The Pesticide Treadmill

In this module, you’ll learn more about the “Pesticide Treadmill” as mentioned by John Vandermeer in the last article. To start out, Pesticide Action Network answers the question, “What is the Pesticide Treadmill?” and then in the next article, expands on the implications of this phenomenon. Next, you’ll read an article exploring the financial implications of pesticide use which asks the question, “Who is benefiting from the Pesticide Treadmill?”.

Excerpt 1: What is the “pesticide treadmill?”

by Pesticide Action Network | from Pesticides 101

Also referred to as the “pesticide trap,” farmers get caught on the treadmill as they are forced to use more and more — and increasingly toxic — chemicals to control insects and weeds that develop resistance to pesticides.

As “superbugs” and “superweeds” develop in response to widespread and continous use of chemicals, a farmer will spend more on pesticides each year just to keep crop losses at a standard rate.

The recent introduction of crops genetically engineered for use with the herbicide 2,4-D provides a clear example of the pesticide treadmill. Widespread planting of RoundUp Ready crops and the associated application of RoundUp prompted weeds to develop resistance to the product. Resistant strains of “Pigweed” for instance, reportedly now grow with such vigor in southern cotton fields that the weeds can “stop a combine in its tracks.” Farmers are forced to return to use of 2,4-D — an antiquated, drift-prone chemical clearly linked to cancer and reproductive harms.

Overall, pesticide resistance is increasing. In the 1940s, U.S. farmers lost seven percent of their crops to pests. Since the 1980s, loss has increased to 13 percent, even though more pesticides are being used. Between 500 and 1,000 insect and weed species have developed pesticide resistance since 1945.

Rachel Carson clearly predicted the treadmill phenomenon in her 1962 book Silent Spring.

Article 1: “The Pesticide Treadmill”

by Pesticide Action Network

Pesticide Treadmill2

“History has proven time and again that herbicide-based weed management will inevitably fail.”  — Iowa State University, 2012 Herbicide Guide for Iowa Corn and Soybean Production

For decades, conventional farmers have been trapped on a “pesticide treadmill.” When persistent organochlorine pesticides like DDT were phased out for their health and environmental harms, a new fast-acting generation of organophosphates were phased in. And the pattern continues.

With the introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crops, the pesticide treadmill has shifted into high gear.

Patented GE seeds are designed for use with specific pesticides, leading to increased use of these chemicals. And widespread application of these pesticides leads to the emergence of herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” among other things.

Industry’s latest answer to this problem? More GE seeds, engineered to be used with even more drift-prone and dangerous chemicals.

Speeding up the treadmill

Superweeds now plague more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland, thanks to widespread planting of Monsanto’s “RoundUp Ready” crops.

When RoundUp Ready seeds were originally released, Monsanto assured farmers and the public alike that weed resistance to glyphosate — RoundUp’s active ingredient — would be a non-issue. They were wrong.

And now, Dow and Monsanto are making the same case in support of the “new generation” of 2,4-D/dicamba-resistant GE seeds, but the facts are in. We cannot outwit evolution.

More of the same

Designed to “fix” the problem of glyphosate-resistant superweeds, new GE crops — some still in the USDA pipeline awaiting agency approval — have been engineered for use with antiquated, hazardous pesticides like 2,4-D and dicamba.

But what’s going to stop weeds from developing resistance to these herbicides, too? Nothing, according to weed scientists, who predict a new epidemic of herbicide-resistant superweeds.

Meanwhile, Dow’s 2,4-D-resistant corn, approved in late 2014, is expected to drive a 20-fold increase in the use of 2,4-D over the next six years — from an estimated 5.2 million pounds in 2014 to over 100 million pounds by 2020.

This 2,4-D corn, part of Dow’s “Enlist Duo” seed line, is designed to withstand a patented combination of 2,4-D and glyphosate — ensuring continued widespread use of that herbicide, too. So industry’s response to the widespread harms of RoundUp Ready crops? More of the same.

High stakes

The pesticide treadmill wreaks havoc on farmer livelihoods in several ways, from the expense of patented GE seed (and the accompanying chemicals) to the cost of managing superweeds in the fields to the constant risk of seed patent lawsuits.

Many herbicides also drift from where they’re applied to harm neighboring, non-GE crops. Broadleaf plants like tomatoes and grapes, in particular, are susceptible to damage from 2,4-D.

These drift-prone chemicals are often linked to health harms. The World Health Organization recently completed an assessment of independent studies and determined that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen.”

And 2,4-D — the herbicide mixed with glyphosate in Dow’s recently approved “Enlist Duo” formulation — is a suspected endocrine disruptor that has been linked to cancer and reproductive harm. Children are particularly susceptible to its effects.

Use of these chemicals, driven up by GE crops, puts farmers, farmworkers and rural communities in harm’s way.

Taking a stand

In a 2015 poll, 90 percent of Iowa farmers reported feeling that “pest management is a never-ending technology treadmill.” And they are not pleased.

Recognizing the potential harm to their own crops and farmland across the country, conventional and organic farmers alike are speaking out loud and clear against Dow’s 2,4-D-resistant corn and soy.  And many are nervous about potential drift damage from dicamba, when those crops come to market.

In the words of Iowa farmer Denise O’Brien:

“The whole suite of new GE seeds is a bad idea for farmers and farm communities. The pesticide industry is introducing one troubling GE seed after another.”

With rules governing GE crops up for review, we have a collective opportunity to help farmers off the pesticide treadmill. Even if Monsanto doesn’t like it.

Article 2: “The pesticide treadmill breeds profits, so it will likely intensify”

from  Seedy Business

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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.


[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.

Optional Reading:


The Real Reason to Worry about GMOs