The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy promotes resilient family farms, rural communities and ecosystems around the world through research and education, science and technology, and advocacy.
Founded in 1986, IATP is rooted in the family farm movement. With offices in Minneapolis and Geneva, IATP works on making domestic and global agricultural policy more sustainable for everyone.
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About Think Forward
Think Forward is a blog written by staff of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy covering sustainability as it intersects with food, rural development, international trade, the environment and public health.
April 08, 2011
U.S. subsidizes Brazilian cotton to protect Monsanto's profits
On February 18, Republicans in the House of Representatives defeated an obscure amendment to the House Appropriations bill by a 2-to-1 margin. The Kind Amendment would have eliminated $147 million dollars that the federal government pays every year directly to Brazilian cotton farmers. In an era of nationwide belt tightening, with funding for things like education and the U.S. Farm Bill on the chopping block, defending payments to Brazilian farmers may seem curious.
In order to understand this peculiar political move, one has to look all the way back to 2002, when Brazil filed a case in the WTO challenging U.S. cotton subsidies. In 2004, the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO found in favor of Brazil, ruling that government subsidies afforded U.S. cotton producers an unfair advantage and suppressed the world market price, which damaged Brazil's interests. After multiple appeals the WTO upheld the original ruling, and by 2009 the U.S. still had not reformed its cotton programs. Brazil then asked the WTO for permission to retaliate against the U.S. by imposing trade sanctions. The WTO decided that Brazil was entitled to impose 100-percent tariffs on over 100 different goods of U.S. origin. Even more importantly, however, Brazil was entitled to suspend intellectual property rights for U.S. companies, including patent protections on genetically engineered seeds.
In WTO language, Brazil was allowed to suspend its obligations to U.S. companies under the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement. This constituted a major threat to the profits of U.S. agribusiness giants Monsanto and Pioneer, since Brazil is the second largest grower of biotech crops in the world. Fifty percent of Brazil’s corn harvest is engineered to produce the pesticide Bt, and Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Pro is a popular product among Brazilian corn farmers. By targeting the profits of major U.S. corporations, the Brazilian government put the U.S. in a tough spot: either let the subsidies stand and allow Brazilian farmers to plant Monsanto and Pioneer seeds without paying royalties, or substantially reform the cotton program. In essence, Brazil was pitting the interests of Big Agribusiness against those of Big Cotton, and the U.S. government was caught in the middle.
The two governments, however, managed to come up with a creative solution. In a 2009 WTO “framework agreement,” the U.S. created the Commodity Conservation Corporation (CCC), and Brazil created the Brazilian Cotton Institute (BCI). Rather than eliminating or substantially reforming cotton subsidies, the CCC pays the BCI $147 million dollars a year in “technical assistance,” which happens to be the same amount the WTO authorized for trade retaliation specifically for cotton payments. In essence, then, the U.S. government pays a subsidy to Brazilian cotton farmers every year to protect the U.S. cotton program—and the profits of companies like Monsanto and Pioneer.
In 2005, I attended the committee meeting of Brazil’s foreign trade ministry where Pedro Camargo Neto—a Brazilian trade lawyer and then-president of the Brazilian pork producers association—proposed suspension of the TRIPS agreement as retaliation for U.S. non-compliance with the WTO ruling on cotton. It was a brilliant political tactic, and dramatically shows the power of private firms in both countries to influence trade policy in the WTO. When I interviewed him as part of my dissertation, Camargo said the Brazilian cotton case would never have been launched without political pressure and funding from Brazil’s powerful cotton industry. Despite facing substantial resistance from the Brazilian government in launching the case, he said, “the producers were really backing it.”
Today in the U.S., taxpayers are bearing the cost of the cotton subsidies and the cost of failure to reform them. Although major news outlets called the payments yet another insane perversion of already insane U.S. agricultural policy, it clearly wasn’t just about preserving subsidies. In 2006, Steve Suppan anticipated the use—and drawbacks—of TRIPS suspension as a one of few tools of cross-retaliation available to poorer countries. However, because of the size of the market for genetically modified seeds there, TRIPS suspension was Brazil’s trump card. Apparently when the stakes are high enough for American business interests, the government will make sure that American taxpayers subsidize not just agriculture, but intellectual property, too.
Emelie Peine is an assistant professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound.
November 01, 2010
Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready crops increasing herbicide use
In 2003, at an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) conference in Indianapolis, I presented a paper entitled "GMO’s and IPM: are they compatible?" One focus of the discussion centered on the question of whether GMO’s will increase or decrease pesticide use over time? I, and others—especially Chuck Benbrook—predicted that over time pesticide use will actually increase as pest resistance develops. I also covered this issue recently in a previous Think Forward blog.
The broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (Roundup, until recently manufactured exclusively by Monsanto), when used with corn or soybeans containing a transgenic gene resistant to the effects of the herbicide has provided excellent control of both grass and broadleaved weeds. This permitted more use of no-till and narrow row farming, and increased the acreage that can be managed per farm unit. Thus, it has indirectly contributed to yield and to profits. In short, it has been a major contributor to large-scale industrial agriculture that has decimated the countryside. As Andrew Wargo III, president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, states in a New York Times article, ”It (Roundup) is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen.”
Chuck Benbrook estimates that it takes about 12–15 years to develop resistance to a pharmaceutical in a general population, which fits the time frame that is occurring for Roundup-resistant weeds (Roundup-Ready soybean was first introduced in 1996). Dr. Mike Owen, the Extension Weed Scientist at Iowa State University, calls this “Darwinian evolution fast forwarded.” Owen, in a “Stewardship Tips” fact sheet from ISU Extension, recommended timely weed control, knowing the weed issues in the field, using a pre-followed post herbicide system to control weeds and using full labeled rates of glyphosate. These recommendations were in general ignored. Many publications have been available over the years giving the facts behind the occurrence of resistance. Yet now Roundup resistance is a big problem and growing bigger.
Why? Basically it was overused and poorly managed.
Benbrook wrote “glyphosate herbicide and genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton (are) the most stunning and profitable market success story in the history of the pesticide and seed industry.” Dr. Owen points out that while it is logical to blame GMO crops, the real blame lies with the cropping and weed control system that has come out of the Roundup-Ready marketing and promotion efforts, coupled with the convenience and simplicity of the Roundup-based systems. He also faults the aggressive marketing by industry that downplayed the risks involved. And after going off patent, glyphosate prices dropped, encouraging farmers to increase herbicide rates to kill the more resistant weeds. Of course, this only encouraged the weeds to fight back with increased resistance. It has becoming a losing arms race, or what Willard Cochrane called—years ago—the "Technology Treadmill." Chemical companies are delighted with the new business opportunities; now they can revive old chemistry.
The most persistant problems have been seen in only a few weed species. Among these are pigweed (Palmer amaranth), horseweed and giant ragweed. Even though only about 7 to 10 million acres are currently impacted, resistant weeds will spread rapidly as forces such as birds, dirty combines and wind and soil erosion spread resistant weed seeds from field to field.
While Monsanto spent precious years in denial, it now recognizes the problem and realizes that if the effectiveness of glyphosate is diminished, farmers will be reluctant to pay the premium for Roundup-Ready seeds. Recently, Monsanto became aggressive, actually subsidizing the use of alternate herbicides that control the Roundup-resistant weeds in cotton, where the problem first surfaced and is the most severe. In 2010, they began paying farmers to use these alternatives as well as developing crops that have resistance to other herbicides.
The herbicide subsidy program by Monsanto has been extended in 2011 to corn and soybeans. This is admittedly an effort to extend the use of glyphosate, but also likely has a financial return because Monsanto is forming partnerships with chemical companies such as Sumitomo Chemical and Valent that produce the alternatives. Valor, a herbicide made by Monsanto, has also been approved but it is a very toxic herbicide. Warrant is another subsidized herbicide (made by Monsanto) which is particularly effective for pigweed control in soybean.
Of course, these subsidy programs fall back into the old pattern; the overuse of glyphosate has lead to the use of more herbicides and these are more toxic. And while Monsanto and other companies are racing to develop crops resistant to alternate herbicides, no silver bullet has emerged. While farmers might think a new magic herbicide-GMO combination is in the works, it is not likely.
Still with the high and rising demand for soybeans worldwide (The October 28, 2010 Chicago Board of Trade Price was $12.25) growers will be looking for all the ways possible to maintain their current soybean production systems. Industry will benefit but farmers will be paying higher input costs.
As long as the free market reigns supreme and corporations control agriculture’s destiny, there will be no way to halt the development of even more pest resistance and more dominance by the chemical/seed industry. Will the loss of the ability to control weeds cripple agriculture’s economy? Some think so. And they may be right. Remember, Bt insect control through GMOs has greatly expanded recently. The clock is ticking.
October 07, 2010
Seed industry promotes doubling of crop yields by 2030
In 2008, Monsanto launched a major public relations campaign to double crop yields in the U.S. by 2030. Recently, discussions in farm country have again picked up on this claim. It is worth examining the issues in depth.
Can it be done? Based on past history, it will be difficult. A recent USDA Economic Research Service bulletin (USDA/ERS) shows that agriculture productivity is growing at the yearly average rate of 1.58 percent which is a doubling in 44 years, not the 20 years proposed. And corn yields, which are the focus of the discussion, have a growth rate of 1.76 percent from 2004 to 2010, or a doubling rate of 40 years.
ERS projects about 175 bushels per acre (bu/A) in 2015, so yield would be about 205 bu/A by 2030. If harvested acreage stays constant (not a certainty) at around 80 million, production would be 16.4 billion bushels, a 31 percent increase over 2010. These data show that a yield doubling is highly unlikely, and is more likely a marketing ploy.
It is easy to dismiss such statements on yield as a way to promulgate more inputs, especially GMOs (genetically modified crops). There are major questions out there. Do GMOs really increase yield? Up to now, the answer depends on who you ask. Some—including some ERS reports—indicate no effect, others are counting on GMOs to really raise the yield.
A recent article in Farm Industry News based largely on interviews from Monsanto and Pioneer (DuPont), BASF and Syngenta scientists and development people, gives insight into what the industry is planning. Stacking, that is putting many GMO traits in a single variety, is claimed to be the wave of the future, especially for corn. The 8-trait SmartStax corn, developed by Dow and Monsanto, was available for 2009. Monsanto scientists are predicting that stacking 20 or more traits will be the norm. Massive breakthroughs in gene marking, real-time micro DNA analysis and computer programming are claimed to allow tailoring seeds to a specific climatic zone, bio-region or cropping strategy. Traits that are projected to be available include drought tolerance, nitrogen efficiency, herbicide tolerance (beyond Roundup) and insect resistance.
But recent findings indicate that the industry's gene stacking for yield and profits is going awry. This recent article from The New York Times documents the plummeting fortunes of the biotech giant Monsanto (shares have dropped from a high of $145 in mid-2008 to about $48 currently) largely because of the slow sales of SmartStax and the Roundup Ready 2 Yield soybeans. This is attributed to decreased yield coupled with overpricing, and a Department of Justice investigation into possible antitrust violations. But Monsanto's fortunes aside, this shows that predicting the success of biotech technology on yield is uncertain at best.
If it works, drought tolerance might be the biggest trait to increase production as it will permit corn to be grown in drier regions such as Kansas, the Dakotas and western Nebraska where now only sorghum and wheat can be grown without irrigation. If corn can be grown profitably, cattle may well leave the range and wheat acreage will drop.
Herbicide tolerance, which arguably has not increased yields but has increased profits, will move to newer chemicals as well as proven products. Several genes for tolerance to herbicides may be stacked in one variety. Will this bring about new herbicide resistant weed issues? Only time will tell.Several new modes of action for insect resistance are also being studied and refuge-in-a-bag products are now being evaluated by EPA. Will these lead to true yield enhancement? Or just more acres per farm?
Several major issues must be addressed as the corporate world pushes for yield doubling. Some are discussed in recent Iowa Farmer Today. The issues may seem obvious, but it is good to see them discussed in a mainline farm weekly. Gene Lucht, who authored the report, poses the following questions:
It will be interesting to see if crop (especially corn) yield increases continue at roughly their present pace, especially since climate change appears to be lowering projected yields worldwide. However, the use of so many resources on one crop must be questioned, even if it is currently the dominate grain crop. I question the need for this overemphasis, when so many other agriculture research needs exist. The unintended consequences of our current path must be examined.
August 19, 2010
Kansas: Goodbye wheat, hello corn
Farmers will harvest more corn than wheat this year in Kansas, according to Dan Piller at the Des Moines Register—a trend that's changing the state's traditional ag identity. Even crop-stressing record heat hasn't put a damper on the maize bonanza.
When I lived in Iowa, I always liked watching the crops change as I drove west. The greens of corn and soybeans would give way to golden wheat (and sunflowers, when I was lucky) as the land got drier. It wasn't real diversity, but at least it was different, a recognition that different land calls for different crops. Drought-resistant transgenes and increased irrigation—driven by demand for corn—have changed that. Of course it's not just Kansas; Nebraska and other dry-land regions have also upped their corn production.
Far be it from me to say one monoculture is better than another, but it's yet another sign that we're moving in exactly the wrong direction: toward less diversity, rather than more.
June 23, 2010
The resistance to resistance: What is a weed?
The ability of natural systems to overcome assaults by outside forces that threaten their livelihood is nothing short of phenomenal. When I was kid growing up in Iowa in the 1950s, I recall when we sprayed DDT on the cows to control flies, except the flies soon fought back, so we had to use more. First used as an outgrowth of nerve gas from WWII, DDT was regarded as a lifesaver for control of mosquitoes carrying malaria but it soon became ineffective. Never mind that the full health and environmental risks of toxic DDT were never fully evaluated before it was in widespread use, and when it was found in milk, some people began to worry. Other pesticides, such as dieldrin and aldrin, were substituted, but mosquitoes again became resistant in 18 months or less.
Not to be deterred, humanity has continued to try to use pesticides to control pests over and over—only to find that pests continue to fight back over and over. Now more than 500 species of insects and fungus are resistant to pesticides and the list continues to climb.
Even corn rootworm, which used to be controlled by alternating corn with another crop such as soybeans, has figured out that it can exist nicely with the soybean and come back the next year, a phenomenon known as extended diapauses.
Aside from insects, resistance also operates efficiently in the plant world. Weeds are ever with us. Indeed they are called weeds because they end up where they are not wanted and cause economic damage. In 1943 Aldo Leopold wrote a classic essay called “What is a Weed.” The essay, published in River of the Mother of God (UW Press), said “To live in harmony with plants is, or should be, the ideal of good agriculture. To call every plant a weed which cannot be fed to livestock or people is, I fear, the actual practice of agricultural colleges. [...] The first false premise is that every wild species occasionally harmful to agriculture is by that reason of fact to be blacklisted for general persecution.”
I spent many hot days chopping weeds out of corn and soybean fields when I was a youth. When a miracle product called 2,4-D (an early Monsanto product) came along to use on the corn fields, I rejoiced. But lo and behold, by 1957, weeds were reported in Hawaii sugarcane fields that were resistant to 2,4-D. Weed scientists did not worry much. The slow growth pattern of weeds meant it would take many years before widespread resistance would occur. But weeds did not wait.
The triazines, especially atrazine, came into widespread use the 1960s. Predictably, weed resistance soon developed. While triazine resistance is commonplace, atrazine remains a major herbicide for corn.
But all was not lost. In the 1970s a Monsanto organic chemist named John Franz found a triamine salt, called glyphosate, that had broad spectrum toxicity toward green plants. Glyphosate was branded as Roundup and formulations were first marketed in 1976. Over the last three decades, glyphosate has brought enormous profits to Monsanto, which had exclusive U.S. rights until 2000 when the patent expired. Roundup has been the most widely sold herbicide worldwide since 1980.
The company’s profits greatly expanded with the introduction of crops genetically engineered to be tolerant of Roundup. With the introduction of Roundup Ready (RR) crops patented by Monsanto, the company's sales not only of the chemical but also of the seed and associated patents skyrocketed.
Over 90 percent of soy, 75 percent of cotton and 70 percent of corn grown in the U.S. in 2009 contains the RR trait. This amounts to 130 million acres of corn and soy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
While Roundup has been touted as safe and environmentally friendly, much data indicates the contrary. Of particular concern are the “inert” adjuvants (chemicals added to enhance the activity of the pesticide) that often are not disclosed nor tested by EPA.
Worldwide, at least 25 countries have now adopted biotech crops (statistics are not available to sort these out by herbicide-tolerant and insecticide-tolerant crops)—amounting to a total of over 300 million acres.
But as predicted by weed and ecological scientists for a couple of decades, resistance to Roundup is developing, and the number of new species resistant to Roundup has increased markedly in the last few years. Many of the resistant weeds are economically important and difficult to control. Some, such as waterhemp, have been observed to have developed resistance (PDF) to at least three different classes of herbicides.
Over 19 genotypes are Roundup resistant worldwide. And with the increasing potential for large acreages of Roundup-ready alfalfa and sugarbeet crops, more difficult to control weeds will likely emerge. Importantly for all herbicides evaluated by 2009, the Weed Science Society lists 346 Resistant Biotypes, 194 Species (114 dicots and 80 monocots) and over 340,000 fields worldwide that have developed resistance. This covers virtually all herbicides that have been used commercially since the chemical era began.
Growing resistance to herbicides means farmers have to use more to achieve the same effect. The amount of herbicide used in U.S. agriculture has increased dramatically—up 46 percent in the last 13 years for corn, cotton and soybean production. Much of this increase is attributed to Roundup resistance. Remarkably, the Associated Press reported earlier this week that Monsanto was paying cotton farmers an additional $12 an acre to cover the costs of other herbicides to use alongside of Roundup. Further, the use of older, more toxic herbicides such as 2,4-D and paraquat are increasing, adding to water quality and offsite drift issues, and another gallery of resistant weeds.
Where this will lead is obvious; curtail herbicide use or face the consequences of less herbicide effectiveness with more economic, human health and ecological consequences. I would bet that if they could, Aldo Leopold and Charles Darwin would have a good laugh at this conundrum.
Chemical-based weed control may be hitting a brick wall—or at least a wall that is getting more difficult to traverse. No major new pesticides are being developed for corn or soybeans. The last major advancement in chemical weed control was pigment inhibitors (chemicals that prevent plants from forming photosynthetic pigments) developed in the 1980s. We are entering a new era where farmers cannot rely on technology to bail them out.
This little horror story points out once again the fallacies of industrial agriculture, built on short-sighted corporate control of crop inputs, and supportive government policies. Weed scientists sounded the alarm on resistance years ago but many were told to cool it for fear of angering the corporate sponsors of University research and outreach funding. Of course, the discipline of weed science likes to take credit now for being right, but where were they when they should have spoken out more strongly?
When I was executive director of the Leopold Center at Iowa State University in the 1990s I banned research funding for biotech crops, and was widely criticized for this move. Other leaders such as Dr. Chuck Benbrook who previously led the National Academy of Sciences Agriculture Committee spoke out, and soon lost their jobs. The pattern is a familiar one for academia, except the stakes for the future of agriculture are becoming more and more serious. It is up to groups such as IATP to move the playing field back to biointensive pest control (the use of ecological principles to control pests, rather than relying solely on pesticides).
In a future blog, I will tackle the more evasive issue raised by genetically engineered crops containing the Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) gene for control of moths and borers. Stay tuned.
May 31, 2010
Biotech in Africa
In mid-May, the Des Moines Register published a 7-part series on Africa by reporter Philip Brasher. He traveled to Kenya and South Africa to obtain information for the series. It focuses on corn (maize in Africa) and on the role of biotechnology (its political, as well as its yield aspects) in providing food for sub-Sahara Africa—an area that is short on quality soils, has poor rainfall distribution and is expanding rapidly in population.
Still, it now seems to be the U.S. government against most everyone else when it comes to biotech seeds. Often Brasher characterizes Europe as the main force working against biotech in Africa. But only Southern Africa has approved the maize seed for commercial use. And many countries in Asia are just as opposed to biotech seeds. Are he and others using Europe as a scapegoat?
Perhaps the question is already being answered, at least in the short term. South Africa (Africa's Iowa) had the largest corn harvest in 2010 since 1982. Increased land in cultivation, timely rains and better cultivars have contributed to the increase. In fact, South Africa corn prices have dropped more than 30 percent this year and growers are considering withholding corn from the market to increase prices. Part of the problem is the lack of infrastructure to ship the corn to the parts of Africa, such as Kenya, where it is needed.
Brasher's series emphasizes the problems biotech companies have in finding adequate field plots to conduct breeding and yield trials. Not mentioned is the fact that industry restricts independent scientists and others from studying the seed. Further, a lack of established regulations hinders the establishment of field trials.
The series continues to beg the question: What is behind all these efforts to foist GE technology on Africa? It can't be direct profit from African sales; that will be vanishingly small. Not Africans feeding Africa, that is impossible until the numerous infrastructure problems are dealt with. One has to wonder whether it really is about the image of Monsanto and Pioneer in the U.S. (and possibly EU in the future), and the vast pro-biotech lobby that resides within the USDA. And it is about market share, not just in Africa but worldwide.