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Dow Chemical Readies for a New Era of Superweeds

Because of the overuse of Monsanto's  (NYSE: MON  )  Roundup weedkiller, farmers have created "superweeds" that resist the best efforts of the herbicide to eradicate them. So rather than address the problem at the source, the USDA is poised to compound it by approving new seeds that are resistant to a different weedkiller manufactured by Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW  ) , meaning it won't be long before we have to up the ante once more.


Dow AgroSciences makes Enlist Weed Control System, the third leading herbicide, but whose constituent component -- 2,4-D -- is perhaps also best known as one half of the deadly Vietnam War-era herbicide Agent Orange. Both Monsanto and Dow were the two primary government contractors that manufactured the deadly defoliant, though scientists think its extreme health risks were due more to the dioxin found in its other component, 2,4,5-T.

Like the Roundup Ready seeds that Monsanto genetically modified to withstand an application of its herbicide, the Agriculture Department wants to deregulate corn and soybean seeds that have been genetically modified to resist 2,4-D. Although they acknowledge it will likely lead to the creation of new superweeds down the road, their logic is that because we're overusing the herbicide as it is -- farmers who grow genetically modified crops typically use 25% more herbicide than those who grow traditional seeds -- we'll get superweeds sooner or later anyway, so there's no need to regulate the seeds anymore.

While the EPA is separately investigating 2,4-D and will soon issue its own report on its use and the seeds' deregulation, Dow AgroSciences has petitioned the USDA to deregulate one corn and two soybean seed varieties that are resistant to 2,4-D and glyphosate, the generic form of Roundup. Last year Monsanto and Dow agreed to cross-license their weed-control technology, with Monsanto using Dow's Enlist herbicide-tolerant traits in field corn while the AgroSciences division would use Monsanto's Corn Rootworm III traits, a third-generation corn rootworm technology still under development. 

Yet the insects are developing immunity to the chemicals, too, creating new superbugs!  But that's good business for the likes of Syngenta (NYSE: SYT  ) , FMC  (NYSE: FMC  ) , and American Vanguard (NYSE: AVD  ) , the three leading pesticide manufacturers that account for three-quarters of all such chemicals sold in the United States. Trailing revenues of the trio were up more than 13% on average over the past year and 14% over the past three years, even as GMO crops and increased pesticide use are believed to have a leading role in colony collapse disorder and the destruction of honeybee populations.

Like someone caught in a revolving door, the industrial farming complex keeps going round and round developing new chemicals to kill off the weeds and insects that grew resistant to the last batch that was applied. Monsanto and BASF are also pushing for regulatory approval of other new genetically altered seeds -- soybeans and cotton -- that resist a new dicamba-based herbicide.

And though we're promised that these genetically modified seeds able to withstand the application of powerful herbicides and insecticides but still keep growing are safe for human consumption, it hardly seems a prescription for a healthy diet, let alone a sustainable future.

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Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 11:42 AM, nosno wrote:

    Rarely have I seen a more poorly researched, poorly written article from the MF......very disappointing to see this kind of bias.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 6:16 PM, getthefacts4 wrote:

    Aexactly a misinformed sarticle compelte devoid of scientific knowledge and full of assumptions.

    All the agents used against pests evolve to resist the agent WHATEVER it is.

    This has historically happened outside of using roundup and just by the way RoundUp active agent is also sold by the Chinese in equal amounts so blame them as well.

    Lets blame the farmers for feeding us why don't you. This is typical Fool blogging - misinformed

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 6:17 PM, getthefacts4 wrote:

    What is Rich's education on agriculture ? Zero Zippo Nothing and I am sorry but you deserve it - it shows.

    CAN SOMEONE please write with some sense of knowledge

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 9:57 PM, pkwestermann wrote:

    Apparently, the previous posters have forgotten their high school Biology (or dropped out in order

    to avoid it). Pesticides/Herbicides work like any other external agent which affect the survival and proliferation of a species. The individuals that survive are going to be more tolerant of that agent in the future. Simple stuff if you take the time to actually think about it. I thank you for the article...openly honest about potential ramifications.

  • Report this Comment On January 13, 2014, at 11:00 PM, ECMorgan wrote:

    As a professor of weed science and ecology, I would call this article a ridiculous oversimplification of a very complex issue. The 2,4 D comment is absurd. Scientists think........., actually it has been overwhelmingly shown.......

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 1:02 AM, BobbyBoyNYC wrote:

    The biological and potential health hazards of irresponsible genetic engineering notwithstanding, those herbicides, as well as insecticides, fungicides, bactericides etc. are potentially hazardous. Do you know what word rhymes with the aforementioned terms? Homicides! Not just the birds and the bees, all of which are vital for a healthy biosphere, these herbicides are toxic to mammals as well. In a rat study by a French scientist, Gilles-Éric Séralin, he showed that genetically modified corn could lead to a high incidence of cancer, Many non-biological scientists immediately attacked him and his study, only showing that money doesn't talk; it swears!

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2014, at 4:16 AM, greenknight32 wrote:

    Weeds don't develop resistance to mulch, or tillage, or crop rotations that include cover crops and forage crops that smother them. Insects don't develop resistance to predatory insects and birds, or crop rotations that eliminate their food source, or companion crops that repel them.

    Industrial Ag, for economic efficiency, has gone to large fields planted to the same crop year after year, or short rotations like corn/soybeans. It relies on chemicals to control the buildup of weeds and pests that naturally result. Very cost-effective in the short run, but it starts an endless treadmill of pest resistance that steadily increases the cost - both financial and environmental. It inevitably will collapse.

    GMO crops, as currently used, accelerate development of resistance by locking in the use of the specific agents they're engineered for. They're a dead end - and their safety is not well-established. It never will be - the decades-long studies that would require are not practical.

    The technology of the future in Ag is in monitoring systems that allow controls and corrections to be applied early and targeted precisely. It's not GMOs, they've just about had their run.

  • Report this Comment On February 25, 2014, at 10:33 AM, swheateepye wrote:

    Maybe the 'superweed' will be able to come to the Motley Fool and write a better article on herbicide-resistant crops...

    And who is hurt by 'superweeds', anyway? The farmers who make a choice to pick a variety (genetically engineered or not) that may have an environmental advantage that translates into higher yields. Resistant weeds may lend themselves to the use of different kinds of herbicides, or a step back in time where farmers used to "walk" their fields to cut out pesky weeds which may unfortunately incur extra costs. No matter the technology, there is usually some sort of trade-off, and in this case it may be some herbicide-resistant weeds. It's a fate many farmers have knowingly chosen.

    Love the terms "superweed", "frankenfood"...adolescent means of perpetuating myths about a legitimate methods to improve crop plants...

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Rich Duprey

Rich has been a Fool since 1998 and writing for the site since 2004. After 20 years of patrolling the mean streets of suburbia, he hung up his badge and gun to take up a pen full time.

Having made the streets safe for Truth, Justice and Krispy Kreme donuts, he now patrols the markets looking for companies he can lock up as long-term holdings in a portfolio. So follow me on Facebook and Twitter for the most important industry news in retail and consumer products and other great stories.


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