Roundup Ready

The Roundup Ready Headache, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Last weekend’s March Against Monsanto reminded me of a visit we once made to a “Roundup Ready” field out in McHenry County, Illinois, an experience that was peculiar and disturbing.

Roundup is a widely used broad-spectrum herbicide that Monsanto has manufactured since the mid-1970s.  Many of us have used it on our lawns to kill unattractive and vigorous broadleaf weeds.  Yet, for decades it was difficult maximize the agricultural application of Roundup, because, if applied to a field of corn or beans, the herbicide would kill the crop as well as the weeds.

Then, in the late 1990s, Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” seeds, genetically engineered to withstand the effects of Roundup poison.  Soybeans were the first seeds to be so manufactured, followed by alfalfa, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola.  With the creation of such seeds, farmers could spray the herbicide directly on crops, from the time of their emergence until their flowering, to achieve what Monsanto touts as “unsurpassed weed control.”

Roundup Ready seedlings growing up among weeds, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Roundup Ready seedlings (top to bottom, center) growing up among weeds

The combined availability of these two products—the spray and the seed—has radically changed the way farmers tend and treat their fields.  Farmers used to till their fields to reduce weeds, a practice they now see as unnecessary.  Instead, seeds are planted and the weeds are allowed to grow up along with them, until the herbicide is applied.  The weeds then typically wither and die.  Monsanto claims that no-till farming saves energy and benefits the earth by lessening soil erosion.  It certainly saves farmers lots of time.

A Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

A field can be planted without being tilled.

Since Monsanto’s last US patent related to its herbicide expired in 2000, Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, has been marketed in many competing formulations under a variety of brand names.  Mainstream agriculture has embraced glyphosate as a miracle product, one that is broadly effective and less toxic than other herbicides.

Dandelion towering over Roundup Ready seedlings.

By 2007, glyphosate was the most widely used herbicide in the US agricultural sector, where 180-185 million pounds of it were applied.  Yet indications are abundant that this “dream product” is more of a nightmare.

Thistle growing in a Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Application of the herbicide has been increasing sharply in recent years, because, as Reuters and other news agencies have reported, its application has spurred the emergence of superweeds.  Whereas farmers could once apply Roundup in quantities below what was directed, they now apply more to less effect.  And the quest is on for ‘stronger medicine’ (like Dow Chemical’s ‘Enlist’) to do battle with the new unconquerables.  Which is great for the chemical manufacturers, but bad news for farmers and the earth.  Meanwhile, claims that the  health risks of glyphosate are greater than agribusiness will admit just won’t go away.

Budding weed growing in a Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

My own revulsion at the use of Roundup is more visceral than scientific.  The sort of lazy monoculture that the “Roundup Ready” system encourages further divorces farming from the realities of our place in nature.  The militant drive to extract ever more from the land on our terms is at odds with the fact that there is a limit, and that nature is far more powerful than we.

Ironically, the same plants that McHenry County farmers are intent on eradicating are viewed by local environmentalists as valuable elements in a fast-vanishing ecosystem of the northern Illinois prairie.  The farmers’ indiscriminate campaign to eradicate these plants is having a devastating effect on insects, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

While a portion of the American citizenry is intent on encouraging and demanding a more harmonious and sustainable style of agriculture, mainstream agriculture, moving in the other direction, is intent on defiance.  When will American farmers rediscover the respect for the land that historically has lain at the heart of the farmer’s calling?

Yellow flower growing in a Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

12 responses

  1. Susan,
    very interesting and provocative article. makes me think even harder about the benefits of buying and eating organic!

    • This is an issue that I’ve gradually moved to the left on. I’m sure you’ve read, Bob, that farm issues are the most untouchable of any in American politics. . . but practices need to change.
      Good to hear from you!

  2. Thank you for helping get the word out about this. It is very important that people understand the journey of food from the field to their tables. It’s also important to let people know they have a choice. There are those of us who choose to provide food to our community while practicing responsible and sustainable methods.

    Thank you again for this article!


    • I’m sure there is much more we could all be doing to influence the agricultural sector. At least I managed to do this one small thing.
      Thank you for writing in, and best wishes!

    • Yep. Monsanto uses the same playbook as the anti-global warming and Philip Morris crowd. Same people too, like Dennis T. Avery:

      Editor’s note: this comment was edited to remove a lengthy verbatim quote from Wikipedia. Interested readers can access Avery’s bio using the link above.

  3. very insightful post. Great writing and some great field reporting! Keep up the good fight. I’m right here with you. I just started 3 garden beds this year to help grow some of my own food.

  4. Oy, Vey! It looks like the man in the photo is disgusted with what he is seeing, and rightly so. Roundup is not a “lawn chemical” but a very dangerous herbicide as you point out. I’m glad that you informed your readers of the “pest” qualities of this poison.

    • Sam, you’re right. The entire situation is a headache–even for farmers. They aren’t sentimental about weeds, and they thought this product would ‘make their lives easier.’ Instead, it’s made their enemy stronger.

      As you know, weeds are ancient and indomitable. Perhaps we should be studying if they have food properties or other value to us . . .

      Good to hear from you!

  5. Important topic. Thank you for pointing out that “weeds” are part of the historic ecosystem, which also include insects, birds and other forms of wildlife. Surely extensive use of herbicides have far-reaching effects beyond sparing farmers the effort to till the land. We collectively need to wake up before there are no roses to smell.

  6. Pingback: Tell Monsanto to come clean about Roundup | March Against Monsanto ~ Denver

  7. Is anyone going to talk about Monsanto’s role in the increase in chem trails that are blanketing the earth in the name of protecting us from global warming? Those white lines in the sky are not contrails. They are chemtrails. The lines are ever-present in Los Angeles. I recorded them in Europe last year when I passed through Amsterdam on my way to a UN meeting in Sweden. The trails were taking the shape of a star over this land of tulips and agriculture. And now, from what I understand, there has been a drastic increase in aluminum and barium found in the soil of farmland across our nation. Are they purposely poisoning the planet? Is this a global culling of the people? Aluminum has been linked to the increase in Alzheimer’s. Have we opened our skies to companies like Monsanto and a few others to have free reign to crop-dust us while they pretend to be shielding us from the sun in the name of global warming? Was anyone paying attention when they railroaded this bill through Congress in 2005? It seems as if this human experiment is another inconvenient truth.

    Editor’s note: this comment from a Facebook user has been edited (but not fact-checked).