When Herbicides Fail


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.


I do like cereal products also known as grains processed into flour or meal for cooking, but I’ve found it much easier to control blood sugar levels and lose weight when I either restrict their consumption or eliminate them altogether as the paleo diet enthusiasts advocate. Despite vegetarians claims abut saving th eplanet by eatnig lower on the food chain as in eating mainly whole grains, I’ve yet to see grain cultural practices that approach true sustainability other than what the late Masonobu Fukuoka and his disciples advocate via books such as :”THe One Straw Revolution”. However, it seems that Mr. Fukuoka’s practices haven’t really caught on in major grain producing regions except for the modified version known as “pasture cropping” methods which emulate what Colin Seis in Australia has done by planting cool season grains such as oats into pastures dominated by warm season grasses. Yes, I know Wes Jackson has been leading the charge for perennial grain crops, which are sustainably grown, but with all due respect to Mr Jackson and associates, I don’t see perennial grain products on the store shelves yet.

Perhaps humanity as a whole should devote a huge amount of effort into retraining our thought patterns into producing food other than grains as a major calorie source. Something suitable would do the following: contribute to soil fertility building, control erosion yet does not promote leaching or runoff of nutrients. Perennial growth patterns, palatability as well as yield and minimal tillage requirements should also be considerations. I suspect that answers for what crops could fill this niche would be different for different areas. For example local aboriginal peoples in my area,(South Central Washington State) were known to have harvested the seeds from a perennial grass that grew in sandy areas. The common name for this plant is , not surprisingly, “Indian Rice Grass” . After viewing the seeds from Indian Rice Grass I can imagine that a considerable amount of effort went into obtaining a sufficient quantity of seeds to make a substantial meal. I don’t know if Wes Jackson and crew have looked into this plant for their perennial grain project, but it may bear looking into.

When I read a book a couple of years back about the history of Oak trees I learned that some folks with good brains think that in the temperate northern hemisphere climates acorns were a dietary foundation before grains came to dominate human culture. This was certainly true for aboriginal people in parts of California until they were mostly obliterated. I remember a guided tour of cultural sites including a replica of a village complete with acorn grinding facilities and storage facilities. I found it a bit disturbing that the tour guide who claimed to be descended from such aboriginal peoples extolled the virtues of pizza instead of acorns. I would certainly be informative if health indices on these ancient peoples were possible. I know they were susceptible o introduced disease to which they had little immunity, but I wonder if a diet that included acorns as the food foundation supplemented by salmon, venison and greens such as clover as well as wild berries would be conducive to good blood sugar management and weight control.

In other areas where chestnuts predominated in forests in the distant past history records that some folks living there performed minimal amounts of tillage agriculture because chestnuts filled the niche that grain produced via tillage performed in “civilized” societies. Interestingly the grain growing soil-tilling folks went on record as thinking of the chestnut eaters as uncivilized and lazy. So perhaps our grain-centric societies are a product of social strata discrimination because, hypothetically speaking, who wants to be thought of as being uncivilized and lazy because of their food choices.

Perhaps another reason for grain centric cultures is that grains will grow where nut crops will not. I’ve seen lush wheat fields in our local Horse Heaven Hills where annual precipitation is around 7″ per year. Only a few sporadic trees grow in the draws where what little water is available accumulates as runoff so growing trees for nuts may be impractical. However, it seems thee are always exceptions. I have seen what appears to be wild almond trees or something similar growing in such areas where moisture accumulated, so it may be possible to grow drought and frost tolerant food producing trees in such areas. To date since farming started in the Horse Heaven Hills area the soil is frequently left fallow and only farmed in alternate years. This is true dry-land-farming. However, if the soil is tilled– the soil will blow, making smaller versions of the famous Dust Bowl. I fail to see how that is sustainable.

For reasons that escape me, the local farmers and ranchers in the Horse Heaven Hills here in South Central and Eastern Washington State and throughout much of Central and Eastern Washington still tend to till and plant wheat instead of letting the land return to drought tolerant perennials, which if carefully managed can provide decent pasture indefinitely. Perhaps if forage produced lamb and beef and goat were valued at their true worth this situation could change. Herbicide resistance would also become nearly a moot point because grazing animals would provide the bulk of the weed control.

Maybe, just maybe, an alternative crop or crops to dry-land wheat and the industrial corn and soybeans that surround Gene that could provide a caloric mainstay to humans, income for farmers and ranchers yet did not contribute to erosion, and nutrient runoff is/are feasible. It would seem at least a few scientists could emulate what Wes Jackson and associates are doing and try, try, try to find alternatives. Don’t the earth and our descendants deserve that much?

In the interim, I’m putting up sustainably home-grown delicious winter squash and apples for future consumption. The squash vines quickly covered the ground so erosion was minimal. It was fertilized with only a few wheelbarrow loads of strawy-manure from the barn as per Gene’s guidance. The apples were grown with a bluegrass understory (also as per Gene’s guidance) that was fertilized by grazing geese. If I eat enough sustainably grown squash and apples I don’t have room to eat grain. The Spaghetti squash does a delicious stand in for wheat derived spaghetti noodles, so no grain needed for me to enjoy spaghetti. I’m sill experimenting to see if squash can stand in for pancakes.

Thanks again Gene for your stimulating comments. I’m with you in that I’m becoming more enamored of Kentucky Bluegrass and Clover in part because of reading your writings, but also because they simply seem to be one of those beautiful gifts of God in nature that keep on giving. Now that is a sustainable crop combination we can use more of, no industrial corn needed..

Betty and Eric B your exchange here about how we can mesh our traditional country lifestyles with modern agriculture is excellent and very helpful to me because it is sort of the theme of a book I am trying to write. You both are right, in my estimation, and it has always presented me with a problem about how I can reject the culture of money and still retain enough of it to live my laid back oldish farm lifestyle. Thank you both. Gene

Hi Chris, That quince you mention is really interesting. I’ve never tried growing quinces because I thought I heard they were super susceptible to fireblight and pears are borderline enough for me. I know pears can be grafted onto quince for dwarf pear trees, so I wonder if I could graft quince onto the volunteer callery (Bradford type) pears I have scattered all over my place. I’d be interested in corresponding with you directly if you care to get in touch with me. I don’t want to publish my e-mail address, but if you want to you can contact me through localharvest.org. My farm name is Milk and Honey Farm in Yadkinville, NC. And, by the way, don’t assume that Asian persimmons are similar enough to native persimmons not to try both. Asian persimmons are really a great tree. If you’re zone 6 you might have hardiness issues with winters like last winter, but there’s also a fantastic Asian-native hybrid called Rosseyanka that you could get from a really good nursery near you, Hidden Spring Nursery (among other sources). They grow organically, by the way. You might be able to visit in person and see everything that’s doing well for them.

I noticed in the neighboring field this year’s soybean crop contained a lot of water hemp, I think. I hadn’t noticed this plant in recent years, nor have I seen it in my pasture or the neighboring pasture. I wonder how it got there, on the tractors or could it actually be in the soybean seed? He grew corn most recently .. maybe it was growing less successfully among the corn, then thrived among the shorter soybeans?

I’m planning on have a chat with this neighbor, since I have chestnuts and an orchard within 100 feet of his field. I’ll also plant some grapes at various distances from the field. Grapes are very sensitive to 2,4,D, so they will hopefully provide a measure of how well the farmer is avoiding drift.

as a side note, foresters are getting on the 24D kick as well in their never-ending war against “exotic invasive” species.

Brian, maybe they’re picking on the exact people that they want to pick on. nothing like a little fear-mongering legislation to throw a monkeywrench in the works of a movement before it catches too much steam.

Chris, if you have some growing wild near you, try spraying your apple trees with a foliar spray of nettle tea. i did a small experiment this year and there was a noticeable difference improvement on those i sprayed. even better, you can drink it and it will feed you too.

also agree with what Gary said about the soil fertility. if you read the science behind it, plants radiate a certain chemical frequency that bugs can “see” or not, depending on the nutrient (im)balance of the plant.

not dismissing the severity of your issue in any way, as I have all the same ones in spades. we are living in very interesting times. methinks it will cause us to readjust every single one of our paradigms surrounding agriculture & forestry.

Eric, thank you for the very constructive advice. I am in the upper Tennessee valley, so I have a wide variety of things I can raise. I am going to pull out the pears as they are just so disease-wracked. I have native persimmons, but one thing I have that produces well every other year or so is an odd type of japanese quince. I just shook down 5 pounds of quince fruit and am simmering a second batch even now. Makes the most superb ruby jelly you ever had, and all I do is fence the horses away from the tree and prune the dead branches. It isn’t so much I want supermarket size, but I would at least like to get SOMETHING off of this orchard. Oddly, the junebugs went for the hazelnuts first, and then moved to the apple trees. They never touched the peaches.

Eric B. You’re right, the real answers are not easy, but I’d rather do what I can individually, even if my mere existence makes me part of the problem. We may all eventually have to swim in a cesspool of our own making from not being satisfied with “enough” and always wanting more, but I can try. I don’t have a lot of the things you listed, but I do have good food from my garden, meat and eggs from chickens who can fend for themselves, goats that don’t eat grain, hives of bees that I work to keep alive, etc. Believe me, I know how hard it is to live this way, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That said, I do not believe most of the modern world will choose to live this way. I believe people will keep overproducing themselves and all they things they think they have to have until they can no longer do so and are forced to do otherwise. But I also believe more of us would be employed, fed, healthy, if we did live a little closer to the earth and did a little more of the hand labor to feed ourselves.

How can conventional farmers even continue to make a living? With all the things they have to buy to stay on this treadmill?

If we can afford to pay two and three times (or more) as much as the standard conventional counterparts, then we can buy certified organic grains and dry beans and oil and peanut butter (and everything else that depends on giant harvesting machines for tremendous labor savings/efficiency gains), but what about field crops for animal feed (and the pork and eggs and poultry that depend on them)? Real alternatives for the animal products are practically non-existent (and it’s already pretty questionable how much of a real alternative the mass-produced certified organic grains, etc. are.) There are non-GMO (but otherwise fully conventional) alternatives for animal feed for now only because the number of GMO crops is limited, but even those options (of limited difference as they are) are surely disappearing fast. We may not want their stinking GMO, pesticide-riddled “food” anymore, but are we really going to choose the alternative? Who’s going to hand-harvest enough corn to feed a hog (after feeding a gazillion deer first)?

I’ve wondered if some group like GreenPeace won’t sooner or later actively embrace that kind of weed terrorism in an effort to kill (or harass) Big Ag.

Betty, how are we going to relearn pre-WWII techniques while retaining a 21st century lifestyle with multiple automobiles per family (including the cost of airbags and air conditioning and power steering, etc.) and access to everything modern medicine can find ways to spend money on (including today’s doctors’ 2nd and 3rd and 4th homes) and internet access (not to mention rural electricity and indoor plumbing) and all the other modern expenditures that even the readers of this blog mostly assume they have to have now? Who’s going to give that up as long as there’s any hope of a concoction of fossil fuels and chemicals and pharmaceuticals and irradiated GMO pink slime as an alternative? And if we’re considering using mostly pre-WWII techniques at the margins of a very different mainstream economy, then that’s a further major burden toward even achieving even a pre-WWII quality of living, because we’ll have to go to the all the extra effort to engage in specialty marketing of our products and we’ll have to buy supplies and services from specialty suppliers. The real answers don’t seem anywhere near as easy as you seem to suggest.

Chris, you might want to try some different types of fruit. In my experience (in zone 7 NC) Japanese beetles seem to be a lot worse some years than others, so there might be years when they just aren’t so devastating, and there are plenty of fruits they don’t really bother. As far as pears, I might try supposedly fireblight resistant varieties like Orient, Moonglow, Warren, or Ayers, and I’d do everything I could to plant them in a place where wind and full early morning sun would keep them as dry (especially of daily dew) as possible. Cold hardiness might be more of an issue for you with figs than for me, but figs should be pretty pest and disease free, and although they don’t have the shelf life to sell in supermarkets, they’re as high a quality fruit as anything sold in supermarkets, and you can wrap them like the Pennsylvania nursery Trees Of Joy does if you need to. Other perennial fruits you might try for more likely success — although I think pernennial fruit is inherently less consistent/more prone to crop failure years than most annual crops — include rabbiteye blueberries, (regular) fuzzy kiwis, hardy (arguta) kiwis, Asian and native and AsianXnative persimmons, muscadine grapes (although you may need to consider cold hardiness with them), gooseberries, jujubes, mulberries, pawpaws… not to mention garden and bramble fruit. New exotic pests and diseases have made some things harder, but I think a substantial part of the challenge with fruit is that we try to imitate supermarket style agriculture too much simply because that’s what we’re used to.

My understanding is, there are a couple of lawsuits filed against the EPA over their approval of Dow AgroScience’s new 2,4-D and glyphosate mix. (Enlist Duo.) Hopefully this will throw a spanner in the works and keep the latest, greatest pesticide disaster from being inflicted on the earth. In the meantime, we can all just hold our breathes, literally and figuratively.

Gene, I hope to hear your take on Ohio’s new legislative measure that will ban spreading manure on top of frozen or saturated fields, claiming it will prevent the phosphorus run-off that is messing up Lake Erie. Seems to me they’re picking on the wrong people since most Big Ag farms in our neck of the woods don’t even bother with manure since the only animals they have are the family dog. They go chemical all the way. Same for all those suburban lawns, parks, etc. Which, go figure, didn’t even come up in the lawmakers’ measure.

This is better living through Chemisry? Really? Nature bats last, period. The game is “rigged” in her favor- we don’t have a chance of outsmarting, outevolving, or outmuscling her in the long run. These super weeds are only doing what they are designed to do- cover and protect the soil and begin to accumulate organic matter and minerals in the upper layers. The arrogance of mankind, the “original sin” to think that we can do better than the living systems that have made this planet a paradise of life for hundreds of millions of years! Isn’t it amazing how quickly the monoculture, chemically induced agricoma is coming unhinged by a system so much more diverse and genetically adapted to life than we are to rational thinking? God forgive us for our madness and bless us with wisdom, and God bless this incredible Earth we’ve been given. It works surprisingly well when we simply work with it. Amazing!

tim, The deer ate all the corn (about one third acre) this year except nine ears. I’ve seen this coming. We are being overrun with wildlife. I could have put an electric fence around it, I suppose, but I just don’t have enough git up and go anymore to electrify that big an area. Gene

Gary, thanks for the suggestion. However, that ground has never been farmed at all. My vegetable garden 20 feet away does superbly with little more than aged horse manure and liming.

Two things I’d suggest for your fruit trees 1)Muscovy Ducks they eat any and all things that fly or crawl in the insect world even better than Guineas 2) A soil test from Kinsey Ag Services,I’d about guarantee your soil is low in organic matter,has a lack of minerals and is out of balance all of which will
produce unhealthy plants that pests will attack.Soil improvement to grow things organically is a long term project but once the soil gets healthy and in balance its pretty easy to keep it there.Sort of like it doesn’t cost any more to keep a full gas tank than a near empty one once its full.

I liked the book Return to Resistance by Raoul A Robinson. It shows a future for farmers.

Or we will have to relearn pre-World War II techniques when these chemicals weren’t used and nature was in balance? After all, agriculture was not invented in the past 60 years.

There has been an interesting long term study that states weeds are influenced more by fertiliser use in the long term than by herbicides.


Basically they found that the fertiliser reduces the number of species of plants in a given area. It is a shame there aren’t more long term studies to find out what works in reality.

I found it very interesting to hear how people have been coping with weeds in corn over the years. Thanks for sharing your methods everyone.

I am witness here in East Tennessee to Roundup resistant weeds in corn and beans. Morning Glory and Scotch Thistle in particular are untouched. However, I don’t see much future in multiple passes over a field with a cultivator, no matter how sophisticated. I remember “check corn” fields planted with knotted wire cables (which could be done again using GPS instead) but your corn population would have to be radically reduced. I agree that chemical treatment will eventually have to be so toxic that the fields will be posted. Who will eat that? We see the effect of a chemical-saturated crop when we try to raise a home orchard. There are so many resistant molds, pests, blights and rusts that attack the home orchard that it seems one has to spray constantly to get any kind of crop at all. Please don’t tell me about the wonders of organic treatment-they are as ineffective as the chemicals. My apple trees were stripped bare of leaves last summer from a plague of Junebugs. Birds won’t eat them. Cedar leaf rust ruined what apples were left. I cannot cut down every Cedar tree within a mile. Fire blight on the pears has made any crop or even a bowl of fruit impossible. Roses? Fuggedaboudit, unless you plant a Knockout rose. Those were the only roses I had all summer and I didn’t have to spray them at all. I have given up on the others as I am sick and tired of a spraying/powdering schedule that NASA would question. Either Genetic research is going to produce fruit, flowers and grains that we can plant and hope to harvest, or we are going to have a much more barren diet.

Amen. Thanks for your words of wisdom, Gene. Be well.

Gary, I really like your solution. If there is anyone who still questions whether nature can cope with chemical control just read a few articles about MRSA, multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or multi-drug resistant venereal diseases, or EBOLA. Thanks Gene for making me pay more attention to what industrial/agricultural complex is up to these days.

I’ve yet to find a weed that’s immune to steel,whether its a hoe,cultivator shovel or tiller tine.
Timing and good cultivation techniques can easily control weeds if the land is in balance.I’ve planted corn the last couple years using 60″ spacing in my rows but am able to plant Pole Green beans and Pole Limas with the corn and they grow good together. To cultivate and hill I have a Hines H-1600 which is basically an updated Allis Chalmers G with hydraulic lift and hydro drive.Great high clearance cultivating tractor,Then after the corn gets tall I use an Allis Chalmers 712 garden tractor with a tiller to go between the rows to till out any and all weeds and only have to run it about 2″ deep so not to disturb the corn roots.In early Sept when the corn had made but still green I tilled between the rows and then broadcast Crimson Clover now have a nice stand in my corn.There are multiple ways to skin a cat and grow corn.Chemicals in farming days are numbered in my opinion.

“If we can’t control weeds with chemicals, Big Ag will die.” If this is true (and I believe it is), then I say bring on resistant weeds! On a serious note Gene, your ability to see that the sky probably isn’t falling and things are not that bad and will work out somehow is incredibly refreshing. Thank you!

My dad did custom spraying for local farmers in the 1950s and 60s. The two most popular herbicides back then were 2,4,D and MCP and they were smelly, sickening stuff. As kids, we had to fill the 100 gallon tank with the mix and it brought on a lot of sick stomachs and headaches. Dad lived to 86 though he had his share of health problems, but back then no one paid attention to possible health consequences.
I wonder if the old practice of running the cultivator through the corn fields might make a comeback. Dad always tried to go over the fields twice before the corn got too high and got damaged hitting the axles on the Farmall H. I spent many long days cultivating, but it wasn’t a bad job as long as you kept your mind on it. Rip up part of a few rows by letting your mind wander was sure to incurr the wrath of the leather belt. Today’s behemoth tractors would ruin the soil I suppose.

I’m with you, Paula. No one believes the chemical companies anymore and we don’t want to eat their stinking GMO, pesticide-riddled, bee-killing poisons they call “food.” They know it’s poison or they’d proudly label it instead of hiding.

Funny you should mention this. Dow has come out with a product called ‘Enlist Duo’ which is a mixture of glysophosate and 2,4D…..which the EPA has approved. I’m quoting from a transcript of a PBS Newshour article called ‘Field of weeds: Could agriculture crisis crop up from herbicide resistance?’ …”…in approving the product, the EPA published this document saying its scientists determined: “when used according to label directions, Enlist Duo is safe for everyone, including infants, the developing fetus, the elderly and more highly exposed groups such as agricultural workers.”

Which I, for one, just plain do not believe.

Watched you in the documentary GMO OMG. Should be required in every school in the world. Maybe the kids can keep the barbarians from the gate.

Actually i was thinking of the grain from these being used to heat houses assuming it will burn. THen again it might be more like the “clinkers” from the old coal furnaces we’ve heard about.Who knows if they prove tough enough , they could replace gravel for paving roads .I remember feeding lambsquarters and pigweed to a favorite pig when younger.I now have read where too many acorns have poisoned sheep and cattle. BUt then I understand that its ok for hogs since they have been fattened out in europe for many years on acorns.I’m afraid with the super tough weeds we’re going to find dead deer in the fields where they got their antlers tangled up in super tough weeds and corn and died of starvation from nothing edible within reach!lol Gene how did your open pollinated corn do this year? Are you still growing and improving it?

I am truly worried about the potential mass use of 2-4D compounds. The only thing that will stop it is multiple lawsuits by adjacent land owners when they are the recipients of non-target drift. Some 30 years ago I witnessed 2-4D carry almost a mile and defoliate a commercial orchard. I know what I am talking about because I worked for the company that sprayed the field. It was the most costly “cheap” herbicide application I ever experienced. Unfortunately with the price of corn down I am sure the price of 2-4D looks pretty good.

Maybe when farmers get dropped from their insurance carriers they will quit this foolishness.

Thankfully I am starting to see more cover crops and the willingness to look at alternative practices even by some of the large farmers in our area.

If land prices start coming down we may see an increase in small producers. One can only hope and pray.

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