E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Analyst points out ag myths

(Wednesday, March 3, 2004 -- CropChoice news) -- Keeisa Wirt, DTN: DES MOINES:
A leading agriculture policy expert explains, in this multi-part series, what he believes are the most commonly accepted myths about U.S. agriculture. In this first story, he attempts to show how herbicide- tolerant technology is not as effective as its makers claim.

Promised prosperity has eluded U.S. farmers because they have been sold a bill of goods -- at least that's what Charles Benbrook believes.

Benbrook, a Harvard graduate with a doctorate in agricultural economics, is now working as scientific program consultant for The Organic Center in Greenfield, Mass. He recently discussed what he believes are the biggest myths about U.S. agriculture during the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference in LaCrosse, Wis.

Benbrook said most U.S. farm policy changes since the 1996 farm bill have been anti-farmer and now threaten the public's willingness to commit tax dollars to agricultural programs.

"The mythology of American agriculture has been built consciously," he said. "It has taken public and private institutions, our government and leading 'thinkers' several decades to get the average American farmer and most of the public to accept these myths uncritically."

Benbrook, who served as executive director for the National Academy of Sciences Board of Agriculture and has worked on agricultural policy, science and regulatory issues since 1979, told the 1,500 organic farmers at the conference that his goal was to expose the myths that most Americans and many farmers have embraced as the truth.

"How many times have we heard that our agricultural system is the envy of the world?" he said. "Have you ever really thought about whether this is really true and what would happen if we tried to feed the world with our agricultural system and food consumption patterns?"

The hour-long speech focused on what Benbrook believes are the greatest myths in agriculture, including information about agricultural technology, the cost of food, agricultural trade, food safety, U.S. agriculture policy and organic food and farming.

The Silver Bullet

Benbrook said the most damaging technological myth in American agriculture is for every pest, disease, animal health or fertility problem created by farm management and animal husbandry systems, there is a mechanical, chemical, genetic or biological solution waiting to be discovered.

He said the belief in the "silver bullet" runs deep in the veins of farming and dominates the thinking process at many land grant universities. Silver bullet technologies, as he defined them, often come at a biological or ecological expense, and while affordable, they almost always entail a simple solution to a complex problem.

Benbrook gave several examples of what he believes are "silver bullets," including subtherapeutic antibiotics for animals in confinement buildings, bovine growth hormones to boost milk production and herbicide-tolerant soybeans for weed management. He said all of these technologies might appear attractive and affordable to farmers when first adopted, but problems arise as science uncovers the details of the new technologies.

"The devil is in the details of dynamic, cause-and-effect relationships within agricultural systems, where the rules and mysteries of ecology and biology are both unavoidable and supreme," he said.

Benbrook said silver bullet technology often triggers complex ecological and biological adaptations that humans cannot begin to understand. He cited methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and avian influenza as examples.

He believes the most damaging myths for farmers have been inaccurate claims about genetic technology.

"The biotech revolution in agriculture has done more to both create and shatter mythology than the mechanical and chemical revolutions combined," he said.

The following widely accepted statements about genetic technology, Benbrook said, are unfounded and among the most commonly accepted myths:

  • Engineering crops to produce pesticides in every cell, all season long, reduces pesticide use.
  • Crops genetically engineered to withstand over-the-top applications of herbicides will reduce herbicide use.
  • Genetic engineering of plants is no different from classical plant breeding.
  • Genetic engineering will speed up progress in the development of improved varieties.
  • Today's genetically engineered crops are "substantially equivalent" to conventional varieties, and hence safe.

Benbrook spent most of his time discussing what he claims is the myth that herbicide tolerant technology reduces herbicide use.

Increased Herbicide Use?

In November 2003, Benbrook released a study in which he projected the impacts of herbicide tolerant and Bt-transgenic corn, cotton and soybeans on pesticide use during the first eight years of their commercialization. Herbicide-tolerant technology, commonly referred to by its first commercial product, Roundup Ready (RR), was introduced commercially in 1996 and has been widely used by U.S. growers.

Benbrook said since 1998, weed shifts and resistance in soybean production systems have become more widespread and serious, despite the fact that RR technology still works well in many regions, he said.

During the first eight years of commercial use, Benbrook's study shows herbicide-tolerant corn, cotton and soybeans have increased herbicide use an estimated 70.2 million pounds - nearly 2 percent.

Six of the top 10 weeds that plague U.S. farmers have emerged as major problems largely or partially in response to RR technology, Benbrook said. The six weeds -- waterhemp, common lambsquarter, giant ragweed, morning glory species, kochia and horseweed -- have all become resistant or tolerant to glyphosate, the common active ingredient in herbicides such as Roundup.

"Think of all the extra herbicide applications that will be required this summer because of these incrementally more difficult to control weeds," he said. "One or more of these weeds will be found on most of the 170 million acres that will be planted this year to corn, cotton and soybeans."

Benbrook said these weeds would force farmers to apply 100 to 200 million additional acre treatments with a more powerful active ingredient herbicide such as Dicamba or 2,4-D. At an average rate of a half-pound of herbicide per acre per treatment, that's an increase of 50 to 100 million pounds of herbicide, he said.

This increase in herbicide use debunks another popular myth, Benbrook said, the myth that herbicide-tolerant technology is efficient and good for farmers because it has reduced herbicide costs.

"It is true that RR technology has saved farmers a few hundred million dollars each year on herbicides, and that is a good thing," he said. "However, proponents of biotechnology usually do not mention that most of these savings have been shifted to cover rising soybean seed costs."

What biotech supporters don't say is savings to soybean farmers has nothing to do with the efficiency of the technology, but everything to do with the impact of glyphosate going off patent, Benbrook said. The average price of an acre treatment with soybean herbicides has declined more than 40 percent since the introduction of RR soybeans. The price of glyphosate has fallen from between $12 to $14 per acre to $5 to $7 per acre.

"Price reductions improve cost-effectiveness, not efficiency," he said. "What falling prices add to the bottom line in one year, increasing prices can and eventually will take away."

Monsanto Responds

Monsanto Co., which had net sales of more than $4.9 billion in 2003 for its seeds, traits, pesticides and other crop technology products, said Benbrook's most recent study is based on a flawed assumption.

Lee Quarles, public affairs director for Monsanto, said the study attempts to correlate a relationship between herbicide-tolerant crops and increased pesticide use by assuming that an acre not planted to the genetically engineered (GE) trait would receive the same level of pesticide use as acres planted to non-GE varieties.

"This assumption is incorrect," he said. "As you are well aware, and as most growers would reinforce, not all acres are alike -- some fields are more heavily infested with weeds, including perennial and hard-to-control weeds, while others are lightly invested with easy-tocontrol weeds."

Quarles said a 2002 study by the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy showed biotech varieties of soybeans, corn, cotton, papaya, squash and canola reduced pesticide volume by 46 million pounds.

He said market research and testimonials from individuals who have planted Roundup Ready and insect-protected crop technologies show biotech crops are providing benefits compared with practices used by farmers with conventional crops.

"Growers highlight that [these] crop technologies provide them numerous on-farm benefits, including increased production efficiency, lowered input costs, environmentally sustainable options, higher yields, reduced chemical applications, cost-savings for growers and the ability to switch to conservation farming practices," he said.

As for Benbrook's claim that resistant weed problems are due in part to RR technology, Quarles said weed resistance is a historic problem in agriculture that growers have dealt with since the 1950s, and resistance to glyphosate emerged before the advent of RR crops.

"While some say that the repeated use of glyphosate in a crop year after year will cause weed resistance to occur sooner, it is not that simple," he said.

In fact, he said citrus growers in Florida have made multiple applications of glyphosate year after year for 25 years and still have not reported any cases of resistance.

Quarles said three of the four weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate developed their resistance where no RR crops were grown. He said Monsanto teaches its growers to be responsible stewards of the products they use -- applying the right rates at the right time and to base their weed control on local needs.

"In reality, it is impossible to predict whether, or when, resistance will occur because there are many possible factors -- mode of action, amount applied, number of applications, level of control, unique and unpredictable biology of weeds, other herbicides, etc. -all of which can play a role," he said.

Coming Soon

In the next article in this series, Benbrook will discuss what he believes is the "cost of food myth" as well as popular, but inaccurate, beliefs about U.S. agricultural trade.

To contact Keesia Wirt, please email her at keesia.wirt@dtn.com.