Proponents of genetically engineered, or “GE,” crops often claim that their products can feed a hungry world because of traits like drought tolerance and high crop yield. But the truth is that no GE crop was ever brought to the commercial market for these traits. In reality the vast majority of GE crops planted worldwide— five out of six acres — are engineered for one feature only: herbicide tolerance. That’s a polite way of saying they can survive being drenched with what would normally be a deadly dose of toxic pesticides.
Monsanto’s Roundup (of which the generic name is glyphosate) is now the most widely used pesticide in the world, as a result of the widespread adoption of GE corn, soy and alfalfa. Glyphosate has been declared a probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization, and is also linked to kidney damage and reproductive harm. In the 20 years since GE crops were first commercialized in the United States, glyphosate use on corn and soy alone has increased 20-fold, from 10 million to 205 million pounds per year.
Extensive glyphosate use is taking a significant toll on the ecological health of farmland, surrounding waterways, and the many species that call these lands home. More than 74 endangered plant species that grow in or near agricultural areas are at risk of being reduced due to herbicide use. Glyphosate also kills beneficial plants, like milkweed, that provide food for birds, insects and other animals. Glyphosate use in midwestern agricultural lands is a leading cause of the 90 percent decline of monarch butterflies because it is a highly effective killer of milkweed, the only host plant used by this iconic butterfly. Endangered species like the California red-legged frog, Houston toad, pallid sturgeon, and many species of freshwater mussels can also be harmed when the toxic herbicide runs off agricultural lands and into streams, rivers and lakes.
The massive increase in glyphosate use on herbicide-tolerant GE crops has also contributed to the rise of herbicide-tolerant superweeds, which have become one of the most serious challenges facing American agriculture. Roundup-resistant superweeds now cover over 60 million acres of U.S. cropland. Their proliferation has caused increased use of stronger, more toxic chemicals to destroy them, creating a pesticide treadmill that will inevitably result in increasingly adaptable and pervasive superweeds. To address this challenge, big agribusiness is busily working on rolling out the next generation of herbicide-tolerant crops, which will be resistant to increasingly toxic pesticides such as dicamba and 2,4-D, best known for being one of the active ingredients in the infamous chemical defoliant Agent Orange, used by the U.S. military in its herbicidal warfare in Vietnam.
In response to the threats that GE crops pose to imperiled species and habitats, the Center has been pursuing legal action — and getting results. In 2015 in response to litigation by conservation groups including the Center, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it was revoking approval of the herbicide “Enlist Duo” (a toxic combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D) after determining that its combination of chemicals is likely significantly more harmful than initially believed. In 2016 we reached a historic settlement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requiring the agency to analyze the impacts of glyphosate and atrazine on 1,500 endangered U.S. plants and animals. Also in 2016 we launched a lawsuit against the Service over its failure to protect the monarch butterfly under the Endangered Species Act.
With these and other efforts in the works, the Center is a zealous advocate for the health and protection of imperiled wildlife and people threatened by GE crops and their toxic herbicide counterparts.