Weed control changes and genetically modified herbicide tolerant crops in the USA 1996-2012

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Abstract or Summary

Crops that have been genetically modified (GM) to be tolerant to herbicides have been widely grown in the USA since 1996. The rapid and widespread adoption of this technology reflects the important economic and environmental benefits that farmers have derived from its use (equal to $21.7 billion additional farm income and a 225 million kg reduction in herbicide active ingredient use 1996-2012). During this time, weed control practices in these crops relative to the ‘conventional alternative’ have evolved to reflect experience of using the technology, the challenges that have arisen and the increasing focus in recent years on developing sustainable production systems. This paper examines the evidence on the changing nature of herbicides used with these crops and in particular how farmers addressed the challenge of weed resistance. The evidence shows that use of the technology has resulted in a net reduction in both the amount of herbicide used and the associated environmental impact, as measured by the EIQ indicator when compared to what can reasonably be expected if the area planted to GM HT crops reverted to conventional production methods. It also facilitated many farmers being able to derive the economic and environmental benefits associated with switching from a plough-based to a no tillage or conservation tillage production system. In terms of herbicide use, the technology has also contributed to a change the profile of herbicides used. A broad range of, mostly selective herbicides has been replaced by one or 2 broad-spectrum herbicides (mostly glyphosate) used in conjunction with one or 2 other (complementary) herbicides. Since the mid-2000s, the average amount of herbicide applied and the associated environmental load, as measured by the EIQ indicator, have increased on both GM HT and conventional crops. A primary reason for these changes has been increasing incidence of weed species developing populations resistant to herbicides and increased awareness of the consequences of relying on a single or very limited number of herbicides for weed control. As a result, growers of GM HT crops have become much more proactive and diversified in their weed management programs in line with weed scientist recommendations and now include other herbicides (with different and complementary modes of action) in combination with glyphosate, even where instances of weed resistance to glyphosate have not been found. The willingness to proactively diversity weed management systems in the GM HT crops is also influenced by a desire to maintain effective weed control and hence continue to enjoy the benefits of no tillage and conservation tillage. Nevertheless, despite the increase in herbicide use in recent years, the use of GM HT technology continues to deliver significant economic and environmental gains to US farmers.


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