Roundup-resistant superweeds highlight the need for sustainable, organic agriculture

The New York Times recently ran an article entitled “Farmers Cope With Roundup-Resistant Weeds”. The author highlights the emergence of a new class of weeds in farm fields planted in at least 22 states, including California, and seems to suggest that “superweeds” are the result of the “near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup,” a product of Monsanto corporation.

But this is misleading, as any half-truth would be.

Michael Pollan, also a contributor to the Times and author of several books including Food Rules: An Eaters Manual, responded promptly to the piece by pointing out that not only was this phenomenon predictable, it has a rather straightforward solution: stop planting genetically modified monocultures.

“Monocultures are inherently precarious. The very success of Roundup Ready crops have been their undoing, since so many acres were planted with the same seed, and doused with the same chemical, resistance came quickly,” writes Pollan. He continued by stating that resilience and long-term sustainability come from diversifying fields, not planting them all to the same kind of seed.

Oh, if only such maxims of ecology as diversity-being-a-precondition-for-sustainability were understood by conventional farmers.

Here, Pollan isn’t arguing that the root of the superweed problem is an act of natural selection brought on by the overuse of a particular herbicide. The real culprit has been man’s meddling with plant and animal genomes. Pollan reminds us that several experts saw this scenerio coming, including Marion Nestle, professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, and the author of several works on food and politics.

Nestle recently contributed a piece to The Atlantic which puts this whole mess into its proper context:

     …In the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods. Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem. I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

Such minimal changes have already been facilitated by Monsanto scientists via genetically altering cultivated crops. These “frankensteined” cultivars have passed their unnatural glyphosate resistance (glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup) to feral plants around them.

In Nestle’s 2003 book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety, she explains that “from a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.” That is, if you insert into plants particular proteins from bacteria which are naturally resistent to the enzyme restricting effects of Monsanto’s premier product.

In Pollan’s terms, “Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm.” They herald their own demise.

In fact, a book was written by two members of the Union of Concerned Scientists way back in 1996 (based on their 1993 scientific study) in which, according to Nestle, “they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds. These would be difficult and expensive to control.”  However, these voices in the wilderness didn’t effect any regulatory action.

Monsanto has, until very recently, refused to confront the issue of anthropogenic superweeds, formerly dismissing the idea as “hypothetical”. Now they claim the problem is just overblown. Apparently, they are taking the matter seriously enough to subsidize the purchasing of alternative herbicides needed to to eradicate superweeds from the fields of certain cotton farmers.

Luckily, the corporate giant won’t have to shoulder the full blame as their patent on the glyphosate herbicide just ran out. This means competitors have been flooding the market with generic brands, driving down prices and further excacerbating the issue.

But, what is to be done?

I’ve offered my own views, but here are Nestle’s thoughts:

     The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world. It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

Amen to that.