Pursuing Truth and Transparency in America's Food System

The pesticide treadmill breeds profits, so it will likely intensify

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 11, “Seedy Business: What Big Food is hiding with its slick PR campaign on GMOs,” by Gary Ruskin, co-director of the public watchdog group US Right to Know.

More than half a century ago, in her landmark book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson predicted the phenomenon called the “pesticide treadmill” or the “pesticide trap.” Carson explained that the use of pesticides, by natural selection, will ensure that the most pesticide-resistant insects and weeds flourish, therefore requiring ever greater dousings of pesticides to control. As Carson wrote, “Darwin himself could scarcely have found a better example of the operation of natural selection than is provided by the way the mechanism of [pesticide] resistance operates.”[1] In other words, the pesticide treadmill is an evolutionary imperative.

It is less noticed, but also important, that the pesticide treadmill is also a financial imperative. It is in the economic interest of the agrichemical industry to make the pesticide treadmill spin as fast as possible.

That is to say, the agrichemical industry will profit the most from ever more grave infestations of ever more pesticide-resistant superweeds and superpests, which will drive the use of ever larger quantities of more expensive pesticides. Hardier pests bring higher revenues.

In some ways, the pesticide treadmill is merely a type of planned obsolescence in agricultural products.

The pesticide treadmill is akin to drug addiction: the more pesticides you use, the more you need.

It is also in the financial interest of the agrichemical companies to scare farmers about the existence of newer and hardier pests, to convince them to buy more genetically engineered seeds and the pesticides that accompany them.

Call it the pesticide paradox. While the agrichemical industries trumpet their supposed efforts to improve crop yields, in fact it is strongly in their financial interest to promote the growth of the superweeds and superpests that detract from crop yields.

So, if we continue to follow the products and prescriptions of the agrichemical industry, the future of agriculture may well be plagued by superlative superweeds and superpests, controlled only temporarily by inundations with the latest, most expensive or most toxic pesticides. And, of course, continued high profits for the agrichemical industry.

This is, in fact, what appears to be happening. Dow AgroSciences is selling new crops of corn and soybeans, called Enlist, that are resistant to the Enlist Duo herbicides glyphosate and 2,4-D, a component of the infamous Vietnam war defoliant Agent Orange.[2] The crops are supposed to help farmers control weeds that are resistant to glyphosate alone, because those superweeds would hopefully be killed by the 2,4-D. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved the crops for commercial farming. In its analysis, the USDA estimated that the use of the crops would increase the amount of 2,4-D used in the United States by 200 to 600 percent by 2020.[3] Similarly, at the time of this writing, Monsanto is nearing regulatory approval for dicamba-resistant soybeans and cotton.[4] That is great news for Dow and Monsanto, and yet another turn of the pesticide treadmill.

Footnotes

[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), p. 272. See also Robert van den Bosch, The Pesticide Conspiracy. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1978). Robert Wuliger, “Robert Van Den Bosch: Stop the Pesticide Conspiracy.” Mother Earth News, July/August 1979.

[2] See the Dow AgroSciences website for Enlist.

[3] Andrew Pollack, “Altered to Withstand Herbicide, Corn and Soybeans Gain Approval.” New York Times, September 17, 2014. See also Bill Freese, “Going Backwards: Dow’s 2,4-D-Resistant Crops and a More Toxic Future.” Food Safety Review, Center for Food Safety, Winter 2012.

[4]USDA Paves the Way for Planting of Two More Pesticide Promoting Genetically Engineered (GE) Crops.” Center for Food Safety, December 12, 2014.