Why Didn’t Monsanto See Roundup-Resistant Weeds Coming

Monsanto was caught unawares when weeds became resistant to its uber-successful product Roundup beginning in 2000, only four years after the company introduced the crops. How could that have happened? Over at NPR’s food blog the Salt, Dan Charles spoke with representatives from Monsanto to find out what went wrong. The story Charles tells is one of hubris. He writes:

[P]erhaps most important, the company’s scientists had just spent more than a decade, and many millions of dollars, trying to create the Roundup-resistant plants that they desperately wanted — soybeans and cotton and corn. It had been incredibly difficult. 

Charles also says that Monsanto felt complacency because it didn’t encounter problems for several years. That, says BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker, is “particularly egregious.” She continues:

Weeds do best at building resistance to herbicides when the same herbicide is being liberally applied to the same land year after year after year. In order to assume that this behavior wouldn’t be the outcome of combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto would almost have to assume that those products wouldn’t be terribly effective.”

According to NPR, weed resistance to Roundup has devastated the agriculture industry, which has caused farmers have had to revert back to older, more labor-intensive techniques. Now, reports Charles, farmers are looking for new ways to fight weeds. While companies like Monsanto are working on genetically modified crops that are resistant to a new herbicide*, some are wary of the developing cycle. Stanley Culpepper, a weed expert at the University of Georgia, believes that farmers will have to combat weeds with a variety of chemicals. But he also introduced a new method for cotton farmers in Georgia looking to rid their soil of the newly resistant pigweed: laying rye between cotton plants.

Correction, March 14, 2012: This post originally misidentified Roundup as a pesticide. It is an herbicide.