If you follow the agribusiness news, you know that the good old days are over when all you had to do was spray Roundup on your Roundup resistant crops to control weeds. Weeds are becoming immune to Roundup. Chemical companies are rising mightily to the challenge, coming up with new herbicides or new combinations of old ones, while stacking more herbicide resistant genes into their crop varieties. Weed control is becoming so complicated that even a seasoned farmer needs to get help to keep track of which new weedkillers plus which new varieties he needs to use and how to diversify them in alternate years so the weeds don’t become immune to them. That’s the new word in weed control: diversify, diversify, diversify. If we can’t control weeds with chemicals, Big Ag will die.
I haven’t read yet of anyone in the industry wondering out loud whether this strategy will really work. It might slow down the process by which weeds learn to enjoy a sip or two of a herbicide with its meals, but isn’t it quite possible that if they are clever enough to immunize themselves to Roundup, they will also figure out a way to handle a cocktail of herbicides too, even if they only get exposed to each of them every other year or so? Or if science finally conjures up a corn plant that can stand increasingly stronger and varied herbicides, then isn’t it reasonable to wonder if in time no animal or insect will eat it, or if it does, something dreadful will happen to its digestive tract? And all the while, the weeds will keep building up resistance until maybe only something like unadulterated sulfuric acid will lay them low. I imagine those new horsetail weeds, as they are called in our neighborhood (have you seen how these awesome creatures grow when fertilized with Roundup?) getting so formidable that they will reach out from field’s edge, ensnare innocent by-passers and use them for compost.
Already, new genetically modified corn stalks are so tough that they wear out machinery and rubber tires faster than used to be the case. Tire companies are rushing to the scene with new, tougher treads. Cha-king, cha-king, cha-king, oh how the cash registers ring. At the moment, the herbicide of choice is an old one, 2-4-D, which is so malignant that hardly any plant has (yet) become immune to it. When glyphosate came along to take the place of 2-4-D type weedkillers, everyone was relieved because the latter were considered too dangerous for continued farm use although fine for killing off jungle cover in Vietnam.
My sick and sickened mind can conjure up all sorts of scenarios about the future of industrial corn. Eventually it will be grown only for non-food purposes since no insect or animal will be able to eat it. Livestock by that time will all be raised on pasture, so the lack of corn will be no problem for food farming. As long as science can keep ahead of weeds, industrial corn will continue to be grown because after the grain is turned into gas, the stalks will be harvested, pelletized, and used for home heating or plywood-like panels for construction purposes. Eventually, however, the weeds will keep on rising to the occasion. Won’t matter to real food farming because food farms will be numerous and small and garden farmers will be able to keep weeds controlled with motor-powered cultivators or hoes. If the weeds become too tough for hoes, then flamethrowers to the rescue. Not even pigweeds and horsetails can survive fire. But out in the vast moonscapes of industrial corn, the weeds will finally win and then science will realize that pigweeds make ethanol and methanol cheaper than corn does.
What is most interesting to me when farming is hit with a new crisis is the remarks that various spokespeople say when they are scared, as sort of asides to the problem. For example, Stephen Powles, director of the Australian Herbicide Resistance Initiative (quoted by Pam Smith in her blog on the DTN Progressive Farmer web site, October 31, 2014) stresses the gravity of the situation because weed resistance affects the biggest farms in the foremost nations. “These are the nations that feed the world. We will not feed the world with watermelons. We will feed it with grains that are stored and transported all over the world.”
So take that, you small garden farmers. Big grain monopolies will save the world, not you and your stupid watermelons.
I wonder if Big Ag will go like the Imperial Guards of Rome, the last to know when the barbarians came crashing through the royal gates. Every year more and more small-scale garden farmers— the “barbarians” of the new local food movement— grow more and more food to feed the world, while the monopolists say only Big Ag can do it. Such blind denial just blows my mind.