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Resistance is fertile

How we can fight back against herbicide-resistant superweeds

A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed
Delaware Agriculture
A field dominated by palmer amaranth, or pigweed, one of the plants that has gained glyphosate resistance.

There’s a clear scientific consensus that heavy use of glyphosate -- the active ingredient in Roundup and other brands of herbicide -- has sped up the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. And it’s reasonable to assume that crops genetically engineered to work hand in glove with glyphosate (like Roundup-resistant soy) are part of the problem, contributing to the popularity of the weed killer.

Now crops genetically engineered to work with other herbicides -- such as dicamba and 2,4-D -- look like they will soon come on line. The seed companies' answer to the Roundup-resistance problem is: Let's just fall back on older herbicides. An editorial published by the journal Nature recently criticized this plan. If we do the same thing with dicamba and 2,4-D that we did with glyphosate, the editorial argued, history is likely to repeat itself.

This got me wondering what we should do, then, so I started calling weed scientists. I ended up talking with three from around the country. They all agreed on the basic premise.

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Buzz feed

Bees and butterflies get a boost from the feds

bees
Jack Wolf

After bailing out automakers and Wall Street bankers, the U.S. government  has now rolled out a pair of programs to assist a more sympathetic recipient: insects. There’s finally a bailout for the bee and butterfly bankruptcy!

U.S. farmers have gotten better and better at controlling weeds in their fields, and that’s been a disaster for monarch butterflies. Monarchs rely on one specific field plant: milkweed. They can’t survive without it. The population of both milkweed and monarchs have taken a tumble with the rise of effective weed control, via the herbicide glyphosate and GMO crops that tolerate glyphosate.

At the same time, honey bees have been dying off because of the mysterious colony collapse disorder, and many native bee populations are foundering.

Read more: Food, Politics

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All-natural selection

When will the vague “natural” food label die?

cheez-e-puffz
Hallie Bateman

Do we really have to tell you that the “natural” label on foods is pretty much meaningless? If so, you should also know that unicorns are mythological, not extinct.

OK, so the USDA has some rules about what can be called natural, but it just applies to meat and eggs, and is pretty loose. And, sure, I’ve heard company representatives explain their corporate definition of what’s natural, but frankly, it’s easier to believe in unicorns.

You can buy all-natural Cheetos, all-natural butter flavor granules, and all-natural, um, whatever the heck this is.

Of course, there’s a reason marketers keep slapping the "natural" label on things: It works.

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Here’s what happens when GMO antagonists get together for a friendly chat

gmos
Grist / iStockphoto

In the days leading up to a panel discussion on GMOs put on by Climate One, I started getting nervous. I was slated to appear with Rob Fraley, head of technology for Monsanto; organic rice farmer Jessica Lundberg; and Andy Kimbrell, head of the Center for Food Safety. Monsanto has a hard-driving reputation, obviously, and when I’d last heard Kimbrell speak in person he’d been a veritable machine gun of tweet-worthy sound bites condemning industrial agriculture.

This was likely to be trench warfare, I thought, and I’d be in stuck in the middle, crawling through the barbed wire, with live fire rattling overhead.

But that’s not how it turned out. If anything the panelists were cordial to a fault, talking past each other and avoiding points of disagreement. Well, let me avoid false equivalence here: Kimbrell got his licks in (though more delicately than usual), and Lundberg was straightforward and clear (but she didn’t get much time to talk); Monsanto's Fraley stayed on message rather than taking up the debate.

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Chicken tender offer

A meat giant gobbles up another meat giant

tyson-chicken
Tanya Patrice

We live in the era of meat mergers. In recent decades animal-farming companies, gobbling up competitors, became giants. Then those giants merged. Now, a meat titan is coming back for seconds.

The New York Times is reporting that Tyson has been successful in its hostile-takeover bid for Hillshire Brands. Measured in dollars, the $6.1 billion purchase is the largest consolidation in the industry ever -- though other mergers have meant more when measured in terms of impact on farmers and consumers.

Anti-trust experts say the deal won’t create an illegal monopoly, according to Reuters, because the two companies don’t directly compete. Hillshire is in the business of selling meat to us: It owns Jimmy Dean (sausages), Ball Park (hot dogs), Sara Lee, Aidells, and others, controlling 32 percent of the breakfast sausage market, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tyson is in the business of producing meat: It owns slaughterhouses and packing plants -- though it also sells to eaters.

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The Milkweed Factor

Blame industrial ag for those monarch butterfly declines

monarch
Randy Robertson

I've written before on the connection between modern farming techniques -- especially the widespread use of glyphosate associated with genetically engineered crops -- and the precipitous decline of monarch butterflies.

But we've never known for sure exactly what was driving the butterfly deaths. The top suspects were climate change, logging in Mexico, and the aforementioned advances in ag. A new study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology suggests that the primary culprit is farming. Farmers are doing such a good job of eliminating weeds from their fields that they've wiped out most of the milkweed that monarchs depend upon.

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Mmmm! Doughnuts. Not-mmmm: Palm oil

donuts
Lisa Bunchofopants

Since June 6 is National Doughnut Day, let’s start with a definition. Doughnut: An ineffectively slow means of killing oneself to end the torture of interminable office meetings.

But it turns out that doughnuts are so much more efficient than I assumed, because they are coated with palm oil. Palm oil is often the second ingredient, after flour. Which means that, in addition to killing you, they also kill orangutans and tigers, while emitting tons of greenhouse gases!

Actually this may have started when doughnut makers were trying to kill you a little less. Doughnuts used to be fried in trans fats, but after the FDA cracked down on those last year, many companies have started using palm oil instead.

That may seem a bit tough on those bakers who just want to fry their dough in something deliciously artery-clogging. Are we setting the maple bar a little too high?

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The next front in the GMO war: Synthetic biology

carrots
Z33 Art centre

The New York Times recently revealed that some soap companies were replacing the palm oil in their products with a substitute made by yeast algae. The controversial part is that the yeast algae are genetically altered -- they're the product of a new discipline known as synthetic biology.

I got a crash course in synthetic biology recently, and it looks to me as if it will be the next front in the never-ending GMO war. So let’s get up to speed.

Basically, synthetic biology refers to creating genes from scratch. Instead of cutting and pasting DNA from, say, a strawberry into yeast, you type in the DNA that you want, print it out, and splice that into yeast -- or whatever else you like. Here’s a great video explainer:

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Alice Waters vs. the techno-chefs: The evolution of wild gourmet

vat meat
Hallie Bateman

When I read Emma Marris' critical but ultimately hopeful essay about gourmet food (in Breakthrough Journal), my interest was piqued. Marris wrote the book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, and has generated challenging and influential ideas about nature. Now she's applied some of those same ideas to food.

She argues that a new wave of star chefs can serve as a model for relating more harmoniously to our environment. This means the path to sustainability could be marked by delicious dinners.

I was fascinated by this, but I was also confused. I had always thought of Alice Waters as the foremost example of eating our way to sustainability, yet for Marris, Waters is the counterexample: She criticizes Waters for being impractical and rigid.

I asked Marris about this. Our email conversation, which you can read below, turned into one of those collaborative arguments where -- instead of trying to win -- we ended up challenging each other to clarify and strengthen our points.

This debate has big implications: Can human intervention and technology -- instead of ruining nature -- improve it, even make it more "natural"? Is the future of food a polarized choice between dystopian industrialization and a utopian return to the farm? Or can we imagine our way to an industrialization that creates beauty, delight, flavor, and all the romantic qualities we value in food and farming?

Read more: Food, Living

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Organic farming is great, but it’s not Jesus

organic-food
val'sphotos

I have a pretty high baseline level of skepticism, and when I’m exposed to rhetorical bombast, it causes those skepticism levels to spike. Objections overflow; doubts seep from my pores. It's an allergic reaction. So this line, the first sentence in the Rodale Institute’s new white paper on the carbon-capturing potential of organic farming, gave me a light rash:

We are at the most critical moment in the history of our species.

The entire history of our species? Including the first faltering steps? Including the thousands of years about which we know zilch? This extension of rhetoric beyond the scope of human knowledge does not inspire confidence.

The paper’s assertion is that, “Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term ‘regenerative organic agriculture.’”

This, at least, is a slightly less audacious claim than the last, but not by much. Completely switching food production to organic agriculture would be so difficult that I’m not going bother with it. Instead, let’s see what a first step in that direction might look like, and consider the evidence that that step might be worth taking.

Read more: Food