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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.

 

 

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