Combating bio-terrorism

New harmful pesticides: Realising the destruction wrought by invasive species, the world has woken up to the threat arising from imported weeds.

Several years ago, at the time when India was importing wheat from America under PL-480, some unknown weeds had crept in with import consignments. Two weeds particularly – congress grass or gajarghas and phulnuor lantana camera – have now become a menace.

Congress grass is widespread and is estimated to occupy an area equivalent to the total area of Nepal. On the other hand, phulnuis considered to be the world’s most troublesome weed, found in 60 countries. 

Both these deadly weeds are very difficult to be controlled. Phulnusis has already spread to 13.2 million hectare of pasture land in India and several studies have estimated the cost to eradicate this weed at more than Rs 500 per hectare. Congress grass grows widely in the farms, national parks and on  roadside. It is also rated as a serious invasive weed spreading as far as Australia and in almost all African countries.  
The United States of America has a law against bio-terrorism. It is basically to ensure that no unwanted alien invasive species -- later assuming menacing proportions -- enters America. Such is the hysteria surrounding the alien species that the US uses all kinds of non-tariff barriers to stop the entry of agricultural commodities that are likely to come with hitherto unknown pests and diseases.

This precaution is fine. But it turns a blind eye to a bigger threat that is engulfing its agriculture – the spread of superweeds. Ask any farmer and he will tell you how damaging the imported weeds have been. Realising the destruction wrought by invasive species, over the years the world has woken up to the threat arising from imported weeds. Several international treaties and laws have been put in place to check the spread of weeds from one country to another.

Both India as well as America have enacted laws that restrict the entry of weeds from any country, terming it as `bio-terrorism.’

In addition to the damage (and the additional costs) incurred by farmers to fight the imported weeds, what should be more worrying for Indian farmers is the creation of new superweeds – weeds that cannot be easily controlled with chemical pesticides – that are now becoming a nuisance in America, Canada and 26 other countries where genetically-modified (GM) crops are being cultivated.

These weeds are not imported with grain or seed consignments, but develop when GM crops which are resistant to roundup weedicide are cultivated. Ever since GM crops have been commercialised, the pace at which insects and weeds are not only developing resistance but eventually turning out to be monsters has only hastened.

Alarming appearance

Take the case of America. Ten years ago, agribusiness company Monsanto had denied any resistance developing in crop plants to its roundup weedicides. But today, nearly half of America’s croplands are infected with these superweeds. It has turned croplands –especially where GM maize and Soya are cultivated – into weed battlefields. In just three years, between 2010 and 2012, the area under the superweeds has almost doubled from 32.6 million acres to 61.2 million acres.

These plants have alarmingly appeared in the provinces of Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri. In neighbouring Canada, more than one million acres of Canadian farmland have roundup-resistant weeds growing on them, including 43,000 acre in Manitoba alone.

Farmers are unable to control these superweeds even if they rise the amount of roundup weedicide to 10 times the usual dose. Monsanto is now asking farmers to prepare cocktails of pesticides with potent and banned chemicals like 2,4-D, which at one time was also used in India. With the push for GM crops that is all visible, India too would be faced with the menace of superweeds in the years to come.  

From poisoned soils and excessively mined undergroundwater, modern agriculture is fast moving to create an ecologically disastrous landscape where superweeds will dominate. Not only superweeds, sooner than expected, you will find that combating the newly evolving dreaded superpests—weeds, insects and micro-organisms–will become a major industry. Farmers will be increasingly battling the new army of harmful pests thereby pushing them deeper and deeper into a worsening agrarian crisis.

Ever since insect resistance was first reported in 1914, studies have shown that more than 500 species of insects, moths and spiders have developed resistance to a pesticide. Some pests have developed multiple resistances to a series of pesticides. Colarado potato beetle for instance is known to be resistant to 52 different compounds belonging to all major pesticides classes, says a paper published in the American Journal of Potato Research. Even certain species of rats in UK have become resistant to rat poisons consuming about five times the lethal dose and yet surviving.

India has already reported pink boll worm insects developing resistance to Bt cotton. For the industry, the development of superbugs and superweeds across the globe provides an immense business opportunity. GM companies are asking farmers to spray more stronger and potent chemicals, often a cocktail of heady pesticides. It’s a double whammy for the agribusiness companies. Raking in money from the sale of GM seeds, and then all the chemicals needed to control superpests!

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