Genetic Engineering Companies Promised Reduced Pesticide Use … But GE Crops Have Led to a 25% Increase In Herbicide Use

One of the main selling points for genetically engineered crops is that they would use substantially less pesticides than conventional crops.

Because of that, and other, promises regarding GE crops, they have taken over much of the food crops in America. For example:

  • The USDA reports that 93% of all soy and 85% of all corn grown in the U.S. is an herbicide-resistant GE variety
  • Similarly, around 93% of all cottonseed oil and more than 90% of all canola oil produced in the U.S. is herbicide-resistant GE

However, it turns out that GE crops need a lot more herbicides than conventional ones.

Washington State University Charles Benbrook – former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture at the National Academy of Sciences and, before that, Executive Director of the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Research, and Foreign Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives – published a study showing:

Contrary to often-repeated claims that today’s genetically-engineered crops have, and are reducing pesticide use, the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds in herbicide-resistant weed management systems has brought about substantial increases in the number and volume of herbicides applied. If new genetically engineered forms of corn and soybeans tolerant of 2,4-D are approved, the volume of 2,4-D sprayed [background] could drive herbicide usage upward by another approximate 50%.


Largely because of the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds, HR crop technology has led to a 239 million kg (527 million pound) increase in herbicide use across the three major GE-HR crops, compared to what herbicide use would likely have been in the absence of HR crops.

Washington State University explains:

Herbicide-tolerant crops worked extremely well in the first few years of use, but over-reliance led to shifts in weed communities and the emergence of resistant weeds that have, together, forced farmers to incrementally –

  • Increase herbicide application rates (especially glyphosate),
  • Spray more often, and
  • Add new herbicides that work through an alternate mode-of-action into their spray programs.

Each of these responses has, and will continue to contribute to the steady rise in the volume of herbicides applied per acre of HT corn, cotton, and soybeans.

HT crops have increased herbicide use by 527 million pounds over the 16-year period (1996-2011). The incremental increase per year has grown steadily from 1.5 million pounds in 1999, to 18 million five years later in 2003, and 79 million pounds in 2009. In 2011, about 90 million more pounds of herbicides were applied than likely in the absence of HT, or about 24% of total herbicide use on the three crops in 2011.

Today’s major GE crops have increased overall pesticide use by 404 million pounds from 1996 through 2011 (527 million pound increase in herbicides, minus the 123 million pound decrease in insecticides). Overall pesticide use in 2011 was about 20% higher on each acre planted to a GE crop, compared to pesticide use on acres not planted to GE crops.

There are now two-dozen weeds resistant to glyphosate, the major herbicide used on HT crops, and many of these are spreading rapidly. Millions of acres are infested with more than one glyphosate-resistant weed. The presence of resistant weeds drives up herbicide use by 25% to 50%, and increases farmer-weed control costs by at least as much.

The biotechnology-seed-pesticide industry’s primary response to the spread of glyphosate-resistant weeds is development of new HT varieties resistant to multiple herbicides, including 2,4-D and dicamba. These older phenoxy herbicides pose markedly greater human health and environmental risks per acre treated than glyphosate. Approval of corn tolerant of 2,4-D is pending, and could lead to an additional 50% increase in herbicide use per acre on 2,4-D HT corn.

Science Daily notes:

“Resistant weeds have become a major problem for many farmers reliant on GE crops, and they are now driving up the volume of herbicide needed each year by about 25 percent,” Benbrook said.

Forbes points out:

A new study released by Food & Water Watch yesterday finds the goal of reduced chemical use has not panned out as planned.  In fact, according to the USDA and EPA data used in the report, the quick adoption of genetically engineered crops by farmers has increased herbicide use over the past 9 years in the U.S.  The report follows on the heels of another such study  by Washington State University research professor Charles Benbrook just last year.

Both reports focus on “superweeds.” It turns out that spraying a pesticide repeatedly selects for weeds which also resist the chemical.  Ever more resistant weeds are then  bred, able to withstand increasing amounts – and often different forms – of herbicide.

GE Crops Have Reduced Crop Productivity

GE food manufacturers also promised an increase in crop productivity.  Indeed, that was a giant selling point for GE foods.

That claim has been debunked as well …

The Independent noted in 2008:

Genetic modification actually cuts the productivity of crops, an authoritative new study shows, undermining repeated claims that a switch to the controversial technology is needed to solve the growing world food crisis.

The study – carried out over the past three years at the University of Kansas in the US grain belt – has found that GM soya produces about 10 per cent less food than its conventional equivalent, contradicting assertions by advocates of the technology that it increases yields.

Professor Barney Gordon, of the university’s department of agronomy, said he started the research – reported in the journal Better Crops – because many farmers who had changed over to the GM crop had “noticed that yields are not as high as expected even under optimal conditions”. He added: “People were asking the question ‘how come I don’t get as high a yield as I used to?’”


The new study confirms earlier research at the University of Nebraska, which found that another Monsanto GM soya produced 6 per cent less than its closest conventional relative, and 11 per cent less than the best non-GM soya available.


A similar situation seems to have happened with GM cotton in the US, where the total US crop declined even as GM technology took over.


Last week the biggest study of its kind ever conducted – the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development – concluded that GM was not the answer to world hunger.

Professor Bob Watson, the director of the study and chief scientist at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when asked if GM could solve world hunger, said: “The simple answer is no.”

Scientific American reported in 2009:

Proponents argue that GM crops  can help feed the world. And given ever increasing demands for food, animal feed, fiber and now even biofuels, the world needs all the help it can get.

Unfortunately, it looks like GM corn and soybeans won’t help, after all.

The Union of Concerned Scientists wrote the same year:

For years the biotechnology industry has trumpeted that it will feed the world, promising that its genetically engineered crops will produce higher yields.


That promise has proven to be empty …. [A UCS report] reviewed two dozen academic studies of corn and soybeans, the two primary genetically engineered food and feed crops grown in the United States. Based on those studies, the UCS report concludes that genetically engineering herbicide-tolerant soybeans and herbicide-tolerant corn has not increased yields. Insect-resistant corn, meanwhile, has improved yields only marginally. The increase in yields for both crops over the last 13 years, the report finds, was largely due to traditional breeding or improvements in agricultural practices.


The report does not discount the possibility of genetic engineering eventually contributing to increase crop yields. It does, however, suggest that it makes little sense to support genetic engineering at the expense of  technologies that have proven to substantially increase yields, especially in many developing countries. In addition, recent studies have shown that organic and similar farming methods that minimize the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers can more than double crop yields at little cost to poor farmers in such developing regions as Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report recommends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state agricultural agencies, and universities increase research and development for proven approaches to boost crop yields. Those approaches should include modern conventional plant breeding methods, sustainable and organic farming, and other sophisticated farming practices that do not require farmers to pay significant upfront costs. The report also recommends that U.S. food aid organizations make these more promising and affordable alternatives available to farmers in developing countries.

“If we are going to make headway in combating hunger due to overpopulation and climate change, we will need to increase crop yields,” said Gurian-Sherman. “Traditional breeding outperforms genetic engineering hands down.”

And Mother Jones pointed out:

In a new paper (PDF) funded by the US Department of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin researchers have essentially negated the “more food” argument as well. The researchers looked at data from UW test plots that compared crop yields from various varieties of hybrid corn, some genetically modified and some not, between 1990 and 2010. While some GM varieties delivered small yield gains, others did not. Several even showed lower yields than non-GM counterparts. With the exception of one commonly used trait—a Bt type designed to kill the European corn borer—the authors conclude, “we were surprised not to find strongly positive transgenic yield effects.” Both the glyphosate-tolerant (Roundup Ready) and the Bt trait for corn rootworm caused yields to drop.

Then there’s the question of so-called “stacked-trait” crops—that is, say, corn engineered to contain multiple added genes—for example, Monsanto’s “Smart Stax” product, which contains both herbicide-tolerant and pesticide-expressing genes. The authors detected what they call “gene interaction” in these crops—genes inserted into them interact with each other in ways that affect yield, often negatively. If multiple genes added to a variety didn’t interact, “the [yield] effect of stacked genes would be equal to the sum of the corresponding single gene effects,” the authors write. Instead, the stacked-trait crops were all over the map. “We found strong evidence of gene interactions among transgenic traits when they are stacked,” they write. Most of those effects were negative—i.e., yield was reduced.

Overall, the report uncovers evidence of what is known as “yield drag”—the idea that manipulating the genome of a plant variety causes unintended changes in the way it grows, causing it to be less productive.


Here’s how the authors of a major paper published in Nature  [one of the world's leading science jounrals] last year put it:

Soils managed with organic methods have shown better water-holding capacity and water infiltration rates and have produced higher yields than conventional systems under drought conditions and excessive rainfall.

Potential Health Effects of GE Foods

Monsanto and other GE producers claim GE foods are safe.

But genetically engineered foods have been linked to obesity, cancer, liver failure, infertility and all sorts of other diseases (brief, must-watch videos here and here).

And genetically-engineered meat isn’t even tested for human safety.

But government agencies like the FDA go to great lengths to cover up the potential health damage from genetically modified foods, and to keep the consumer in the dark about what they’re really eating.  (Indeed, the largest German newspaper – Süddeutsche Zeitung – alleges that the U.S. government helped Monsanto attack the computers of activists opposed to genetically modified food.)

The EPA recently raised the allowable amount of a glyphosate – the main ingredient in Monsanto’s toxic Roundup – by 3,000% … pretending that it won’t have adverse health effects.

And – as noted above – the EPA is leaning towards approving corn specially engineered to tolerate the highly-toxic herbicide 2,4-D.   Ironically, Monsanto has proposed this new “Agent Orange corn” to combat the superweeds caused by the use of Monsanto’s Roundup-ready GE crops.

What could possibly go wrong?

Category: Food and Drink, Science, Think Tank

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

24 Responses to “Genetic Engineering INCREASES Pesticide Use, DECREASES Crop Yield”

  1. dsawy says:

    As a guy who used to be a farmer, I always love these screeds penned by people who wouldn’t know a turnip from a radish from a cucumber.

    Lots of appeal to academic credentialism in the argument. Very little in the way of actual facts.

    OK, so here’s how to deal with all this GMO and pesticide stuff you hate: Get a bunch of money together, go buy a section of land and start farming the way you’d like. Go to it. Show us how you’re so smart about crop production. Get right on that and show us farmers how we’re all such stupid dupes. Get a team of mules and you can even swear off the use of diesel fuel to run tractors.

    Oh, but you won’t do that. Why? Because it requires sweat and actual honest labor, something you academics loathe with the very fiber of your being.

    • PT2 says:

      I do know a turnip from a radish, and also sustainable agricultural management from regrettable short-term abuse of a highly-valuable tool, potentially rendering it useless. Perhaps deliberately.

      Sadly, for this professional horticulturalist, the resistance problems summarized in the blog post are unsurprising, and were predictable. Happily, there are smart, sweaty, and honest agricultural producers (esp. outside the US) , who have so far avoided being herded into this foreseeable management cul-de-sac.

      Good pesticide regime design involves rotation between pesticide classes, but this is difficult under the management regime required by current GE crops with tolerance to specific herbicides. Instead, the current generation of pesticide-focused GE crops.ignores decades of work by the various international insecticide / fungicide / herbicide resistance action committees (search for HRAC and also IRAC + FRAC). This work shows that the development of weed resistance to tools such as glyphosate (RoundUp) is to be expected under repeat application of single herbicide.

      Such resistance development is unfortunate from an agricultural and food production perspective, but is much less so from the perspective of a company whose clever commercial strategy links seed supply to use of proprietary versions of what is otherwise now a ubiquitous herbicide.

    • Stock Soup says:

      Thanks.The more I read the more I am starting to think that GMO denial is the liberal’s version of global warming denial. (I’m liberal on food policy, and was against GMO until recently.)

      The big important thing to remember is that global warming and population growth is real, hugely environmentally destructive, and unstoppable. In that context it is easy to see GMO will reduce environmental damage, not increase it. (Barry, are you paying attention?) Plants that can tolerate heat waves, water scarcity, poor soil, etc.

      Finally, according to this article, most biologists think GMO is good.

      And if we trust scientist with global warming, we should trust them with GMO.

      • spooz says:

        I trust science over “scientists” that can be influenced by special interests. In any case, you are incorrect in your statement that there is scientific consensus about GMO crops. The lack of longitudinal, epidemiological studies showing safety in long-term consumption of GMOs and the inability to predict the health impact of the upcoming “stacking” of pesticides, including 2-4D (Agent Orange) on new GMOs, makes any “consensus” today, to say the least, lacking in foresight.

        “As with GM food safety, disagreement among scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops may be correlated with funding sources. A peer-reviewed survey of the views of 62 life scientists on the environmental risks of GM crops found that funding and disciplinary training had a significant effect on attitudes. Scientists with industry funding and/or those trained in molecular biology were very likely to have a positive attitude to GM crops and to hold that they do not represent any unique risks, while publicly-funded scientists working independently of GM crop developer companies and/or those trained in ecology were more likely to hold a “moderately negative” attitude to GM crop safety and to emphasize the uncertainty and ignorance involved. The review authors concluded, “The strong effects of training and funding might justify certain institutional changes concerning how we organize science and how we make public decisions when new technologies are to be evaluated.”

        (sorry if this double posts, first submit didn’t show my response or that it was in moderation)

      • Stock Soup says:


        Science is competitive and peer reviewed. Sloppy work is rarely allowed to slide. That’s how we put a man on the moon.

        What we need is transparency, research & regulation. not hysteria.

        And, btw, who funds ensser?

      • spooz says:

        Sock Soup, I like to follow the money where “science” is concerned. Monsanto and Dupont have a lot to gain from the pro GMO “science”. Who has anything to gain from the science that is critical of GMOs?

        FYI, here is more about ENSSER, the funding appears to be from organizations that think the environmental impact of profit maximizing global capitalism should be given some consideration:

    • msnthrop says:

      I don’t see an appeal to academic credentialism at all, I see an appeal to the scientific process of actually quantifying what is happening in American agriculture. Go out and measure yields on those who use GE crops…measure how much money those users make…if you follow the same process as though wretched academics you seem to despise then you will end up with a data set that shows that if you use those crops your yields will be lower and you’ll make less money. Don’t believe it, go out and measure it for yourself.

      • DeDude says:

        And its not just an issue of yields per acre, its how much money do you get per acre after you have paid for those patented seeds and expensive pesticides. More yield but less profit per acre would seem like a bad deal for the farmer.

      • msnthrop says:

        Well sure Dedude – but the expression of herbicide resistance genes has a metabolic cost to whatever plant they happen to in and harvestable yield has actually been shown to be lower in GMO crops – they cost more to buy AND they yield less making them entirely unnecessary in my opinion

  2. Herman Frank says:

    No wonder society is brain-dead, slurping their sugar-laced drinks, eating their gm-food, programmed to watch their over-hyped, ranting TV “commentators” discussing steroids infused sports men and women try to make a million dollars before their body and brain gives out.

    Have another bottle of “mineral” water ….. triple-cleaned water from the polluted aquifer.

    Let’s celebrate the fact that the industries with the deepest pockets can position their lobbyists to write the best legislation money can buy!

  3. Iamthe50percent says:

    Well, the whole idea was to saturate the fields with Roundup to avoid plowing costs. I certainly prefer organic foods, although I don’t mind a low level of pesticide or herbicide and have no objection whatsoever to chemical fertilizers. The cost of organic foods drives them out of the budget of most people. I always see surveys asking if I would pay 20-25% more for organic foods, but that’s not what I see in the stores. The produce and meats in Whole Foods are three or four times the price at Jewel or Mariano’s.

    Still, the revolving door between government and industry has left me with no faith at all in the FDA or EPA.

    • msnthrop says:

      “Conventional” farm crops are heavily subsidized by the your tax dollars…remove those “incentives” and their cost would be essentially the same as organically produced crops.

  4. eideard says:

    Mostly, I have to agree with dsawy. Coming from the viewpoint of a science geek.

    The crops addressed in the post aren’t food crops for human beings. They are fodder for cattle. Which means they’re grown by the greediest farmers in American agribusiness. They are accustomed to over-medicating their crops in every conceivable way, pesticides, fertilizer, you name it – they use it. Excess is just runoff as far as they’re concerned. Downstream gets the worries.

    Golly, lots of Roundup used on these crops. Cripes, they’re designed to be Roundup resistant from the gitgo. Monsanto owns Roundup. Of course, they use lots of Roundup. Probably get a discounted package. It’s almost like buying a Dell PC and getting a break on Windoze. Only Dell’s the one getting the break.

    Outside and away from the Monsanto-mongers, most of the world’s cotton is GE. For decades. Anyone you know dropping dead from wearing Fruit-of-the-Loom t-shirts? Away from folks who don’t shive a git about Monsanto, the golden rice revolution is led by dedicated non-profits and university researchers. Who run the risk of having their crops burned by superstitious anti-GMO mobs more reminiscent of Luddites than Freedom Riders. It happened in the Philippines, last year.

    Yup, Science Daily is a great source. One I read more often than The Big Picture. And I read TBP at least once a day.

    So, I can tell you the overwhelming sum of research put through that particular cloud supports positive results from GMO food crops. And BTW, the sum of health results from organic food crops is absolutely no diff with most “ordinary” farming in America – with one significant difference: the crap fed to meat crops, cattle, that is.

    And then we’re back to agribiz producing fodder corn, sugar beets and soybeans, aren’t we? Plus antibiotics.

  5. MidlifeNocrisis says:

    I’m with dsawy on this one. These articles remind me somewhat of climate change debates where both sides create narratives that contain half-truths, truths provided out of context, subjective anecdotes and wording that injects bias into a very complex subject.

    I am not going to sit here this morning and type for 2 hours debunking every “fact” in the article, but as someone that grew up on a farm, and as an Agronomist by formal training, I will say that you should view the above rant with a serious dose of skepticism.

    Farmers care deeply about their land and their families. Those families eat the same food and drink the same water that you do. Let’s not form conclusions based on tiny snippets of information presented in a manner that clearly shows that the presenter has an agenda.

    Follow dsawy’s advice. Go buy 40 acres and start a pure “organic” farming operation. When you go bankrupt, tell me all about how you increased food safety and increased the world-wide food supply. I hope people realize that humans have been genetically modifying organisms for literally thousands of years.

    • msnthrop says:

      How disingenuous can you be…conventional plant breeding is nothing like genetic modification at all and any so-call “Agronomist by formal training” would know that.

    • dsawy says:

      Well, I recommended they buy a section of land – 640 acres, or a square mile. That’s what I used to farm. 40 acres isn’t enough work for these people, and 40 acres hasn’t be a financially viable farm size since the end of tobacco farming in the east.

      These people need to step it up to a financially viable farm that’s a full time job and not a hobby; in today’s markets, that starts at about a section of land in field crops like beans, corn, small grains (like wheat), hay or alfalfa.

      I used to grow alfalfa for California dairies. I looked into the whole organic deal. The rules were absurd from a profit perspective, because the precluded the use of synthetic fertilizers. To obtain the same NPK as I could get with one truckload of 11-52-0-24S prilled fertilizer from Simplot, I ran the numbers on cow manure and reckoned that I’d need at least 25 truckloads at 26 tons a piece to equal one truckload of prilled synthetic. Therefore, the input costs for the organic alternative shot through the roof and instantly became non-viable for our operation.

      • DeDude says:

        Maybe that is one of the problems with agriculture today that the whole focus is on economic viability and everybody are forced to work according whether the products are profitable not whether they are good. I can actually fully understand that each farmer have no other choice, but I have to question whether we as a society should allow ourselves to be similarly enslaved and abused by the free market forces.

      • msnthrop says:

        Non-irrigated crop land in California goes for $7300 an acre (
        so a section would be just under 5 million dollars. An irrigated section would go for just over 8 million. Near as I can tell the net return above total cost for either conventional or organic alfalfa is about the same – about 500 bucks per irrigated acre ( with the range being -23 to 1200 or so depending on yield and market price. Plant fence row to fence row and get the average yield and price your yearly take home is 320K – so only 25 years would have to pass to pay off that land if you had a no interest loan – good luck with that, and good luck getting water in the central valley this summer. It is difficult for me to imagine anyone with 8 million dollars lying around, or anyone having access to a loan that size, that would go into farming for a living – hell 2% interest would earn 160k per year – 4% would get you the same as working that 640 acres of alfalfa.

      • dsawy says:

        The American system of ag is the first that produced food surpluses, reliably, in the world, so from that standpoint, we’re doing something right.

        If you want to see the results of taking private capital and profit away from farmers, look no further than the USSR’s policies in the 1930′s, or China in the 1950′s. People starved by the millions as a result.

        There’s a saying among farmers in the US: “Show a farmer a profit, and he’ll show you a surplus.” Older farmers add something to this: “… with the resulting collapse in commodity prices to show for it.”

        The problem for ag economics is that ag is something that most macro-economics wonks don’t understand. They never have. There are fixed issues in ag – for example, once you get late enough in the season, you can’t replant and make a profit. You’re done for the year. There’s almost no other industry where all your profit potential has a drop-dead date after the costs are sunk. With some crop rotations, you can’t rotate into other crops once you’ve started down a multi-year path for one crop (potatoes or onions in Idaho is a great example).

        Lots of people like to complain about the subsidies given to the ag sector – and they’re right to complain. Lots of those subsidies go to very few farmers who have figured out how to milk the system for everything they can get.

        As the same time, when prices fluctuate wildly as a result of real free market forces coming to bear on ag production, people start to howl in protest.

        Overall, the US farmer has been screwed since 1973. It takes an ever-larger farm to support one family, and with the ever-larger size of a minimally economically viable farm, it takes more and more capital to start into farming. As it stands now, the US is well on the way towards the creation of a “farming caste” system, where you can’t get started in farming without being born into a farming family or marrying into one. Most commodity prices have never achieved the high points (adjusted for inflation) that were set in 1973. Most ag policy coming out of DC intends to keep commodity prices down and “stable” (for some value of stable), not profitable.

  6. Stock Soup says:

    (In addition to my comment above)

    The answer is transparency.

    There should be a required international database of all genetic modifications. And those modifications that can not be replicated by traditional means, should be tracked as to their plantings so they can be studied, if desired.

    The facts can’t hurt.

  7. Greg0658 says:

    got me – I know the dif between a cucumber and those other two .. hate ‘em all except for that cucumber BUT it’s gotta be bread & butter pickled :-)

    if I stayed on mission short 40 acres – the redtape of feed’g the world :-/ .. gotta love the old capitalism opsys – it’s carry’d us so far

  8. BuffaloBob says:

    I say let the market decide. Label GMO foods and see if consumers believe the cost differential is worth it. Personally I would pay a little extra not to be Monsanto’s lab rat.

  9. Biffah Bacon says:

    DSawy discounts the fact that egg headed academics saved the American farmers’ bacon numerous times and socialist programs like Ag extensions, land grant colleges and so on have driven American agriculture for nearly a century now. The issue isn’t eggheads vs. farm aid, it is egg head (Monsanto, Dow, Pioneer) vs. egg head (WSU, a land grant ag school in the middle of wheat, potato, and onion country) and the stakes are food safety. FWIW it has been too late to prevent or avoid gmo foods for decades; remember starlink corn? Last bit is that I think that sustainable ag folks are concerned that farmers will drive themselves into poverty as the self licking ice cream cone takes over the business-more modifications with genetic costs that reduce yields so you can buy more products from the same company to save your crop. Talk about owing your soul to the company store.

    I concur with Buffalo Bob in that there is a hubristic push from folks like Cass Sunstein to obscure food origins and composition simply because we don’t deserve to know and it might harm Monsanto et al. How many times do we hear too late about harmful products because they have been released into the market with inadequate or fraudulent testing? Caution stands in the way of massive profits and market share so it must be discarded? AT the same time your corn chips are gmo corn fried in gmo soy oil. The cat’s out of the bag and all we can do if it is concerning is push for labeling and transparency so we can make informed choices (or fatalistic rationalizations).

    • Iamthe50percent says:

      “How many times do we hear too late about harmful products because they have been released into the market with inadequate or fraudulent testing?”

      Tobacco comes to mind.