Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest
Herbicide-Tolerant Crops and the Threat to Sustainable Agriculture

By Rebecca Goldburg, Ph.D., Environmental Defense Fund;
Jane Rissler, Ph.D., National Wildlife Federation;
Hope Shand, Rural Advancement Fund International;
Chuck Hassebrook, Center for Rural Affairs

A Report of the Biotechnology Working Group

Originally published March 1990

Executive Summary


Biotechnology, as it first emerged from university and industry laboratories in the 1970's, was full of promises for agriculture and the environment. Among the most alluring was the possibility of a chemical-free agriculture, which many in the scientific community and biotechnology industry touted as soon to come. With new genetically engineered crops and biopesticides to control pests, they said, chemical pesticides would no longer be needed.

But now, a decade later, the direction of agricultural biotechnology is clear: the first major products will not be used to end dependence on toxic chemicals in agriculture. Rather, they will further entrench and extend the pesticide era.

Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest finds that at least 30 crop and forest tree species are now being purposefully modified to withstand otherwise lethal or damaging doses of herbicides. The study asks the fundamental question of whether it is wise to use biotechnology to further chemical pest management strategies.

What is needed--and what many people thought biotechnology would deliver-is an economically viable and sustainable agriculture that uses safe and ecologically sound pest management strategies. Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest shows that herbicide tolerant crops and trees will not provide that=

alternative, but instead, will take agriculture farther away from sustainable practices at precisely the time they are most needed.


Among the findings supporting our conclusion that herbicide- tolerant crops represent a major misstep on the road toward an environmentally sound system of agriculture are the following:

At least 27 corporations have initiated herbicide-tolerant plant research. The world's eight largest pesticide companies--Bayer, Ciba-Geigy, ICI, RhonePoulenc, Dow/Elanco, Monsanto, Hoechst, and Dupont--all--have initiated herbicide-tolerant plant research. So have virtually all major seed companies, many of which have been acquired by chemical companies. Agricultural crops currently targeted for genetically engineered tolerance to one or more herbicides include: alfalfa, canola, carrot, cotton, corn, oats, petunia, potato, rice, sorghum, soybean, sugarbeet, sugar cane, sunflower, tobacco, tomato, wheat, and others. Sustainable agriculture systems provide a range of alternatives to chemical herbicides for weed control. The National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences has issued a report concluding that farmers adopting alternative systems of agriculture requiring no or lowered inputs of chemicals generally derive significant sustained economic and environmental benefits. State and federal agricultural institutions have devoted approximately $10.5 million of taxpayer money to fund genetics research on herbicide- tolerant crops and trees over the past few years. Additional substantial research also supports herbicide use in agriculture. Between 1985 and 1990, the U.S. Forest Service allocated $2.8 million to adapt moderngenetics techniques to develop herbicide- tolerant forest trees. The development of atrazine-resistant soybeans could allow for three times as much atrazine to be applied to corn without damage to the subsequent soybean crop, according to industry reports. According to industry projections, use of crops tolerant to Hoechst's herbicide, Basta, would increase that herbicide's global sales by $200 million a year. "Environmentally benign" or "environmentally friendly"--terms often used by industry to describe new herbicides--is a misnomer for herbicides, especially given how little we know about their long term effects on environment and human health. Bromoxynil, for example, has recently been shown to be such a human health threat that the Environmental Protection Agency now requires risk reduction measures for pesticide users. Once in widespread use, the exchange of herbicide- tolerance genes between the domesticated crops and weedy relatives could ultimately result in the need for more herbicides to control herbicide-resistant weeds. Widespread use of plants tolerant to certain herbicides would likely increase the severity and incidence of ground and surface water contaminatio= n.


Based on the findings of this report, the Biotechnology Working Group makes the following recommendations:

End federal and state support for developing herbicide- tolerant plants; Increase federal and state funding for non-chemical methods of pest control; Target the federal research and experimentation tax credit for corporate research toward socially and environmentally beneficial research and deny the credit for expenditures to develop herbicide-tolerant crops and trees; Change federal farm policy to discourage the use of environmentally damaging agricultural practices; Regulate genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant plants as pesticides; Prohibit the introduction of trees genetically modified to be herbicide tolerant into our national forests and other government lands; and =46ully inform Third World countries of the potential negative impacts of herbicide-tolerant crops and trees and urge the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to develop restrictions on the export of herbicide-tolerant plants.

The Bitter Harvest

Herbicides are chemicals used by the millions of pounds each year to control weeds in fields, forests and gardens. They pose a variety of risks to human health and the environment, especially at current high use levels. Alachlor, one of the country's most popular herbicides, for example, is a suspected human carcinogen, while another, 2,4-D, has been linked to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in farmers in the Midwest. Many herbicides persist in the environment and are increasingly found in groundwater all over the country. Herbicides are also toxic to animals and other forms of life not usually considered in environmental toxicity testing. For example, the accidental and purposeful clearing of plant life can deprive many organisms of habitat.

At a time when pesticide residues are being found increasingly in the food supply, in drinking water, and implicated as a source of farmer and farmworker poisonings, it is both inexcusable and unacceptable that biotechnology be used to further pesticide use in agriculture, and it is most inappropriate that federal and state research dollars be used for such purposes. If the money now being spent on herbicide tolerance in the public sector alone were instead directed to be spent on new approaches to weed management, the benefits to society, farm profitability, and environmental protection would surely far outdistance the strategy of continuing the chemical treadmill with herbicide tolerance.

Perhaps the greatest problem with herbicide tolerance, however, is that it diverts us from the paths that really could lead to reduced chemical dependency in agriculture. As farmers have known for years, and in some cases are learning anew, responsible tillage practices, crop rotations, and intercropping are viable methods of managing weeds. Unlike the ephemeral benefits of herbicide tolerance, the use of these "common sense" practices will minimize chemical inputs, and maximize long-term farm income and environmental protection. These and similar efforts to make agriculture sustainable over the long term--for farmers, rural economies and the environment--should command our full attention.

As farmers around the country are concluding, herbicide tolerance is not compatible with sustainable agriculture. It ought to be rejected and exposed for what it is: a way for the agrichemical establishment to control the direction of agricultural biotechnology.

To those with high hopes for the environmental benefits from biotechnology, herbicide-tolerant crops are at best a distressing misstep, at worst a cynical marketing strategy. Both industry and the publicly supported agricultural research establishment must direct their considerable talent and resources toward sustainable alternatives for weed management and other pest controls. The risks of prolonging the chemical era of agriculture are far too clear--for farmers, consumers, and the environment. Sustainable practices provide an alternative that will never be realized if public research funds are wasted on such misguided products as herbicide-tolerant crops.

Title: "Biotechnology's Bitter Harvest: Herbicide Tolerant Crops and the
Threat to Sustainable Agriculture"
Price: $7
Publication Code: PBH

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