The chemical treadmill breaks down and the superweeds did it
Tom Philpott has been tracking the rise of so-called “superweeds” — i.e. herbicide-resistant weeds — for a while now. He’s talked about the chemical treadmill — “the situation wherein weeds and other pests develop resistance to poisons, demanding ever higher doses of old poisons and constant development of novel ones.”
Due in part to its reliance on genetically modified crops that are designed to be doused with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, the South has to date faced the worst of this problem. And the struggle against these new superweeds, in particular against a new resistant form of pig weed, got the attention of ABC’s World News Tonight recently. It’s a struggle, by the way, that cotton farmers down there are losing:
Across the South, there’s a weed that man can no longer kill. It’s called the pig weed, and for decades farmers controlled it by spraying their fields with herbicides.
“I’ve never seen anything that had this major an impact on our agriculture in a short period of time,” said Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas.
This past summer, Pace Hindsely of Coffee Creek Farms and other farmers started noticing the chemicals they routinely used were no longer working.
“The last three years it’s really just exploded. There is no rhyme or reason as to how we can control it,” Hindsely said. “I am worried about the future or what these fields will look like next year and the year after if we don’t control this weed.”
The weeds have adapted, and this year they’re choking more than a million acres of cotton and soybeans.
And, really for the first time, it appears that nothing in industrial ag’s chemical arsenal can stop them. Most striking, however, was the reaction by Monsanto to this rapidly spreading failure of its cash cow combo Roundup Ready seed and Roundup herbicide: It’s all the farmers fault!! Or as the news report put it, Monsanto “blame[s] their customers — the farmers — for overuse saying it was only a matter of time before Mother Nature came up with a workaround.” Oh and don’t worry. Monsanto’s chemical solution to this problem is just around the corner. A Monsanto rep promises that an super-pig weed killer will be on the market by, oh, 2015 or so.
Now, Monsanto is certainly right about the overuse part. As an excellent Rodale Institute report on superweeds observes, annual agricultural use of Roundup in the U.S. went from 7.9 million pounds in 1994, the year before Roundup Ready crops were introduced, to 119 million pounds in 2005. Given that most corn, soy, and cotton seed planted in the U.S. is herbicide-tolerant and sold by Monsanto, it’s kinda hard for them to blame the customer for this mess.
There’s another interesting angle here, though. The development of herbicide-tolerant crops has played a role in the growth of megafarms of 10,000 plus acres. That amount of land can’t be farmed unless you’re doing it from atop a sprayer and a combine. But dealing with pig weed now involves putting workers out in the fields to pull weeds by hands — pig weed is sturdy enough to “stop a combine in its track” according to the ABC News report. Handweeding isn’t feasible for these massive farms, which is why thousands of acres of land devoted to commodity crops are being abandoned in the face of the superweed onslaught.
The Rodale article observes that mechanical cultivators — once considered an old-fashioned and outmoded approach to weed control — are making a comeback in the South as “steel in the field” becomes important again. Distributors sold out of them last year and have upped their orders for this year — in fact cultivators are one of the few types of farm machinery with growing sales, due in large part to superweeds.
In the end it may not be agri-intellectuals like Michael Pollan (or Tom Philpott for that matter) who are the ones “forcing farmers to turn back the clock” as Big Ag partisans have claimed. Indeed, there’s some quote about sowing seeds of one’s own destruction that might be appropriate about now but I’ll resist. Instead, I’ll observe that the answer will, of course, require a move to the latest, most sophisticated 21st century agroecological techniques such as those pioneered by the Rodale Institute. As Rodale’s article says:
Agriculturalists around the world are looking for better answers than have come so far from herbicide-focused efforts. They seek productive systems based on evolving local farmer wisdom. These deal with all pests — weeds included — as part of an approach integrating soil health, biodiversity, advanced understandings of biological interactions, and just enough steel to give crops the edge they need.
That sounds about right.