Source: Editorial Desk, The New York Times, February 19, 2003
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 agene, which creates a toxin that kills an insect called the corn-borer. 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.