Gene Logsdon and Friends

“The Need For New Herbicides Has Never Been So Critical”

In Gene's Weekly Posts on October 23, 2013 at 1:09 pm

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From GENE LOGSDON

Those words come not from anti-Monsanto sources looking for excuses to discredit chemical weed killers, but from Big Farming itself. More and more weeds are becoming immune to glyphosate (Roundup) and the chemical companies are moving forward as fast as they can to find new genes they can stack in corn and soybeans to make them immune to other weed killers, especially 2, 4-D to which weeds have not built up much resistance in over 60 years.

At the risk of underestimating readers, I really doubt that the public at large understands how absolutely essential herbicides are to large acreage agriculture. Very large farms just could not exist without them. At least at present, there is no mechanical way to control weeds on that scale. It was hard enough controlling them with cultivation when farms were small. Even then weed cultivation was only effective if hay and pasture crops were rotated with the grains. To control weeds with machines on large farms would mean leaving a third or so of the land out of grain production every year. It would mean hiring people with hoes to walk the corn and bean rows like I did as a boy to get rid of the weeds that neither cultivation nor crop rotation kept at bay.

Are you thinking the same thing I’m thinking? “Going back” to cultivation, legume rotations, and millions more smaller farms with family members and hired help to control weeds sounds like a good idea to me. Walking bean rows with a hoe is not brutalizing unless done in excess. (It is almost fun if there is a chance of finding Indian arrowheads as you walk along.) Is there any way to dispute the conclusion that the benefits to the labor force, the environment and democracy would be enormous? If the change came gradually, as it would certainly come, even the wealthy landowners would not suffer as they sold off chunks of their estates at prices higher than they paid for them.

The plan right now, as far as I can read, is to return to dependency on 2, 4-D for weed control, along with glyphosate, and adding genes to the farm crops that make them resistant to both. Some genes have been discovered that might work to immunize crop plants to 2, 4-D, and now the chemical companies have to come up with favorable environmental impact studies for them. This will not be easy. When glyphosate first come on the market, it was sold as being more environmentally friendly than 2, 4-D. If the latter again becomes the major herbicide used… doesn’t sound promising to me.

The contrasts that constantly pop up in any controversy or debate are fascinating. While this effort is underway to save a kind of economy that might be doing more harm than good, over in this other corner there is great consternation over the monarch butterfly, surely as beloved by our civilization as the bluebird. Its numbers are declining precipitously. Among many other threats to its existence, monarchs depend solely on milkweed for survival. Its larvae feed only on milkweed juice. There is — I am quoting Verlyn Klinkenborg in the N.Y.Times now (I love his book, Making Hay)— a direct parallel between the demise of milkweeds killed by glyphosate which is sprayed by the millions of gallons on genetically modified crops, and the steady drop in monarch numbers.

So what are we to do? Supporters of the butterflies say we should grow milkweed in our gardens for the monarchs. There are various kinds of milkweed, almost all of them beautiful. They also harbor other beautiful bugs. But will milkweed in the garden sustain those awesome congregations of millions of monarchs that migrate to Mexico in winter? Or should they be sacrificed for the greater good of a few thousand landed oligarchs owning a Cornbelt barren of everything except modified gene-stacked corn to feed to automobiles.
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  1. Exactly! Small scale organic farming adjacent to, and integrated with, urban centers…growing high nutrient density foods, not canola oil and corn syrup…..this could be an incredibly productive and sustainable production system per acre, so much so that we could feed the population and return much of the broadscale cultivated acreage to managed grazing land or wild lands. And we would have much greater food security. Russia’s cottage farming industry a not too bad example.
    Big agriculture has to die before our planet does.

  2. And the amount of carbon that could be sequestered by the increased organic content over the millions of acres under Big Ag would go along way to mitigating climate change.

  3. 2,4-D GMOs will likely be as short term as Roundup Ready or LibertyLink, weeds will grow resistant and change from “superweed” to “hyperweed”. Or rather, this will take longer since they are intended to be used in rotation, I still think mechanical weeding is the ultimate solution, but not with standard compacting machinery, only when robotic hoes will be able to walk the rows by themselves and smart enough to weed between the rows between the plants. Small and light enough that they don’t compact the soil either. It’s the only sustainable way for large scale agriculture, and it’s really not a valuable job you would want
    humans to perform.

    If robotic mechanical weeding works, it will mean more farms can more easily convert to organics (weeding is one of the main costs in organics), that’s probably where you can see the creation of more interesting jobs for the labor force, not the slavery of weeding.

    • chimel31 your right in that some people may find designing the robots to do the weeding may be more interesting but I think that is the way in to deeper problems.

      I disagree however that weeding is slavery I have had some pretty amazing philosophical conversations while hoeing beans, not to mention some pretty amazing quiet introspective hours weeding and thinning a few hundred feet of carrots. Perhaps what we need is a reassessment of right livelihood and what constitute fulfilling work.

    • So, people with “interesting” jobs need 24-hour gyms to get exercise and Vitamin D supplementa because they get no sunlight…

  4. There are no weeds resistant to steel. The power of marketing has done a pretty good job of selling us solutions in bottles when much less expensive and more profitable solutions are available.

  5. Guess it depends on your end goal as to whether we need new herbicides — I vote no. As disruptive as it will be (and let’s face it, folks, we’re talking MAJOR disruptive), sometimes I think it might be better in the long run for big ag to go the way of the dinosaur. I also suspect it may not be a decision anybody gets to make. The high risk of a serious financial system crash and the looming problems of peak oil could quickly wipe out more than just the agricultural system in one heck of a hurry. Americans survived the Great Depression because we were mostly rural and could still feed ourselves, but the odds are not so good today. Although if Victory Gardens during WWII could equal the production of conventional agriculture of the time, we might get by OK. Keep teaching your kids and neighbors how to garden and raise livestock — and cross your fingers!

  6. I just don’t see the “small” thing happening. We live in a society where most people resent and almost fear physical labor. Gene stated “millions of small farms” in this post. I don’t think we could get that many people who would be willing to leave the city to hoe weeds in the hot sun.

    • Peter, I don’t think think it will be nearly as hard to get those millions back to the farm. I left a stable career in industrial power generation and interned on a diversified CSA family farm for a year with my family while in my 30’s. While we were there we saw dozens of other interns and visitors on that farm and others looking for opportunities to get into farming. The same year that farm and others partnered to create a cooperative regional farmers training program patterned after C.R.A.F.T.(http://www.craftfarmapprentice.com/) Programs like these are starting all over the country.

    • Depends on how hungry they are, I suppose. At least, I hope people will opt for hand-hoeing weeds over starvation. And as Jack mentioned, there are plenty of people who are more than willing to get out and do real work with their hands. Of course for many their comfortable disconnected lives are pretty well artificially held up for the time being, but I suspect we’re not too far away from that changing. Necessity is the mother of invention, and probably the mother of producing one’s own food as well.

      (By the way Jack, if you’re the Jack I think you are, I’m the Wes you probably think I am. If not, well, nevermind.)

      • “At least, I hope people will opt for hand-hoeing weeds over starvation.”

        I’m afraid a significant number will band together to take from those who have been willing to do the work. When a hungry group shows up at your place they aren’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer.

  7. I’m of the opinion that Big Ag is on is on the same Death Spiro as the US Dollar,both are
    outdated bloated oddities that have lived past their useful life because of their excesses.They’re actually tied together and each depends on the other.Gold and small farms will rule the future.Its not healthy for a society when only a tiny fraction of the population is involved in something as important as food production.

  8. The ‘small thing’ will happen whether people want it to or not, in a future of energy descent, non-viable global supply lines, climate change, etc etc…And no, robotic weeding isn’t going to save us in that kind of world. Small means you can align yourself with complex natural systems instead of using tremendous energy to impose order on and simplify the environment. Diverse polyculture food assemblages with an emphasis on trees and perennials provide abundant yields with minimal labor inputs, minimal weeding, natural pest control feedbacks…..Way better than busting yourself working for walmart so you can by factory food that will make you sick.

  9. I really love almost all (well maybe all) of your analyses…you’re a lot smarter than you look, but maybe that’s a good thing, your disguise, so to speak, ha!
    Yekim

  10. Great prose. What about Banvel? I am still wanting for Banvel Ready beans….Then again there is a reason I haven’t sold the cultivator. It will come back in style.

  11. Given the fact that, worldwide, *MOST* of the world’s food is grown by small holders who farm an area of an acre or less, I think it would be better for all of us, let alone the Monarchs, if we went back to walking the rows with a hoe. Just think – there could be full employment if we did this!

    Of course, we would have to convince people to use less and to want less. And exercise more. It’s going to take a miracle, or an apocalypse, to get us to that point.

  12. Don’t despair Gene. Remember that the sort of hitech industrial culture that produces (oil-based) pesticides, GMOs, and farms the size of Taiwan is on the skids anyway: already beginning on The Long Descent away from industrial ‘civilisation’, of which John Michael Greer writes so persuasively. And meanwhile, the art of permaculture – the grandchild, via Bill Mollison, Emilia Hazelip, David Holmgren, Geoff Lawton, and all the other pioneer/popularisers – of Masanobu Fukuoka’s legendary, and highly-productive, ‘do-nothing’ farming methods – spreads and grows in subtlety: human agricultural methods as if the gatherer-hunter lifestyle never went away…

    We don’t actually have a lot of choice about dropping the ultimate insanity of modern industagri, since the industrial part is going away anyway, whether we agree or not, and whatever we do. So don’t despair; prepare. The younger generation are getting it already: imagine people getting into their teens and twenties – and not wanting cars! More and more of those savvy youngsters around now, and more and more of them pioneering the permaculture lifestyles as well. Cheers, Gene!

  13. PS: Thanks to the half century of bullying by the corporate and political gangsters who run the US empire (and who oppress ordinary US citizens too, amongst their many victims), Cuba has been forced to show the way. They’re already doing the successor permaculture/small-farm agriculture there, which is now destined to supersede Taiwan-sized poisoned-prairie-style farming in the US too. Eat your – dying – heart out, Monsanto! Use some of your own products to do it, in fact.

  14. PPS: The trailblazers are busy in Britain too:

    http://www.agroforestry.co.uk/

  15. Hello all. I was hoping someone could help me with a small problem. This past spring I bought an Earthway 1001B seeder but I could never get it to work right. The seed cup would reach the hole but rather than fall through the seed would land back in the hopper. Sometimes the seeds would just pop out of the cups for no apparent reason. It was maddening. Is there any way to fix this? Any help would be appreciated. Thank-you.

    Irish

    • Irish make sure the seed plate is installed correctly and tight,then when planting tilt the whole planter slightly toward the side the seed plate is on that usually keeps the seeds from falling out and helps pick up the last bit of seed in the hopper.

  16. My understanding is that about 1/2 of the corn crop goes for ethanol production. That needs to stop first. Then pasture the fallow ground and cut out more corn acreage for diversified local crops. Land prices, and Ag inputs would stabilize. Maybe then a few more small guys would be able to make a go of it. Most people forget most of the corn and beans are either exported or go for fuel. Not that much goes for milk, meat, egg, or direct food (corn syrup) production.

    As far as the pesticide thing does a little is ok a lot is not. Spraying every acre with any product will cause problems. Diversity of crops is what is needed.

  17. There was a golden age of agriculture in America, probably the world, and it was when the country was made up of smaller farms owned by the farmers who lived from what they grew. They had a basic education and they wanted more. So they sent their kids to school and those earnest and sincere kids learned a lot of BS in the university system and the kids never came back again.
    I predict a parallel universe. More small farms run by people with short pants and woolen underwear and huge farms run by clever fellows, also in short pants, with JD green underoos who are heavily influenced by Nike Slogans and think the essence of American capitalism is to screw your neighbor out of his last ten acres. These fine fellows are steering the course of American Ag today and are not going to let go of the wheel. So there will be money for robot weeders, greenseeker technology on the sprayer, more money to develop herbicide, and there is always the barely legal immigrant with a hoe. (should they decide to do a little slumming on the Organic side)
    Bigger than 100 acres and smaller than 1,500 acre farmers like myself will get more and more bitter and sarcastic until there will be a wave of spontaneous human combustion across the country. Late night conspiracy radio will put it down to drone strikes and Al Gore will say global warming but you folks will know the truth…

  18. I am a small-scale farmer whose life is lived almost entirely with people who know nothing of farms except as they see logos of barns on cereal boxes. To expect these folks to rise up and farm is to expect a ham to rise up and walk.

    These people could farm, no doubt. But only if they were starving.

    Monsanto could be forced out, no doubt. But only as the fall out of the Second Coming.

  19. I see robotic weeders becoming ubiquitous. Hard steel against weeds, indeed. Otherwise, we are just trapped in a weed/chemical arms race that ends when the weeds win or we have poisoned every square foot of the midwest fields and streams. Drones will patrol fields and report on plant conditions. Mechanical agriculture is becoming more and more able to harvest fragile crops.
    Dreams of millions of small farms and an organic future, while attractive, are not going to come true. Farming is HARD, a fact that anyone raised on a farm knows. You will not get people back in the fields with a hoe in any large numbers. Witness Georgia’s little experiment last year with banning illegal labor-no one was willing to take their place in the field. The public is not willing to live just on locally grown vegetables and grains-once you have avocados, grapes, papaya, etc. flown or shipped in, you are very very reluctant to go back to potatoes, beans and corn. Besides, where would all the Foodies be if they could not have exotic ingredients in their cooking?

  20. You hit the nail on the head Chris.

  21. Herbicide resistance is mostly our own fault. Over use of glyphosate or other herbicides year after year causes it. Crop and herbicide rotation will prevent it but we get greedy when the price of canola is high and some try to shorten the rotation. 2-4D is a good option to control roundup ready “weeds” and is regularly used here.
    Summerfallow and tillage is also a good method of weed control but with $5 per gallon diesel fuel and $17 cultivator shovels it is an expensive alternative to one pass of glyphosate and 2-4D that kills all the weeds efficiently and quickly.

  22. Not to be too much of a tech-head, but I am excited by the idea of solar powered robot weeders that roam fields bounded by GPS signals. I cannot see any possible objection by an Organic farmer to their use either. Identification of weeds vs. soybeans, corn is very close with visual and infra-red signatures. I think it is the only way to go when the weeds evolve ever-more herbicide resistant strains. My neighbor is a big farmer who crops Roundup-Ready corn and beans. He follows a tight spray schedule, yet by July/August, field bindweed, morning glory and scotch thistles are pushing through. I have watched over 8 years as the thistles in particular have grown back more vigorous after each spraying. Evolution before my eyes. Kinda entertaining, and depressing as well.
    I have fought weeds/saplings on farms and acreages all my life. Now that I am approaching 60, I find myself just happy if I can keep them back from the yard a bit. In the long run, Nature is a tough old bitch, and she WILL win.

  23. If Farm Subsidies would be only be for farmers whose profit was less than $100,000 we would not have any of these Mega Farms. I am all for helping the small farmer but corporate welfare needs to end. The very idea of posing our land with Agent Orange is a nightmare I hope never comes to pass.

  24. Agent Orange? I don’t think anybody is talking about using that here.

  25. Throughout recorded history up until the past few decades post WWII (and from archaeological records prior to that) agriculture has held a twofold role in human evolution; number one obviously, it has fed the populations over the millennia but the second role has largely forgotten; namely that it has always been the largest employer of workers. That disappearance of jobs has created all kinds of turmoil and developments within individual nation’s economic outlooks over the past 50 years or so; unfortunately it appears to me that most have simply created paper jobs (for want of a better word) that shuffle/co-ordinate/regulate rather than produce.

    Even if we cannot or should not go back to the large scale feudal type agricultural enterprises of the past then surely it makes more sense for individuals (either as individuals or as family units) to re-enter the industry rather than leave it to global behemoths who have only themselves to account for while the rest of the world waits at their doorstep for scraps. The BBC last week said that Tesco’s threw away over 30,000 tonnes of food over the last 6 months alone – most of it I suspect quite edible other than a slight ding in a tin or droop on a leaf. The world cannot sustain this sort of waste in either produce or in productivity.

    I am not sure when, or even if, the penny will drop soon but something needs to be done. That is why I love this blog – you mostly seem to feel the same way……..and you all love the independence that providing for yourselves and your family gives you. Probably the ultimate way to thumb your noses to the powers that think they be!!

    Take care and be strong

  26. Reblogged this on Rural Mentality Blog and commented:
    Yet another compelling argument from Gene!

  27. ..”the chemical companies have to come up with favorable environmental impact studies for them.” Sad…but real… knowing that the company chemists need to approach their studies with outcomes predetermined as favorable. I think we’ll bumble on as we always have, one mode of conducting business booming and busting, to be replaced by a new mode. We live in a capitalist world. Money trumps everything unfortunately, for now. Big will go small, but still hold the reins, only when the easy way out becomes so fiscally and environmentally costly as to change the way of thinking. Oh well, nobody promised us a rose garden, did they.

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