and veggies.

For the most part, fresh produce like apples, bananas and carrots have avoided the stain of genetic tinkering—for now.

3. Know your food.

Since the U.S. is one of the few countries that still doesn't label GE ingredients, consumers have to do their own sleuthing for non-GE foods. One great resource is the Center for Food Safety's guide, which is available as a printable PDF or an iPhone app.

4. Support Earthjustice.

Earthjustice is sued the USDA for approving Monsanto's GE alfalfa and GE sugar beets without properly considering their environmental and socioeconomic impacts. Donate to Earthjustice and help stop Monsanto from controlling your diet.

Recent Cases

Defending Maui Residents from Pesticides and GE Contamination

A coalition of Maui and Molokaʻi residents, farmers, and public interest groups, represented by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice, has filed papers in Honolulu federal district court to defend the County of Maui’s recently passed genetically engineered crop safety initiative from a legal challenge by multinational chemical companies.

Defending Moratorium of GMO Crops on Hawai‘i’s Big Island

A coalition of local farmers and environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, have filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit to defend a Hawai‘i County ordinance that imposes a moratorium on the expansion of genetically engineered (GE) crops on the Big Island.

Defending Kaua’i Pesticide Ordinance

Earthjustice is seeking to intervene on behalf of community groups to defend an ordinance that limits harmful pesticide spraying near homes, schools and waterways. The island’s county council passed the ordinance in the wake of repeated incidents of schoolchildren and other residents suffering symptoms of pesticide exposure, and inaction by Hawaiʻi authorities.