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The Potential Safety Risks Assocaiated with Roundup Ready Soybeans

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The Problem with the Safety of Roundup Ready Soybeans

Aurelia Bright

Farmers have been looking for a labour and time effective solution to weeds that grow and compete with their crops since they began farming. In 1970 when Monsanto introduced Roundup, a systemic herbicide, farmers rejoiced. Because Roundup is effective against annual and perennial weeds it was time efficient as it enabled farmers to treat a field once rather than twice as was previously necessary. The next landmark innovation came in the form of herbicide resistant crops, specifically, Roundup Ready crops. These were crops that genetically engineered to be resistant to Roundup which allowed farmers to spray fields with herbicide. They no longer had to discern between what a weed was and what was a crop, they could spray everything indiscriminately. This simple weed management system went on to revolutionise the entire farming industry.
Charles Darwin first set out the theory of evolution in the 19th century. He proposed that plants and animals were in competition for the same resources and that only the fittest and strongest survive and pass on their genes to the next generation. Farmers have been giving their crops a helping hand in that fight since 10,000 B.C. by weeding, using salt to deter pests and keeping seeds from high yielding crops to sow the following year (Kingsbury, 2009).
Over time, as farmers came to understand more about breeding techniques, they began to choose superior plant materials for propagation and animals for breeding. Initially they did this accidently, with the aim of improving food crops and livestock but over thousands of years farmers began deliberately selecting for advantageous traits in crops. Desirable traits that they selected for included crop varieties that had an increased resistance to diseases and pests, yielded larger seeds and fruit, superior nutrition content and a longer shelf life (Wieczorek & Wright, 2012).
Until recently this selection for beneficial traits was limited to naturally occurring gene variations but after the discovery by Watson and Crick in 1953, that DNA was the carrier of genetic information, genetic modification became a possibility. This possibility quickly became a reality with bacteria being modified as early as 1977 and plants undergoing modification in 1982 (Meeusen, 1996).
The first transgenic plant was the Flavr SavrTM tomato and its tomatoes were approved for sale by the FDA on 18th May 1994. The tomato cultivars were engineered using an antisense polygalacturonase gene isolated from tomato to produce tomatoes that had a longer shelf life and could still withstand traditional distribution practices (Kramer et al, 1992). This innovation opened the doors for lots of similar types of genetically modified products.
1.1 Motivations for the Genetic Modification of Soybeans
Soybeans are one of the few plant foods that provide high biological protein that is equally beneficial to the human body as protein derived from animal sources. This is because it is a rich source of many of the essential amino acids which are usually only found in protein from animal sources such as leucine and isoleucine.
It is for this reason that soybeans are a large part of people’s diet in many Asian countries where many of the practised religions prohibit the consumption of one or more types of meat. Soybeans are the staple food in China.
Soybeans are principally used as livestock food in the west but its consumption is growing due to growing awareness of cardio vascular disease, their consumption is increasing worldwide. With such a large number of people depending on soybeans every year and with this figure rising steadily year on year, the consequences of a crop failure would be catastrophic.
1.2 Factors that Negatively Impact the Growth of Soybeans
Soybeans are prone to suffering from a wide variety of diseases, including soybean cyst nematode as shown in the figure below. Soybean cyst nematode is one of the greatest threats facing soybean producers. It is responsible for the loss of 30% of soybeans grown in North America every year (Niblack & Tylka, 2008). It can be present in a crop without specific symptoms until a severe problem exists. This means that by the time the farmer is aware that a crop is infected, it is often too late to save. The cysts that develop in the later stages of the disease are white and lemon shaped when they first appear on the root surface and turn yellow and then brown with age.

Soybean cyst nematode causes root decay and as a direct result, decreased yield. Penetration of the cysts into the root surface can also create openings for other soil borne soybean pathogens such as Rhizoctonia and Fusarium which are the causes of seedling blight and sudden death syndrome respectively (Creech &Johnson, 2007). Figure 1.1 soybean root suffering from soybean cyst nematode (Niblack & Tylka, 2008)
1.3 Prevention of Soil Borne Pathogens that Effect the Growth of Soybeans
A key part of preventing soybean cyst nematode and other soil borne pathogens that harm soybean crops is good weed control.
Weeds compete with the soybeans for nutrients in the soil, water and light. Since soybeans are quite a short crop, (typically 12 to 36 inches) they are especially susceptible to shading from tall weeds. Researchers in Indiana have recently identified six weeds that can act as alternative hosts for soybean cyst nematode which in turn means that fields with one of these six weeds growing in them have a much higher chance of soybean crops contracting soybean cyst nematode then fields that are do not contain one of these six varieties (Creech & Johnson, 2007). Creech and Johnson found that in fields containing one of the six weeds that are capable of being alternative hosts for soybean cyst nematode, the likely hood of it being present in the crop of soybeans increased by 93%.
The traditional way to eradicate weeds was of course to dig them up and dispose of them but this is labour intensive and time consuming. It is also an ongoing process which makes it highly inefficient. The development of powerful and effective herbicides such as glyphosate has been an important step in helping farmers significantly control weeds.
1.4 Glyphosates and how they work
Herbicides can be classified according to their method of action, primarily whether they are contact herbicides or systemic herbicides. Glyphosates are a type of systemic herbicide which kill by being absorbed by the roots or foliage of the plant. They do not kill just on the point of contact. They can also travel through the plant by a method called translocation. This ability to travel through the plant means they must be applied with care to avoid killing the crop as well as the weeds.
Roundup is a non selective glyphosate that was developed by Monsanto in 1970 by John E. Franz. It acts by interfering with the amino acid synthesis in the plant and as a result it prevents new plant growth. It is applied using a foliar spray method which makes it hard to control and increases the probability that some of the crops could be sprayed while spraying the weeds that you wish to eliminate (Zablotowicz & Reddy, 2007). It is for this reason that scientists began trying to develop genetically engineered crops that were resistant to such herbicides.
1.5 The Development of Roundup Ready Crops
Since creating the systemic herbicide Roundup in 1970, Monsanto conducted a lot of research into different science disciplines in the hope of finding the next big thing. From 1986 to 1996 their research was primarily carried out in biochemistry and molecular biology. They also explored cell biology and plant science during this time and all this research culminated in the first Roundup Ready crops which were developed in 1996.
Roundup Ready crops are selectively resistant to the systemic herbicide Roundup, which allows for quick and convenient application of Roundup as a postemergance herbicide onto growing crops. This allowed farmers to tend to a larger acreage as weed control was faster and more efficient, adopt conservation tillage practices which were less labour intensive and less time consuming and operate narrow row spacing which generates higher yields (Zablotowicz & Reddy, 2007).
Soybeans were the first Roundup Ready crops and were chosen due to their importance in the global market.
1.6 Roundup Ready Soybeans
Since the introduction of Roundup Ready soybeans, their adoption by growers has been extremely rapid. By 1998, just two years after their introduction, 38% of the total North American soybean acreage was comprised of Roundup Ready soybeans. This jumped to 60% in 2001 and up to a staggering 94% in 2012 according to U.S. Department of Agriculture. The USDA also cited that 99% of soybeans grown in Argentina are Roundup Ready soybeans.
2.1 Safety Concerns Associated with Roundup Ready Soybeans
There are many concerns with the safety of Roundup Ready soybeans. Below are just a few of the main safety problems that should be a concern for both growers and consumers alike.
• Overdependence on Roundup Ready Soybeans
• Lack of biodiversity
• Roundup Ready soybeans patent expiring in 2014
• Insufficient independent testing
• Labelling concerns
2.2 Overdependence on Roundup Ready Soybeans
Roundup Ready soybeans could be described as a victim of their own success. Due to abundance of attractive qualities that they offer, growers have been quick to adopt them without a second thought and have rapidly become overly reliant on them. This over reliance has led to a new generation of glyphosate resistant weeds that are commonly known as “super weeds”.
Due to the overwhelming dependence on Roundup Ready soybeans almost every grower is affected and this will have massively negative effects of the global yield which will increase the cost of soybeans. Since so many people who consume soybeans on a regular basis do so because of poverty, there will be a huge knock on effect.
The manufactures of Roundup Ready soybeans, Monsanto, advocate the use of more herbicide and more combinations of herbicide to kill these super weeds. They are currently working on the production of new varieties of herbicide tolerant crops and hope to release soybeans that are resistant to the herbicide dicamba in 2014 (Meador, 2012).
Mosanto claims to have learned their lesson from their over reliance on glyphoshate and their practices of using the same herbicide year after year on the same crop in the same location, yet their new research tells a different story.
They are currently investing a lot of time and effort into engineering new crop varieties and aiming to develop soybeans with stacked tolerance to multiple herbicides. This suggests that they intend to merely alternate the herbicides applied to these crops rather than solving the root of the problem which is the transfer of resistance and containment. Surely the creations of new varieties of herbicide resistant crops will eventually just lead to new varieties of super weeds?
There is a need to examine the practices of weed management in the past to find an alternative to herbicide use alone. There is also a great need for education and training for young farmers who have never known any other farming methods then the simplistic method that growing Roundup Ready soybeans allows you to employ.
2.3 Lack of biodiversity
Due to the conservative tilling practises that Roundup Ready soybeans afford farmers, paired with the diminished need for crop rotation, there has been a huge loss of biodiversity in both the soybean cultivars grown throughout the world and the weeds that impede their growth.
This loss of biodiversity could destabilise the eco system and lead to famines in many countries if the soybean crop ever contracted a disease that glyphosates cannot combat. Biodiversity would act as a back up in this instance as other soybean cultivars could be harvested so that there would only be a small reduction in global yield rather than a massive shortfall. Over reliance on one species and one herbicide directly breeds resistant super weeds.
These super weeds then require higher concentrations of herbicides to be killed which in turn also stamps out other weeds that are not resistant to the specific herbicide, glyphosate in this case. This begins a vicious circle in which greater and greater concentrations of herbicide are required to kill the ever increasingly resistant super weeds. This cycle makes it impossible for indigenous weeds to survive.
The monoculture of Roundup Ready soybeans means that the same nutrients are being drained from the soil year on year which leads to rapid degradation of soil fertility which requires a greater level of expensive inputs such as fertilizers to still produce a high yield.
Roundup Ready soybeans may be even more vulnerable to diseases when plants lack nutrients. In healthy agricultural ecosystems, nutrients (for example nitrogen) can be provided by associations with microbes (such as nitrogen-fixing micro-organisms) that benefit crops. Research has shown that fewer nutrients are provided from these beneficial relationships in Roundup Ready soybean fields (King et al, 2011).
2.4 Roundup Ready soybeans patent expiring in 2014
The impending expiration of the RR1 trait that is used in Roundup Ready soybeans brings with it a host of unique safety concerns. Roundup Ready soybeans are the first genetically engineered crop of their kind to go off patent so just like with drugs and medicines, the technology will become generic. This means that any company who wishes to will be able produce a soybean genetically engineered with glyphosate resistance. This great influx of generic versions of the same trait poses a logistical problem with regulation and traceability.
It also means that farmers who wish to continue working with that particular trait need assurances it will still be accepted by export markets. Monsanto still exert some intellectual property over the trait due to its inclusion in many other genetically engineered products produced by both competitor and in house by Monsanto. It is because of this vested interest in these products that Monsanto has agreed to provide export regulatory approval for Roundup Ready soybeans until 2021.
Just as with drugs, slight changes are often made when a patent expires and then the patenting process begun again. Monsanto have hoped to do just this with their newest product Genuity Roundup Ready 2 which offers improved yield opportunities.
As holders of the first biotech trait to go off patent, Monsanto finds themselves in a unique leadership position among its colleagues in biotech trait development. Only time will tell if they use this position responsibly to further the progress of genetically engineered crops or if the abuse it for less noble endeavours such as forcing farmers to switch to their newest products. Only time will tell.
2.5 Insufficient independent testing
One of the key selling points of Roundup Ready soybeans was Monsanto’s promise that it enabled the use of less herbicide due to Roundup being active against both annual and perennial weeds so a field would only require one spray rather than two. In theory this should lower the quantity of herbicide used and reduce potential toxicity. In reality Roundup is used at a much higher application per acre rate, 0.75 pounds per acre, than other herbicides which are typically applied at 0.1 pound per acre (Kridl & Shewmaker, 2006). This application rate of 7.5 times higher than other herbicides negates Monsanto’s claims that by utilising Roundup Ready soybeans, lower quantities of herbicides can be used.

Despite being on the market since 1996, it wasn’t until 2001 that independent data documenting the sometimes serious depression of nitrogen fixation in Roundup Ready soybean fields. Nitrogen fixation is essential for adequate growth of the soybeans and yield is greatly decreased without it. Farmer’s rapid adoption of a new weed management system without fully understanding its long term effects and potential safety concerns was reckless. Ignorance creates a false sense of security and sets the stage for trouble.

Now that Roundup Ready soybeans account for such an overwhelming majority of the worldwide soybean crop, the regulatory systems ability to undertake unbiased research on Roundup Ready soybeans is greatly impaired. The large agriculture companies such as Monsanto, place pressure on the regulatory bodies as well as sponsor researchers to carry out studies. Many studies that state that there is no significant difference between Roundup Ready soybeans and soybeans produced through traditional means do not state the sample sizes utilised.
There is a possibility that if the sample size was too small, a type one error could occur which would mean that due to the small size of sample analysed, differences wouldn’t be capable of being detected (Eede et al, 2004).

There is also very few in vivo studies and those that do exist, have only been carried out in rats and are totally devoid of dose response relationship studies. The possible effect on humans cannot be extrapolated from the rat model.

These limited, murky and vague studies are not sufficient information to determine whether or not Roundup Ready soybeans are safe for consumption by billions for the world’s population.
2.6 Labelling concerns
Labelling is a huge concern when it comes to genetically engineered and genetically modified foods. Due to misleading information, a lack of understanding and some personal beliefs, some consumers wish to avoid such foods. To ensure that consumers are capable of making an informed choice, there is a need for clear, legible and transparent labelling.
To date Monsanto has resisted the labelling of Roundup Ready soybeans and their derivatives such as soybean oil and lecithin, as genetically engineered. They fear that some of the controversy that surrounds foods produced using genetic engineering methods will reduce sales if consumers are aware of what they are buying.
The influence of accurate labelling on sales is irrelevant; consumers have a right to factual, honest information. To rob them of this right is to take away their choice of what they are consuming as they simply don’t know.

3.1 Conclusion
The problem with the safety of Roundup Ready soybeans is complex but finds its roots in the rapid adoption of a new weed management system by farmers who didn’t fully understand all its consequences.
There must be lessons learned from the over reliance on Roundup and Roundup Ready soybeans. We cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes with different crops and herbicides when food security is at stake. There should be an examination of traditional weed management practices and an effort made to incorporate those technologies into a modern weed management system that has many different branches and doesn’t solely rely on the application of one herbicide.
A much greater volume of research and specifically independent, unbiased research is required to truly ascertain if Roundup Ready soybeans are safe for consumption by humans. Human trials need to be carried out and all parameters of research, including sample size needs to be made available to all. There is a great need for transparency in the hazy conflicting information that is currently circulating about Roundup Ready soybeans and the potential safety issues that they pose.
Finally, going forward, the most important thing that must come into practise is clear labelling. All food products, food ingredients and their derivates should have to legally be labelled if they have been produced using genetic engineering or genetic modification organisms. Only by making this the norm rather than the exception will consumers really have the option to choose or avoid products that have been genetically engineered.
It is unclear if Roundup Ready soybeans really do pose a safety threat. There is a lack of clear, unbiased information on this topic. Only by conducting more research can truly determine if they safe for consumption or not.

Creech, J. E., Johnson, W. G., Faghihi, J., and Ferris, V. R., 2007, Survey of Indiana producers and crop advisors: A perspective on winter annual weeds and soybean cyst nematode (Heterodera glycines). Weed Technology., 2 1:532-536.

Eede, G. A., Buhk, H.-J., Corthier, G., Flint, H.J., Hammes, W., Jacobsen, B., Midtvedt, T., Vossen, J.van der, Wright, A.von, Wackernagel, W., Wilcks, A., 2004, Safety Assessment, Detection and Traceability, and Societal Aspects of Genetically Modified Foods European Network on Safety Assessment of Genetically Modified Food Crops (ENTRANSFOOD), Food and Chemical Toxicology, 42 7:1127-1156
King, C., Purcell, L., Vories E., 2011, Plant growth and nitrogenase activity of glyphosate tolerant soybeans in response to foliar application, Agronomy Journal, 93: 179-186.
Kingsbury, N., 2009, Hybrid: The History and Science of Plant Breeding., University of Chicago Press, 1:2-5.
Kramer, M. R., Sanders, H., Bolkan, C., Waters, R., Sheehy W. H., 1992, Post – harvest evaluation of transgenic tomatoes with reduced levels of polygalacturonase: processing, firmness and disease resistance, Post Harvest Bilogical Technology,1:241-255.

Kridl, J.C., Shewmaker, C. S., 2006, Food for thought: improvement of food quality and composition through genetic engineering, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 792: 1-12.

Lappé, M.A., Baily, E.B., Childress, C.C. Setchell, K.D.R., 1998, Alterations in the clinically important phytoestrogens in genetically modified herbicide tolerant soybeans, Journal of Medicinal Foods, 1:241-245.
Meador, R., 2012, In 'arms race against weeds,' new weapons extend a losing strategy, Agronomy Journal 106: 345-368.

Meeusen, R.L., 1996, Commercialization of transgenic seed products, Two case studies, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 792: 172-176.
Niblack, T. L., and Tylka, G. L., 2008, Soybean Cyst Nematode Management Guide, 5th Edition, N. Central Soybean Res, Prog., Urbandale, IA.

Quist, D., Chapela, I.H., 2001, Transgenic DNA introgressed into traditional maize landraces in Oaxaca, Mexico, Nature, 414: 541-543.
Robert M. Z., Krishna N., 2007, Nitrogenase activity, nitrogen content, and yield responses to glyphosate in glyphosate-resistant soybean Crop Protection, Weed Technology, 26 3:370-376.
Wieczorek, A. M., & Wright, M. G., 2012, History of Agricultural Biotechnology: How Crop Development has Evolved, Nature Education Knowledge 3 3:9-12. Windels, P., Taverniers, I., Depicker, A., Van Buckstaele, E., Deloose, M., 2001, Characterisation of the Roundup Ready soybean insert, European Food Research Technology, 213:107-112.
Zablotowicz, N., Reddy, A. R., 2007, From pesticides to genetically modified plants: history, economics and politics, Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science, 48:125-149.…...

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