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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?