Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Herbicide resistent weeds

Comes now the New York Times this morning, US farmers cope with Round-up resistant weeds. After drenching fields with herbicides for 20 years, production agriculture is now facing the spectre of "Round-up Resistant" weeds. Monsanto, which at one time, confidently predicted that "resistance will not be an issue", is publicly underplaying the problem while privately subsidizing the purchase of additional herbicides for their Round-up dependent customers.

Conventional "no -till" farming is taking a hit, as it depends on the use of herbicides to control pests. This increases production expenses and soil erosion, and with the Round-up resistant varieties spreading, requires the use of additional chemicals, described as "not as safe" as glyphosate. This is particularly a problem for corn, soybeans, and cotton.

The problem is the patterns that production agriculture follows. It treats the farm as a factory, inputs in, outputs out. The concept of "farm as eco-system" is foreign to the production agriculture system.

Our fascination with feedlot beef and chicken, fed with huge quantities of corn and soybeans, is another problematic production pattern. If we ate more grassfed, free-ranging meats and poultry, we wouldn't need such a large production of corn and soybeans.

Another pattern is size. Over the last 50 years, "get big or get out" has been the rule in farm country, and we have driven millions of people off the land into the cities. Machinery has gotten bigger, more complex, and more expensive. We substituted chemicals for work and in the process we developed a cultural aversion for manual labor, and the job of "farmer" is nowhere near the top of most conventional lists of desirable jobs. Indeed, from our elites, there is an evident cultural contempt for those who work the land. We emptied out our countrysides, and our rural communities are suffering as a result.

As one result. . . unemployment is at 20% (the real unemployment rate, that is, not the politically manipulated rates reported in our mainstream news media).

I understand that chopping weeds out of crops is hard work. As a teenager, before the popularization of herbicides, I "chopped cotton" all summer long, walking up and down long rows of cotton, chopping out the weeds. It was called "chopping cotton", because in previous generations, besides weeds, you also thinned the cotton by chopping maybe every other plant. Seed generation rates were more uncertain, so farmers planted more seed than necessary in the hopes of getting a good stand. Thus the need to thin the plants after germination.

But it was honest work, healthy work. I don't like weeding my urban garden, but it is also necessary. Because it is work, I go to some lengths to minimize the weeding, mostly through the use of deep mulches.

Any way you look at it, American agriculture is facing some changes. We like to think that in the "human versus nature battle", humans will always win, but that is simply human hubris. The big problem here is our conception of nature as inimical to our interests. If we plan to be around for much longer, we need to stop working against nature, and start working with nature. Pigweed, after all, is an edible plant, part of the Amaranth family, that grows prolifically. Maybe we should think about "pigweed cuisine", although it will probably need a better name, instead of crafting new and ever-more-noxious chemical brews to poison the land and waters.

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