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New York Times on Herbicide Resistance in Weeds and Pests

Roundup Unready

Op-Ed New York Times 2/19/03

One of the most pervasive chemicals in modern agriculture is a herbicide
called glyphosate, which is better known by its trade name, Roundup. When it
was first introduced in 1974, by Monsanto, no one could have predicted its
current ubiquity or the way it would change farming. Roundup was safe,
effective and relatively benign, environmentally speaking. It became one of
the essential tools that made no-till farming < a conservation practice in
which farmers spray weeds rather than plowing the ground < increasingly
popular. But what really made Roundup pervasive was the development of
genetically modified crops, especially soybeans, cotton and corn, that could
tolerate having Roundup sprayed directly on them. The weeds died but these
crops, designated Roundup Ready, thrived. Seventy-five percent of the
soybean crop planted in this country last year was Roundup Ready, as was 65
percent of the cotton and 10 percent of the corn. On soybeans alone last
year, farmers sprayed about 33 million pounds of glyphosate.

But nature, in turn, has been developing some Roundup Ready plants of her
own, weeds that can tolerate being sprayed with Roundup. Two weeds,
mare's-tail and water hemp, have already begun to show resistance, and
others will certainly follow. This is simply natural adaptation at work.

No one is saying that Roundup will lose its overall effectiveness any time
soon. But while Monsanto executives and scientists are doing their best to
protect the herbicide, nature is also throwing all her resources at
defeating it. In a very real sense, nature has been given an enormous
advantage by the sheer ubiquity of Roundup, just as some bacteria are given
an edge by the ubiquity of agricultural antibiotics. The logic of industrial
farming is to use your best tools until they're worthless, and to hasten
their worthlessness by using them as much as you can.

This is precisely why there has been so much opposition to marketing a
variety of corn that includes a BT gene, which creates a toxin that kills an
insect called the corn-borer. BT is a safe, natural and effective weapon for
gardeners and farmers, and to lessen its effectiveness by overusing it, like
Roundup, would be a terrible waste. Industrial agriculture is always
searching for a silver bullet, forgetting that eventually a silver bullet
misfires.

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