This week on Rootstock Radio, we speak with Dr. Charles (Chuck) Benbrook, an agricultural economist, scientist and researcher. Dr. Benbrook has served as chief scientist for the Organic Center, a non-profit organization focused on organic research, education and advocacy, and as a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, where his work focused on GMO crop safety and the effects of GMOs on humans. Dr. Benbrook’s research has become a central talking point for organizations that advocate for mandatory labels on genetically modified foods, including the nonprofit group Just Label It.
Bees, Dr. Benbrook explains today, are just one of many populations being disastrously affected by the pesticides that go hand-in-hand with the use of GMO crops. When asked if bees might be an indicator—like the canary in a coal mine—of what we should be paying attention to regarding the impact of our pesticide-intensive agriculture, Dr. Benbrook doesn’t hesitate in his answer: “Absolutely.”
Listen in as Theresa and Dr. Benbrook talk about increased pesticide use in the U.S. and its effect on our pollinators.
This is part 1 of a 2-part series. Click here to listen to part 2, where host Theresa Marquez and Dr. Benbrook turn to some good news about the impact of organic production on the nutritional quality of food.
Interview with Dr. Charles Benbrook – part 1
May 23, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello listeners, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. Today is a day that I’ve really been looking forward to because our guest is Dr. Charles Benbrook, known to those of us who have known him for a long time as Dr. Chuck. Hello, Dr. Chuck, and welcome to Rootstock Radio.
CHARLES BENBROOK: Well, how are you doing, Theresa? Glad to be here.
TM: It’s really, really both a pleasure but something I’ve been looking forward to. And I’d love to tell our listeners—if you don’t mind—just a few things about you so that they can understand why this is going to be a remarkable discussion.
First of all, Dr. Chuck has had a tremendous career—he’s described as an agricultural economist, but he’s also a scientific researcher who’s done some remarkable work with a lot of other researchers. He’s very well known for his work with the National Academy of Sciences, which he was a member of from 1984 to 1990. He worked on a very controversial scientific report that started out as a program called In Our Children’s Food. And we have Dr. Chuck to thank for pointing out that, in fact, pesticides were regulated for adults, not for children, and it actually was children who would probably be the most vulnerable to the kind of pesticides that are on food. You can imagine that for the pesticide industry, that wasn’t very popular.
So, Chuck, I would love to dive into the work that you’ve been doing on glyphosate, which those of you out there know probably as Roundup Ready. Could you talk to our listeners a little bit about what you learned when you did that study? And didn’t that more recent study come out just a couple years ago?
CB: Sure, sure. Well, glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, and Roundup is the herbicide that’s used in conjunction with the major genetically engineered crops around the world—and in particular genetically engineered so-called Roundup Ready soybeans, which are grown, really, all over the world in major soybean-producing areas. But there’s also Roundup Ready corn, Roundup Ready alfalfa, sugar beets, and canola and cotton. So we have a number of the major row crops growing in the United States and around the world that are genetically engineered to tolerate applications of glyphosate herbicide, which is a very broad spectrum herbicide in that it kills grasses and broadleaf weeds, and it actually kills just about any green plant that’s growing. That’s why it’s called “broad spectrum” in its activity.
This technology, which came onto the market in 1996, was very rapidly adopted by farmers because it greatly simplified the task of weed management in conventional corn and soybean production.
TM: Let me just make sure that the listeners understand—and hopefully you do—is that the genetically altered corn and soy seeds that are now being sold to farmers, Roundup can be applied to them, and everything around them, just about, will die except for the corn and soy.
CB: Correct. That is the heart of the technological breakthrough that has made possible this era of genetically engineered corn, soybeans, cotton, et cetera. So as a result, beginning in 1996, there was a steady and substantial increase in use of and reliance on glyphosate to control weeds in both corn and soybeans. And since a lot of farmers rotate corn and soybeans, this meant that glyphosate herbicide was being used every year.
But regardless of how effective a herbicide is, the more farmers use it, the great the selection pressure on weed communities. And what this selection pressure does is it basically selects for weeds that are less well-controlled, or genetic phenotypes or, you know, in effect, mutations in weeds that are less well-controlled by glyphosate. And hence, they survive and set seed and they are there the next year. And then when the farmer comes along and sprays glyphosate again, adding more selection pressure on the population of weeds, there’s a continued shift.
And what’s happened across the U.S. corn belt and in the corn/soybean production regions in South America, and wherever in the world this technology has been widely adopted, is that first the type of weed in the fields changed, and then eventually, after five or six years of continued use, genetically resistant phenotypes of major weeds emerged that just weren’t controlled by glyphosate anymore. And what this brings about is a terrible conundrum for the farmer, because they’re still getting good control of a lot of the weeds in their fields from the glyphosate, but now they’ve got some weeds that they’ve got to spray difference herbicides on.
And so we’ve had a ramping up of herbicide use that really started in earnest around 2005, and by 2010 it was really getting in high gear and has stayed there. So the United States is going through a period of intensification in the number of different herbicides being applied, the frequency in which they’re being applied, that’s really unprecedented in history.
There’s great concern about where this all is going to lead in terms of the economic viability of conventional corn and soybean production, the environmental impacts of a huge intensification of herbicide use, and also, unfortunately, the public health impacts, because the latest twist in this saga is that corn and soybean farmers are having to return to the use of 2,4-D and dicamba, which are two old herbicides that the industry had spent 30 years trying to make obsolete because they’re a much higher risk. They’re known to cause some serious impacts on people who live in the areas where intensive spraying is happening. So that’s, unfortunately, the near-term future for folks living in rural areas in the Midwest, is they’re just going to have to deal with this big increase in the use of a lot of herbicides that tend to move around and can do a lot of damage to people’s gardens and roses and fruit trees.
TM: Certainly also those nice, leafy vegetables that have nice leaves like spinach and strawberries. So, you know, I’m just realizing, this is the twenty-year anniversary of glyphosate, isn’t it?
CB: Well, actually it’s the twenty-year anniversary of the use of glyphosate in conjunction with genetically engineered crops. But glyphosate came on the market initially in 1974 so, I mean, it’s been around a long time. But because glyphosate kills all plants that it’s applied on, and did so from 1974 to 1996, the farmers were quite limited in when and how they could use it. So while glyphosate was an important herbicide in 1996, the year that GE crops came on the market, I think it ranked something like 7 in total volume of herbicides applied because it was used in so many different circumstances. But I think it was 2007, it eclipsed atrazine and became the most widely-used herbicide in the United States. And it’s simply gone on to dominate the overall herbicide market in the United States since 2007.
TM: Well, you know, just for our listeners, you mentioned atrazine, and we in the Midwest are using a tremendous amount of atrazine in our corn production right now. And that pesticide, I believe, Chuck—correct me if I’m wrong—is considered a much more dangerous pesticide or certainly much more potent than glyphosate. And I remember hearing of all of the different pesticides we could be using— 2,4-D, dicamba, which you were saying we were trying to phase out—but atrazine as well, I think isn’t it described as neurotoxic or—
CB: Well, the big thing with atrazine is it’s implicated as a risk-factor for breast cancer. And I mean there’s a large volume of data that points to the ability of atrazine to be kind of what scientists call a “promoter” for certain cancers. And the problem with atrazine is it’s pretty stable in the environment and it winds up in people’s drinking water up and down and throughout the Midwest region.
For many years, toxicologists and risk-assessment scientists that work in the pesticide arena had the view that glyphosate was much safer pound-per-pound than atrazine and 2,4-D and dicamba and some of the other herbicides that were in use at the time. But there’s been a dramatic change in the level of concern about exposures to glyphosate in just the last couple years, triggered by the publication of a number of studies that suggest that glyphosate has the capacity to disrupt the endocrine system. And then in March of last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer—which is the widely respected global authority on the oncogenicity of chemicals and a wide range of other things—issued a really shocking report classifying glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Many of us knew that the IARC was reevaluating glyphosate and thought that there might be enough evidence of glyphosate’s role in triggering non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that they might classify it as a possible human carcinogen. But when the probable human carcinogen classification came out, it really sent a shockwave through the pesticide industry, through the corn and soybean industry, and all of the ramifications of that shockwave are still playing out.
TM: I was at a conference a couple weeks ago in San Francisco called “The True Cost of American Food,” and someone was giving a presentation on the impact of pesticide use on pollinators. And they called out five states that are losing over 60 percent of bees a year, and of those five states, four of them were the Corn Belt.
CB: Yeah, you know, this colony collapse disorder and other health problems that have had such a devastating impact on both managed bees—you know, the kind of honey bees that are used for pollination and to make honey—but also wild pollinators, which are essential to, you know, so much of plant life. You know, this is a very serious and scary indicator of something not right in the way that human beings are managing their affairs now. The health of a bee colony—it’s an extraordinary example of the complexity of social behavior among living organisms. A beehive is so much more than the sum of the 5,000 bees that live in it, and there’s a social structure and a role for different types of bees, and things that have to be done at the right time in the right way in order for the viability of the hive to be sustained. And it’s quite clear that some set of factors is basically screwing up the social structure and health of bee colonies in a very serious way that’s leading to so many of the hives collapsing.
TM: Would you say the bees—are the bees an indicator, like the canary in the coal mine, of what maybe we should be paying attention to with regards to this impact of our pesticide-intensive agriculture, especially here in the Midwest?
CB: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s many other things that we ought to be paying attention to. Bats in the wild have suffered through a similar collapse in population. On the average dairy farm in the United States, very few cows live past five years old, when, you know, twenty years ago the average cow would be over ten years old on commercial dairy farms. So there’s plenty of signs that the way that we’re growing food and raising and treating animals is certainly not, you know, enhancing their health. And in the case of pollinators, about 30 percent of our daily diet, and most of the fruits and vegetables that are so central for good health, depend on pollinators. And there’s great concern that if bees continue to decline, we might actually start to have some supply disruption in crops that are wholly dependent on bees for pollination.
TM: We see the term “super weed” around a lot, and I think that I’ve read that we have as many as twenty-two of them in the U.S. Are the other pesticides as well, altogether, continuing to create these “super weeds”? Is that a correct term for them, do you think?
CB: Well, the problems stemming from the emergence and spread of weeds resistant to particular herbicides—that’s a problem that’s been going for thirty years. And one of the arguments that you’ll hear from proponents of biotechnology and spokespeople for Monsanto are that glyphosate’s no difference from other herbicides. Yes, it can trigger resistance; yes, it has in some cases, but it’s manageable. There’s a shred of truth in that. But the reality is that no herbicide in history came onto the market so fast and was adopted so widely and so intensively as glyphosate. The professional weed science community in the early 1990s was openly and repeatedly warning farmers, the government, the industry, from excessive reliance on glyphosate because of the inevitability of triggering resistance. This is the situation we have now.
Worldwide, there’s over two dozen weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate, and in the U.S. there’s over a dozen—I think the total now is fourteen or fifteen. But the severity of the problem cannot be overstated. Already, glyphosate-resistant weeds have had a profound impact on cotton and soybean production in the Southeast. In fact, a lot of farmers just can’t grow cotton anymore. There’s no way that they can deal with the number of weeds in it that are resistant to every family of herbicide chemistry that’s available to them.
And the big concern, and the $64,000 question sort of hovering over the American food system, is, you know, will the problem of glyphosate-resistant weeds have the same enormous impact across the entire Midwest in corn and soybean production as it has had in the Southeast? And the jury is still out on that, but all the signs point to a comparable impact over the next five or so years, especially if farmers continue to respond to the emergent spread of glyphosate-resistant and other herbicide-resistant weeds by spraying more and additional herbicides. This tactic or strategy for dealing for resistant weeds makes as much sense as pouring gasoline on a fire to put it out.
TM: For those of you who just joined us, we’re talking to Dr. Charles Benbrook, who is not just an ag economist but also an expert on pesticide usage in the United States and in the world, and who actually has eighteen years in D.C.—I’m going to call you the D.C. warrior, Dr. Chuck—on ag policy and regulations, and so has a tremendous amount of information and insights on how these pesticides that are being increased every year…
What’s happening in D.C., how is the USDA, EPA, FDA, looking at this increase? We certainly know that in the Midwest, probably every well is contaminated; there’s tremendous evidence on reproduction problems because of this use. How are we handling that?
CB: Well, Theresa, it’s such an enormous problem. Ninety-five percent of corn and soybean production in the United States is from genetically engineered seeds and are sprayed with glyphosate. This is the corn and soybeans that we’re trading around the world. It’s the corn and soybeans that we’re feeding to livestock. The regulatory decisions that have made this possible have been made by all three government agencies, but certainly the FDA and EPA are most directly responsible for giving the green light to this approach to crop production that, when it first came along, you don’t remember that there was no acres of corn and soybeans or cotton planted to genetically engineered crops. So it must not have been a terribly worrisome concept for the scientists in the EPA and the FDA that were saying, well, this is new technology—you know, it might get adopted on 10 percent of the acres or 20 percent of the acres. None of them, nor even the industry, in their wildest imagination, could envision five or six years later having 80 or 90 percent of corn and soybeans planted to this one type of genetically engineered seed, all of which was being sprayed once or twice or, in the case of cotton in the South, three times a year with glyphosate.
So this was an obvious prescription for big trouble. Overreliance on any one herbicide is going to trigger the emergence and spread of resistant weeds.
But the problem, Theresa, is that the government is culpable in, first, making the regulatory decisions that opened the door to the technology, but then for failure to respond to not just the warnings of scientists that accurately predicted what would happen… It’s hard to underestimate how vested the U.S. government, the U.S. food industry, the pesticide and seed industry are in this one technology. And admitting that there are problems are caused by it is very difficult for government agencies that for twenty years have been openly stating that there’s no reason for concern about these genetically engineered crops. And obviously, these major multinational corporations that have gained control over half of the global feed supply, this is the basis of their business model and the basis of the value of their stock. And it’s extremely difficult for them to envision a future without the income stream associated with these genetically engineered trades and the sale of more and more herbicides.
TM: You know, at one point in time you did a paper that stated that GMOs resulted in an increase of pesticide use. And that was hotly debated—in fact, another paper said he was totally wrong about that, and it contradicted the information that you came up with. And I just wondered, that contradiction, it seems to me, was totally not right, or false—that in fact, your original paper saying that GMOs resulted in increase in pesticide use is very well documented. And I just wondered if you had a comment on that.
CB: Well, sure. When Roundup Ready corn and soybeans came on the market, the very nature of the technology locks farmers into spraying glyphosate. A farmer wouldn’t pay the premium for Roundup Ready seed if they weren’t planning on using glyphosate herbicide. Glyphosate herbicide is applied at a rate of, you know, two-thirds of a pound to one pound per acre. That’s the basic rate. In both corn and soybean production, farmers who bought Roundup Ready seed and sprayed glyphosate stopped using a number of other herbicides that were applied, on average, at about a quarter of a pound per acre. So the math was really, really simple: How do you reduce herbicide use when you replace two or three herbicides that farmers were applying that collectively accounted for a quarter of a pound per acre, and instead you’re applying glyphosate at three-quarters of a pound per acre? Obviously the volume of herbicide use went up.
I wrote my first report on this topic in 2005, and I did it to counter inaccurate PR and spin from the biotech industry, where they were saying that this technology reduces pesticide use. The term “pesticide” encompasses herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides—
TM: All the ’cides.
CB: All the ’cides. And while it’s true that BT corn and BT cotton—now these are genetically engineered corn and cotton plants that produce a natural insecticide called BT, or Bacillus thuringiensis—it’s true that the BT trade reduced insecticide use, you know, somewhat in cotton and in corn. But the increase in herbicide use in the same crops—because most of the genetically engineered seeds had both the Roundup Ready trait and the BT trait—so the increase in herbicide use was three or four times greater than the reduction in insecticide use, so overall pesticide use went up.
That seemingly simple fact has been the focus of ten years of my research, and basically in the hope of trying to keep the industry honest. Because, you know, they promoted this area of technology as designed and managed to reduce pesticide use, when in fact it was designed and managed to increase the use of a relatively high-dose herbicide, and that’s increase the volume applied. It’s just that simple.
TM: I’m talking with the courageous Dr. Benbrook, who is willing to speak his truth even though he has lots of rocks being thrown at him by the biotech industry. So once again, Dr. Chuck, thank you so much for talking with me today.
CB: Thank you, Theresa. Bye-bye.
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