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The Escalating Chemical War on Weeds - Profit Drive Of Monsanto And Other Chemical Companies Backfires

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.