FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 

 

WORDS THAT STICK

?

 

More articles by:

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail