One of the most controversial public health debates of our time involves the use of chemicals and genetic engineering in agriculture. Many companies in the industry have been the target of bad press based in scare tactics and pseudoscience. This is especially true for herbicide companies that also produce genetically modified seeds for different crops, which include most of the big names in the industry: Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Bayer, Monsanto, BASF, etc.
Opponents sense a clear conflict of interest in an agro company making a seed variety that is genetically modified to resist an herbicide that they also manufacture. And this argument might hold water if these herbicides and GM plants were as “horrific” as opponents make them out to be. But in fact, there are many ways in which these GM seed and herbicide companies are helping the environment and protecting consumer safety.
Regarding the safety of GM crops with herbicide resistance (click here)
Anti-GMO groups like to portray GM crops as a sort of “franken-food”, but here’s the reality of the situation. Humans have been genetically modifying crops for thousands of years. Modern biotechnology allows us to do this with incredible precision, changing only the gene we want while leaving all the other ones intact. Less sophisticated methods are, at best, hit or miss, and potentially much more dangerous than laboratory genetic engineering.
Selective breeding is the oldest form of genetic modification, but it often takes many generations to obtain the desired results. So what some growers do to avoid the stigma of GMO is encourage the plant DNA to mutate faster, completely at random, by exposing it to radiation. This practice, which is allowed in organic farming in the United States, by the way, is random and messy. It is how we have herbicide-resistant sunflower crops that technically aren’t considered GMOs.
The difference is, the ALS-resistance trait is likely accompanied by several other mutations that we don’t even know about, because these crops don’t have to undergo the rigorous safety testing that “true” GM crops do. Rigorous in the way of more than 2000 individual studies verifying the safety of GM crops.
Environmental benefits of herbicides and GM crops
The herbicides that have been developed by these herbicide companies in the past few decades have improved immensely compared to their predecessors. Acute toxicity is down by several orders of magnitude, and there is abundant evidence that many are not carcinogenic. Glyphosate, for example, has been found to be less acutely toxic than caffeine with less potential as a carcinogen than bacon. Sometimes, though, these herbicides which are practically nontoxic to humans and animals are harmful to non-target plants, killing the crops along with the weeds. And that’s why GM crops have been such a boon to consumer and environmental safety.
Herbicide resistant traits in GM crops allow for use of these less toxic, more benign chemicals. This is beneficial for human consumers, wild animals, pollinators and other beneficial insects. Non-GM crops must rely on other types of herbicides which are often more toxic. Even many “natural” herbicides used in organic farming are highly toxic.
Another way herbicides benefit the environment is that they allow for minimal tillage, which reduces soil erosion, greenhouse gas emissions and overall carbon footprint and consumes less fossil fuel. According to the National Farmers Union of England and Wales, glyphosate alone reduces agricultural CO2 emissions in England by 12 million tons.Reduced erosion and tillage leads to better air and water quality.
When herbicides are used properly, crops can be grown with less nitrogen fertilizer and less water.And finally, variety of herbicides with different modes of action helps fight weed resistance. Indeed, weed resistance has actually increased most with herbicides for which no GM crop variants are available.
Are herbicide companies interested in making a profit? Of course they are, that’s what companies do. But being profitable and making a product whose benefits far outweigh its risks are not mutually exclusive.