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Confusingly, Crops Engineered To Not Need Chemicals End Up Making Us Use More Chemicals

Contrary to industry claims, a new report links our dependence on GMO crops to the spread of superweeds. And more herbicides.

It’s one of the main sells on Monsanto’s website: "[Roundup agricultural herbicides] use on Roundup Ready crops has allowed farmers to conserve fuel, reduce tillage and decrease the overall use of herbicides."

A new study out from consumer rights NGO Food and Water Watch demonstrates otherwise. Expanding on a Washington State University report put out last year by Dr. Charles Benbrook showing that GMO crops increased herbicide applications by 527 million pounds—and increased pesticide use by 11% overall in the last 16 years—Food and Water Watch’s analysis of USDA and EPA data links increased use of GMO crops to the spread of herbicide-resistant superweeds.

"Herbicide use on corn, soybeans and cotton did fall in the early years of GE crop adoption, dropping by 42 million pounds (15%) between 1998 and 2001," the report notes. "But as weeds developed resistance to glyphosate [Roundup], farmers applied more herbicides, and total herbicide use increased by 81.2 million pounds (26%) between 2001 and 2010."

Focusing on herbicides atrazine, glyphosate, 2,4-D, and dicamba, the Food and Water Watch study predicts that herbicide use will only continue to increase as glyphosate-resistant weeds spread to new regions. Use of atrazine, a hormone disruptor tied to irregular menstrual cycles, has remained steady while dependence on herbicide-resistant crops has grown over the last decade. Some agricultural specialists have also suggested using atrazine on cornfields to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds. Glyphosate (or Roundup) use, meanwhile, has mushroomed from 15 million pounds to 159 million pounds from 1996 to 2012, and 2,4-D, which causes liver damage in animals, has also increased by 90% since glyphosate-resistant crops came into vogue.

The organization also summed up the spread of herbicide-resistant weeds in these colorful, easy-to-understand, and mildly terrifying maps:

But aside from the vague environmental alarmism you might feel upon looking at the spread of superweeds, Food and Water Watch notes the very real economic impact for farmers who have to fight them. Getting rid of mutant weeds could cost up to $12,000 for an average corn or soybean farm, and up to $28,000 for a cotton farm. Those costs don’t even take into account the wider ramifications of ballooning pesticide use—the impact of chemical residues in food, for example, or possible surface water contamination.

As a result of their findings, Food and Water Watch recommended that the U.S. government reform its regulation of GMOs. But until that happens (if that happens, rather), states have begun to step in to fill the legislative gap. Connecticut and Maine legislatures have both voted to label GMO products to raise consumer consciousness, and similar bills are being considered in Massachusetts and Vermont.