Anyone who is interested in the GM debate or would like more information I suggest watching “Jimmy’s GM Food Fight”. It takes a non bias scientific look at the Genetic Modification of crops, their use and societies view on them.
I recently watched the Vice report “Saviour Seeds” on GMO cropping (On HBO Season 3 Episode 9), during the program they talked to some farmers from Paraguay on their experiences with growing Roundup Ready soy beans. Their main issue with the product was the issue of weeds resistance that they stated was caused by the excessive use of glyphosate (The herbicide commonly referred to as Roundup). Personally I thought that the story was servilely one sided and heavily bias but even so weed resistance is unfortunately a real everyday issue for many farmers around the world including Australian farmers.
But are GMO crops to blame?.
In short the answer is NO, while in some countries it could be argued that the misuse of glyphosate in Roundup Ready crops has helped to increase the prevalence of weed resistance it is unfortunately a problem that affects many areas in Australia and around world including those that have never been touched by GM cropping. So what causes herbicide resistance?
Herbicide resistance occurs when a plant a natural mutation in the plant allows it to become immune to the mode of action (the bit that kills the weed) in a herbicide. If the the same herbicide is applied in further sprays this plant may then survive allowing it to set seed, leaving viable seed in the soil for up to 10 years. Resistant plants then germinate from the seeds and if a chemical with the same mode of action is used these plants will set seed and possibly spread. The situation can then be made worst if the producer changes to chemical with another mode of action using it religiously until the weed becomes resistant to it as well. The situation is now that bad in some parts of Western Australia that weeds are resistant to several modes of action almost eliminating chemical options.
In order to combat this issue the producers have had to adopt Integrated Weed Management (IWM) strategies in order to help manage and reduce the problem. Common features in many IWM strategies include rotating modes of action, the double knock strategy and non chemical control methods.
Rotating modes of action involves using different types of chemicals that will still kill the weeds but will use a different method in order to prevent a resistance occurring to one type of mode of action. The different mode of actions can be determined by checking the label to see its group.
The double knock strategy is similar to rotating modes of action and involves making at least two passes over a field. The first pass is down with a chemical using one mode of action before a second pass is done with another chemical that uses a different mode of action in order to knock out any weeds that may of been left by the first pass. This method is becoming increasingly popular when used in conjunction with WeedSeeker technology that identifies weeds in a paddock and only sprays them instead of doing a blanket spray over the entire paddock. This has caused a massive reduction in the amount of chemical used on farm and the operating cost allowing many more expensive chemicals from different groups to be a cost effective option.
Finally the last control method is the non-chemical mechanical control which can take many forms from the simple to the more elaborate. Strategic ploughing is one of mechanical options available as it is able to physically destroy the plant in the fallowed paddock working under the simple idea that no weed can develop resistance to steel. Other methods include trying to control the seed bank though using machinery like seed crushers that a pulled behind the harvester to windrowing stubble in a way that allows it to be burned destroying any seeds.
Overall weed resistance is a problem that effects the entire cropping industry and not some accidental by-product of a RoundUp ready cropping system, it is also a problem that can be managed, prevented and avoided through care full management. I’d like to finish this discussion on Weed Resistance by asking two questions on the Vice program.
1. VICE News claims that farmers could use a range of herbicides before the introduction of RoundUp Ready (RR) soy beans in order to prevent and control resistance. But before RR soy beans you couldn’t spray any herbicide in crop and could therefore only spray during fallow. So why aren’t they still rotating their herbicides during fallow to control and prevent resistant weeds along with weeds in general while using glyphosate to control weeds in crop as recomended?
2. If the Paraguay’s farmers are so unhappy with the product why do they still use it and not revert back to conventional seed? The program stated that the majority of Paraguay’s farmers used RR soy beans but not all farmers do meaning there are still conventional seeds on the market, so why not switch back?
On a side note…….
The show also commented on how the how the UN has recently found glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic” which in all fairness they have. But in this day and age everything seems to cause cancer so I thought I’d research things that are proven to cause cancer and are not just “probably carcinogenic”. According the American Cancer Institute there are many many things that can and will cause cancer however I have chosen to just list a few everyday materials that are Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans such as:
- Alcohol (I know, I was disappointed as well)
- Engine exhaust
- Leather Dust
- Mineral oils
- Salted fish
- The Sun (Solar/UV Radiation)
- Wood Dust
- Tobacco/Tobacco Smoke
Just to lighten things up here’s a song that a South Australian agronomist and farmer wrote about weed resistance and is called the Wild Radish Song.
Recently Mark Lynas, a leading environmentalist and leader in the campaign against Genetically Modified crops announced he had changed his position, he stated that he was wrong, mislead and was misguiding the public through the anti GM campaign. What made him change his mind? Science, he stated that science, peer reviewed papers and looking at the facts are what has changed his mind. So what is GM? What are the myths? What are the facts? And where does its negative image stem from?
In my opinion GM’s negative image stems from a lack of understanding, lack of reasoning and a bit of fear mongering. I remember GM being discussed at school as an ethical issue, the discussions always started with the notion of yes it can help feed the world and it can reduce chemical use but…. what if this or what if that, so the discussion always ended with GM was just us playing God, it was unsafe and we were probably going to create some mutate animal by mistake. The discussions had no fact behind them, just the reasoning of a child’s mind into which were sowed the seeds of doubt, about the safety, the ethics and the potential benefits When really it couldn’t of being further from the truth, GM is the way forward, it has reduced insecticide use and has helped to produce better crops. So in detail lets look at what GM is.
A genetically modified organism is a organism that has had its genetic material modified, so what does modified mean and how long has this been going on. The modification of genetic material can be anything from natural breeding and evolution to scientists splicing genes between plants, so its been going on forever. But how long have humans being involved in the process? Humans have been involved for for as long as we have been domesticating animals, we’ve been selecting and breeding the best varieties of crops for our use, so effectively all crops whether they are GM, conventional or organic have been genetically modified by humans. Now some people argue that when scientist start splicing genes it becomes unnatural, unsafe and we are playing God, but what we are actually doing is speeding up the process and reducing variability. How this works is a few hundred years ago humans realised that if they kept seeds near radium the radium would cause mutations in the seeds and therefore the plant (although they didn’t know it at the time they were altering the plants DNA) creating a wide variety of plants, some where better others weren’t and in many there was no change. So this process was a real hit and miss affair, it was also very time consuming with many generations of plants often needed for the desired effect and it was also unsafe for the researchers. So that’s what GM is and where it started from, so lets look at some of the myths.
I’ll start by using cotton as an example, cotton has been a shinning example of what GM has to offer but a quick Google search will show you that there is still a lot of misconceptions about it. Number one being that nobody wants it and that growers are forced to have it, THIS IS WRONG conventional cotton seed is still readily available to growers but the reason why nearly 100% of the Australian cotton crop is GM is because of the benefits it offers to the growers, in fact GM cotton was even pirated and smuggled into India where it was banned because a farmers were that keen to use it. Myth number two is that it has caused an increase in pesticide use, THIS IS WRONG the use of Bollgard (Bt) GM cotton has actually seen a reduction in pesticide use of over 80% in the last decade. Myth number three is that GM cotton has lead to an increase in weeds and weed resistance, although it is possible IT IS STILL WRONG. Let me explain, any weed or pest can quite easily build up resistance to a control method if only one method of control is used, farmers have know this for many years before GM was about and have always used a variety of controls including physical, chemical and biological. Since the introduction of Roundup Ready cotton we are no different we still use other control methods along with herbicides (Roundup) to control weeds and avoid resistance. Roundup Ready cotton also has the added benefit of protecting farmers against spray drift (always read the label and never spray when conditions aren’t right) as you’ll see in the photo below with the Roundup Ready cotton on the left and conventional on the right. Myth number four is that GM is dangerous, THIS IS WRONG even after three billion GM meals have been eaten world wide there are still no links between it and any sort of disease or illness and on a side note while researching for this post I can across a article on a anti-GM website that stated that the use of GM cotton has caused mysterious rashes on growers and people who wear GM cotton (nearly everyone) THIS IS WRONG there is no evidence to suggest this has even occurred let alone a link to GM cotton and as I sit here typing I’m wearing underpants, shorts and shirt all made from GM cotton, combined with working all day around the GM cotton the only redness I have is sunburn (so remember slip, slop, slap and stay safe in the sun).
Other myths surrounding GM crops include that terminator seeds prevent farmers from keeping seeds for next the season, while this is true naturally bred hybrid crops eliminated that option years before GM. Another myth is that mixing the genes of two totally different species such as a fish and a tomato is totally unnatural, but while the concept may raise a few eyebrows its totally natural and viruses do it all the time, the process is called gene flow. But I believe the most important misconception is that GM crops only benefits big corporations when really it doesn’t, in the end it benefits the farmers and the environment through lower inputs and reduced chemical use among other things.
GM is the future of cropping and is essential to meet the worlds rising food demands, so please go out there and spread the good word clear up the myths and misconceptions, tell the world why we need GM, why we want GM and why GM is the future but most importantly tell them that GM IS SAFE.
Feel free to comment if you have any questions.
To view Mark Lynas speech and apology click here
Everyone takes refuge from something, just like I take refuge from the sun and heat by working nights the bugs take refuge from pesticides and GM cotton in a refuge crop such as pigeon peas. Refuge crops are crops that are not sprayed and provide a safe haven for both beneficial insects and pest insects such Helicoverpa, this forms part of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program for cotton. So what is Helicoverpa and IMP and why do we need refuge crops?
Lets start with what Helicoverpa and IPM are, Helicoverpa is a moth that lays its eggs on the leaves of the cotton plant, the caterpillar then eats the leaves moving its way up the plant until the start to eat the cotton boll (the fruit of the plant which contains the cotton), the plant then discards the cotton boll and the yield suffers. An integrated pest management (IPM) program is a way to effectively control pests using a combination of controls such as biological, chemical and mechanical. Using a variety of controls prevents resistance building up and allows for more effective controls. So what does this have to do refuge crops?
With the introduction of GM cotton we have been able to reduce the use of pesticides by over 80% because the cotton plant has had a gene spiced into it that gives it a natural resistance to Helicoverpa. If the only control method used is the GM cotton than the Helicoverpa will build up resistance and it won’t be as effective, the same goes if only GM and pesticides are used, the resistance will build up to quickly. So if we allow populations of Helicoverpa to live in refuge crop unaffected by pesticides and GM they will mix and breed with resistant Helicoverpa and help to lower the overall level of resistance in the species, allowing our methods of control to work for a longer period of time.
I hope this helps to explain more about what we do and why GM is benefiting farmers. If you have any questions feel free to comment.