Jun 11, 2013

When superweeds and superbugs will prevail

From poisoned soils and excessively mined undergroundwater, modern agriculture is fast moving to create an ecologically disastrous landscape where superweeds and superbugs will dominate. Sooner than expected, you will find that combating the newly evolving dreaded superpests -- weeds, insects and micro-organisms -- will become a major industry.

Ever since insect resistance was first reported by A L Melander in 1914, studies have shown that more than 500 species of insects, moths and spiders have developed resistance to a pesticide. Some pests have developed multiple resistance to a series of pesticides. Colarado potato beetle for instance is known to be resistant to 52 different compounds belonging to all major pesticides classes, says a paper published in the American Journal of Potato Research 85. Even certain species of rats in UK have become resistant to rat poisons consuming about five times the lethal dose and yet surviving.  

Some will term this phenomenon of developing resistance as a collateral damage that has to be encountered as development takes place. But ever since genetically modified (GM) crops have been commercialised, the pace at which insects and weeds are not only developing resistance but eventually turning out to be monsters has only hastened. We can certainly gloss over it, but the threat is only galloping with each passing year. In the United States, an agribusiness research consultancy Stratus reports that nearly half of US farms now have superweeds (see this report: Nearly half of all US farms now have superweedshttp://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2013/02/report-spread-monsantos-superweeds-speeds-12-0) These weeds have developed resistance to Monsanto's herbicide glyphosate. I am reproducing a line chart from the  same Stratus report.

The problem of superweeds is not only confined to the US. It has now spread to Canada in an equally menacing way. The Manitoba Co-Operator reports: "More than one million acres of Canadian farmland have glyphosate-resistant weeds growing on them, including 43,000 in Manitoba, according to an online survey of 2,028 farmers conducted by Stratus Agri-Marketing Inc. based in Guelph, Ontario." (See the report: A million acres of glyphosate resistant weeds in Canada? http://www.manitobacooperator.ca/2013/05/07/a-million-acres-of-glyphosate-resistant-weeds-in-canada/).

Just three years after genetically modified Bt crops were introduced, diamondback moth had developed resistance to the Bacillus thuringiensis gene incorporated in the plant. The resistance was reported from Hawaii, Japan and Tennessee. Since then insect resistance to GM crops has only increased. The University of Arizona has in a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology conclude: "Analyzing data from 77 studies of 13 pest species in eight countries on five continents, the researchers found well-documented cases of field-evolved resistance to Bt crops in five major pests as of 2010, compared with only one such case in 2005. Three of the five cases are in the United States, where farmers have planted about half of the world's Bt crop acreage. Their report indicates that in the worst cases, resistance evolved in 2 to 3 years; but in the best cases, effectiveness of Bt crops has been sustained more than 15 years."

Mapped, the insect resistance to GM crops appears to be global. From US/Canada to India and China and finally to Australia, it shows the destructive power of superbugs that are developing at an alarming rate. According to Nature Biotechnology (the map below is reproduced from it) Global status of field-evolved pest resistance to Bt crops: Of the 24 cases analyzed, five showed resistance that caused reduced efficacy of Bt crops (red), five were intermediate levels of resistance (orange and yellow), and 14 showed either little or no resistance (blue and green). (See this: http://phys.org/news/2013-06-pests-resistant-gm-crops.html#jCp)

For the industry, the development of superbugs and superweeds across the globe provides an immense business opportunity. GM companies are asking farmers to spray more stronger and potent chemicals, often a cocktail of heady pesticides. Its a double whammy for the agribusiness companies. Top three GM companies now control over 70 per cent of the global seed sales, and also dominate the pesticides market. While the ever-increasing sales of chemical pesticides will certainly jack up the GDP but what happens to the environment, and the future of farming is not at all being considered.

With millions of acres under GM crops being infested with superweeds and superbugs, and the acreage growing with every passing year, the future farm landscape appears to be highly destructive. I shudder to think of the time when superweeds and superbugs will turn into mankind's biggest challenge. It is not a distant future that I am talking about. Its going to happen in our lifetime. Just wait and watch. 

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