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Roundup-resistant weeds add to Monsanto's quotient of woe

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Aug. 23, 2002 -- CropChoice commentary) -- Astoundingly, Monsanto continues to say that it's marketing herbicide-resistant crops to help farmers and the environment. But reality, including a Tennessee weed problem, puts the lie to that.

By way of review, Monsanto claims that its Roundup Ready soybeans, corn, cotton and canola -- genetically engineered to resist the Roundup weed killer -- are good because farmers can spray just Roundup to kill weeds without hurting the crops. The end result is less herbicide usage and a greener world.

If only it was true.


Monsanto executives in July chalked up a portion of the company's financial woes -- the stock had hit a 52-week low of about $13 a share, and still hasn't much recovered following its spin-off from parent Pharmacia Corp. -- to lackluster Roundup sales in the spring.

Michael Doane, a Monsanto executive, said in a speech last year that the company's cornerstone is not biotechnology. It's the sale of Roundup. The idea is for farmers to use lots of glyphosate (active ingredient in the herbicide) over lots of acreage. See CropChoice story about this at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=751.

Farmers are doing just that. But there are consequences.

University of Tennessee scientists have documented marestail weed resistance to Roundup on hundreds of thousands of soybean and cotton acres in the state. As farmers have planted more and more Roundup Ready varieties since 1996, they've been spraying more of the weed killer, not less. This has contributed to weeds developing resistance to Roundup. Reports by the Canadian Wheat Board (http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=772) and Dr. Charles Benbrook (http://www.biotech-info.net/troubledtimes.html)document this.

Even Syngenta admits to the problem as it hawks an herbicide -- Gramoxone® MAX -- that it says will complement Roundup. According to its website (http://www.syngentacropprotection-us.com/prod/herbicide/gramoxonemax/weedcam/index.asp?BnBts=609_button): "It’s the Achilles heel of every herbicide. It’s weed resistance. If you use an herbicide on a continuous basis, a weed population can build up resistance to that compound and no longer be the effective tool it once was. Glyphosate herbicides are no exception to this rule of nature. And the conditions for resistance are right, given the compound’s fast-growing popularity as an over-the-top post-emergence herbicide in Roundup Ready®(RR™) crop systems... Glyphosate herbicides are being used frequently and on many acres... Weed resistance to glyphosate is more than theory. It’s a real on-farm problem... we demonstrate marestail resistance to glyphosate herbicides and show how Gramoxone® MAX can not only control this weed but also provide the foundation for an overall resistance management strategy."

This is among the challenges that face Monsanto and the entire biotechnology industry.

Can Monsanto handle life without Pharmacia? How will it react to farmer and consumer rejection of the idea of Roundup Ready wheat? How will it and others cope with the technology being locked out of Europe and Brazil over the next few years?

With the realization that capturing the hearts and dollars of farmers isn't enough, the industry is rushing to develop products that it thinks will appeal to consumers. Those include plants with genes containing vitamins and drugs.

Maybe Monsanto should shorten its independence and merge with Syngenta. To persuade the farmers, they could engineer wheat, corn and other crops with resistance to three, four or five herbicides -- a new one for each year that weed resistance develops. For those consumers, insert multi-vitamin genes, maybe some gingko for peace of mind, a contraceptive and a painkiller.