New weed strategies needed, scientists say

Washington, D.C. – The spread of weeds resistant to Roundup herbicide is bringing new scrutiny to the government’s regulation of biotech crops.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, a longtime critic of the biotech industry, said the U.S. Agriculture Department has been too quick to approve new varieties of herbicide-tolerant crops and other biotech products.

“Now, more than ever, farmers need to have a Department of Agriculture that takes care to preserve and protect the farming environment for generations to come,” Kucinich said during a House hearing he chaired Wednesday on the spread of Roundup-resistant weeds.

One weed scientist, David Mortensen at Penn State University, said the government should restrict the use of herbicide-tolerant crops and impose a tax on biotech seeds to fund research and education programs.

The resistant weeds cannot be killed by the sole use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, which has become broadly popular with farmers with the advent more than a decade ago of soybeans, cotton, corn and other crops that are immune to the chemical. The weeds now infest about 11 million acres, a fivefold increase in three years, Mortensen said.

The problem is most prevalent in cotton and soybean fields in the South but is spreading to other regions. And it will get worse if farmers don’t take measures to control for the weeds, including spraying additional herbicides and alternating chemicals and crop varieties, he and other scientists told a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Investigations Committee.

The Environmental Protection Agency already requires farmers to limit their use of insect-resistant corn and cotton to avoid the development of pests immune to the pesticide the crops contain. Mortensen suggested the government set controls for herbicide-tolerant crops.

Michael Owen, an Iowa State University weed scientist, thinks Iowa is only two years away from a serious problem with glyphosate-resistant weeds. He said farmers have to quit relying so heavily on Roundup to control weeds.

Farmers “value the convenience and simplicity of these crops without appreciating the long-term ecological and economic risks,” he said.

Biotech companies are trying to deal with the problem by engineering new crop varieties that will be immune to more than one herbicide, but even those products will eventually run into resistance problems if farmers aren’t careful, Owen said.

Use of Roundup-resistant crops has provided some environmental benefits by allowing farmers to reduce tillage and avoid soil erosion. But a National Research Council panel of scientists that included Owen warned this spring that those gains could be lost if the resistance problem worsens.

Ninety-three percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn planted this year were of herbicide-tolerant varieties. The USDA has been tied up in court over its approval of similar types of alfalfa and sugar beets. Critics say the department inadequately reviewed the impacts on the environment and other farmers.

Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., expressed concern that increased regulation of biotech crops could threaten advances in crop production. “The market controls already in place are more than enough to ensure that farmers are employing the best practices to control herbicide-resistant weeds in their fields,” he said.

Kucinich said a second hearing will listen to USDA officials.

His influence over regulation of biotech foods is limited. While hearings such as Wednesday’s can draw attention to issues, other committees oversee the agencies and write their budgets and legal authority.

Regulation of biotech crops is shared among the USDA, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration. Herbicide-tolerant crops are largely within the USDA’s purview, as long as the FDA considers them safe for food. The EPA regulates herbicides but not the crops designed to be used with them.

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