The Escalating Chemical War on Weeds

A few weeks back, the New York Times made mention of an astounding development, which has, for whatever reason, received little fanfare or recognition. Despite its Vietnam War notoriety, Agent Orange is in vogue again, this time down on the farm. Its reemergence, and in this particular setting, raises a host of troubling questions that are not being well considered.

Over the past year, there have been increasing reports of emerging superweeds resistant to Roundup, the preferred weedkiller of America’s farmers. Roundup is sold in tandem with Roundup-ready seeds, both marquee products of the Monsanto Corporation. In the 1990s, when the latter product hit the market, it was momentous, revolutionary – a godsend: Roundup-ready seeds are genetically designed to resist application of the potent herbicide. By sowing Roundup-ready seeds and dousing their fields with the trademark weedkiller, farmers could forego the expense and toil of tilling the land, and losing valuable topsoil in the process. Production was enhanced, time and money saved. It was quite an economic boon to farmers, at least in the short run. Environmentalists were also pleased in light of the topsoil angle. Needless to say, Monsanto was thrilled that farmers were even more dependent on its products.

But for years critics ominously warned that, as is the nature of ‘nature,’ weeds would eventually evolve to withstand Roundup. Monsanto brushed aside such concerns, saying it would be ages before anyone had to worry about something like that. The glory days lasted about a decade. The superweeds evolved faster than anyone imagined– and with a vengeance. Farmers accustomed to drenching their fields with Roundup are now battling a monster breed of pigweed that, the New York Times reports, “can grow three inches a day and reach seven feet or more…so sturdy that it can damage harvesting equipment.”

Nature has issued quite a challenge to our ‘weed solution.’ The chemical industry has decided to respond in turn with Agent Orange. To be precise, Dow Chemical is working on seeds that are resistant to 24-D, a component of Agent Orange… presumably because it intends on spraying farmland with wartime defoliant.

This is alarming on a number of fronts. But let’s be clear on one thing at the outset: we don’t necessarily need Agent Orange to deal with weeds. The Amish don’t. Never have. Superweeds– like superbugs (or superbacteria) emerging in concentrated chicken farms– are the product of industrial agriculture, which aims to squeeze as much as possible from the land, and has selected monoculture as the optimal means of doing so. Grow one crop, in great density, on huge tracts of land, demanding tremendous output. Hence the Iowa corn fields, which stretch as far as the eye can see. There’s only one problem with this: nature does not ‘farm’ this way. Monoculture is highly vulnerable to pests, disease and weeds. In monocultivated fields, predators find a vast pool of identical, fat, helpless victims. In contrast, nature ‘farms’ a diversity of crops amidst one another, which do not succumb en masse to any given plague.

We have insisted on monoculture in order to produce as much as possible. Today, we’re able to extract 6 times more corn from an acre of land than 100 years ago. Industrial agriculture is to be commended for that impressive efficiency. And I know how its apologists – Dow and Monsanto included– would defend the institution and its manic drive for production. Industrial agriculture is necessary, they would say, to feed the world: you can’t feed upwards of six billion people by farming like the Amish.

Though I am not qualified to contest this claim fully, I can think of one important fact that casts doubt upon it. In this country, industrial agriculture’s immense bounty has wrought skyrocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes. Agribusiness has not exactly harnessed its awesome technological advances to feed the world, but rather, to cram as many excess calories as possible into citizens of the industrial world. In particular, its bounty has subsidized a profusion of cheap fast and processed foods. Indeed, two of Monsanto’s most popular Round-up ready products are corn and soy, the building blocks of our processed foods.

So, it seems clear, at least in the US, industrial agriculture can step off the gas pedal. We could use an Amish revolution across the farm belt. If we adopted Amish style polyculture, our farms might well produce less. But would that be such a bad thing? Polyculture would certainly produce less of the staple commodities, corn and soy, and less processed food in turn. It would make for a healthier—lighter– nation.

But we cannot settle for less. We must have more.

We’re so hell-bent on maintaining our voracious consumption habits, that we’ll engage the services of the defense industry. We’ll use Agent Orange to fight off weeds and ensure the delivery of cheap corn to Frito-Lay, Coke and Kelloggs; and when megaweeds evolve to withstand Agent Orange—eighteen-foot-tall weeds, stems like tree trunks—we’ll reach for the napalm. ‘Napalm-ready’ soy; that’s our future.

All in the name of productivity, efficiency, convenience– profit. For you see, farming as nature ordains it fails on all fronts. Nature does not cut it in the USA.

We think nothing of wantonly poisoning the land on which we depend for sustenance. We have gravely degraded the rich topsoil of the Prairies, much of which has flowed down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico (and is now covered in a slick of oil, I presume). Our herbicides, pesticides and fungicides have stripped the land of natural nutrients, which we aim to supply in chemical doses. And when agricultural problems arise– problems that are the product of our industrial, chemical practices– we administer more of the same. Actually, I’m wrong: in the case of Agent Orange, we administer stronger poisons, as if we aim to twist Nature’s arm—as if we could. As if we could subdue her, and force her to do our bidding: ‘You WILL give us Cheetoes at 20 cents to the pound– or else!’

It is of course hubris. Not to mention tremendously short-sighted. What do we think, soaking the fields in Agent Orange? Surely, Dow must know that the very application of this chemical in strong, widespread and longterm doses is precisely the doom of this product: these are the very conditions that encourage—dare!– superweeds to evolve. So what are the chemical companies playing at? What’s the game plan? Do they intend to graduate to ever more potent and dangerous herbicides? Surely that can’t be sustainable. Or do they hope to mix and match chemical herbicides, to keep the weeds off balance? That seems marginally safer, at best. And does anyone know how these chemicals fare in the environment, once combined, over the course of years? Or is Dow simply aiming for Monsanto’s promised land, an herbicide-seed combination that will corner the market, and inflate company stock in the short run?

Besides the fact that we would use these chilling chemicals in the production of our food, no less. Agent Orange is accused of having caused birth defects in Vietnam, and increased rates of cancer among American veterans of the war there. Dow has disputed these claims. And yet, in light of Agent Orange’s reputation, it is surprising that Dow would press on with its use in food production nonetheless. This shows tremendous gall. Or shocking disrespect for the consumer.

Even if, as Dow argues, the harmful effects of Agent Orange are uncertain, why risk it? Why mess with this wartime defoliant when proven, though less obscenely prolific, farming methods beckon? In the end, it all comes back to us: what do we want? What do we demand of our food and farms? Do we demand piles of cheap, throwaway calories in toxic doses, which require us to squeeze nature mercilessly? Nature will not put up with this for long; as the superweeds attest, she’s already rebelling.

FIRMIN DeBRABANDER is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.






More articles by:
March 19, 2018
Henry Heller
The Moment of Trump
John Davis
Pristine Buildings, Tarnished Architect
Uri Avnery
The Fake Enemy
Patrick Cockburn
The Fall of Afrin and the Next Phase of the Syrian War
Nick Pemberton
The Democrats Can’t Save Us
Nomi Prins 
Jared Kushner, RIP: a Political Obituary for the President’s Son-in-Law
Georgina Downs
The Double Standards and Hypocrisy of the UK Government Over the ‘Nerve Agent’ Spy Poisoning
Dean Baker
Trump and the Federal Reserve
Colin Todhunter
The Strategy of Tension Towards Russia and the Push to Nuclear War
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
US Empire on Decline
Ralph Nader
Ahoy America, Give Trump a Taste of His Own Medicine Starting on Trump Imitation Day
Robert Dodge
Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by Divesting from Them
Laura Finley
Shame on You, Katy Perry
Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It