Herbicide Resistance

PZink just forwarded me a link to an interesting article at the NYTimes.

As many ecologists have noted for many years, the widespread use of a broad-spectrum (it basically kills anything it touches) herbicide like glyphosate (RoundUp) will accellerate the natural selection of resistance in its target. Weeds resistant to the chemical will occur by natural mutation, and with enough rolls of the dice (over a hundred million acres for a few years), they occur. They will slip through the system as if they had a password to prosperity.

Now these bred superweeds are poised at affecting 5% of US industrial cropland (soy, corn and cotton= 175M acres or so) and get coverage in the Times.

Your basic objective in agriculture is to have your plants grow really well and provide you with lots of collected solar energy (through their leaves into whatever it is of them you eat). Ranchers are using their animals as another link in the energy supply chain of sun-plants-critters-people.

Often, making conditions good for your plants to grow also means other plants grow right alongside your crop. These are those weeds.

There are ways to deal with them, generally meaning killing them. You can plant in a weed-seed-free medium like roasted potting soil (which you can get at any garden store but only in fairly not farm-size bags). You can kill the weeds that sprout by dragging a tool through the soil. You can spray some kind of chemical that kills the weeds but somehow doesn’t kill you crop. Of course genetically-modified corn has been made to be resistant to glyphosate and the pesticide and these seeds go together.

So the problem worth noting in the Times is how Monsanto will lose a lot of business if their weed control chemical doesn’t solve farmers’ problems, and will lose even more money if that seed they engineered to resist their product will also not matter. It will still resist the chemical but so will all those competing weeds, and thus the reduced yields.

I’m curious how the industry will respond. Can proprietary information ultimately be profitable in farming? How high-tech do things need to be before they’re not useful?

Peasant agriculture is still going strong for 4 billion people! Aside from the threats of climate change and rampant warfare, most of the world feeds itself by growing its own food. Of course a lot of people are doing good work to help people do it better, simply.

Can we take what Bill Mollison [Permaculture], Masanobu Fukuoka [One Straw Revolution], Wes Jackson [The Land Institute], etc. are promoting and get new systems in place? Restorative agriculture will meet the needs of the present and future and make amends for the transgressions of the past. There is a future better, with respectful of ecology know-how, and without all the needs for high-tech. Certainly good old-fashioned breeding, generation by generation will continue.

While I was driving across the US I saw a heckuva lot of corn and soy fields, a lot with the telltale signs of no-till practice with RoundUp (odd dregs of vegetation existing between the winter and first sprayings). These farmers may already be working on the solution to their dilemma. Their work to find better means to making a living on the land never ends. Will the end of an herbicide lead to the end of very large mechanized and chemicalized farms? Will farmers adapt to other practices? What if some kind of critter flu meant an end to large chicken raising operations or beef CAFOs? How would big ag adjust?

Vermont dairy farmers have been getting out of the dairy industry for a long time. Many farmers have diversified to cane and shrub fruit, wine, veggies or small ruminants for milk and cheese. The State of Vermont and UVM have numerous programs to aid a diversifying ag economy in that state.

The examples are out there. The huge chemical-dependent corn and soybean industry may need a make-over. Who will be able to support a rapid transition to a sustainable, smaller-scale, localized agriculture?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *