USDA Speeds Approval for New Herbicide-Tolerant Crops Despite Superweed Problem

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It's been an interesting week for genetically engineered crops and farming in the U.S.:

Monsanto acknowledges it thought weeds would never develop resistance to Roundup. Farmers, increasingly concerned about superweeds, start to look away from more biotechnology as a solution and toward more sustainable (and better understood) techniques like using cover crops. Environmental and public health advocates are concerned about the safety of biotechnology already in the field, while agribusiness pushes forward with more new products. And the USDA is not only helping the industry move ahead with those products, but it's helping it move ahead faster.

The USDA has announced a plan to cut approval times for Monsanto and Dow products, among others, in half—saying the aim is to slow the spread of the problematic superweeds. Even though said superweeds, which grow up to three inches per day, were largely caused by Monsanto in the first place.

Bloomberg has more on the changes to the USDA's review process:

Weeds that resist glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, or that are hard to control surged 25 percent last year to infest 60 million acres, Antonio Galindez, president of Dow AgroSciences, said in a March 7 presentation.

The USDA now will take public comment on seed developers’ petitions for deregulation at the start of the review process so concerns can be addressed early, helping to get new technologies on the market sooner, Michael Gregoire, a USDA deputy administrator, said last month. The timing for publication of the first 12 seed-makers’ petitions under the new process isn’t clear, R. Andre Bell, an agency spokesman, said today.

But NPR had a great story this weekend looking at the early days of Roundup-tolerant soybeans and how Monsanto managed to brush the resistance issue aside:

In 1993, when Monsanto asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to approve Roundup-tolerant soybeans, it dispensed with the issue of potential resistant weeds in two modest paragraphs. It told the agency that "glyphosate is considered to be a herbicide with low risk for weed resistance."

The company also wrote that several university scientists agreed "that it is highly unlikely that weed resistance to glyphosate will become a problem as a result of the commercialization of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans."

Oops. Since then, resistance to glyphosate has emerged in 20 different weed species.

So, the company that helped make glyphosate so prevalent on American farms (it was used on 91 percent of U.S.-grown cotton, for example, in 2007), leading to the evolution of these tough-to-beat superweeds, is now greenlighted for a faster review process by the USDA. So are crops being pushed by Dow that are resistant to 2,4-D, the controversial herbicide that was a key ingredient in Agent Orange.

Tags: Agriculture | Chemicals | Farming | Genetic Engineering

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