Super Weed Nightmare?
International biotechnology company Monsanto recently announced the development of new seeds resistant to not one, but two powerful herbicides. The expansive use of the first herbicide, glyphosate (or “Roundup”), has led to the evolution of “super weeds” that are impervious to it. These weeds have become an increasingly unmanageable plague for farmers. As a result, they are turning to outdated, deadlier chemicals like 2, 4-D - one of the principal ingredients of agent-orange - which was replaced by the newer, “safer” glyphosates. The new Monsanto seeds resistant to this WWII era herbicide tempt farmers to its uninhibited use--a dangerous trend, as wind more easily spreads the highly carcinogenic 2, 4-D which will in turn spur the evolution of increasingly resistant weeds.
But a ray of hope comes in the form of a recent BioScience article criticizing the excessive herbicide use invited by the new seeds, as well as offering a novel solution with the potential to end the burgeoning super weed crisis. The team of university researchers behind the article propose a system they call “Integrated Weed Management,” (IWM), a sustainable alternative to the vicious cycle of escalating pesticide use and the increased resistance it spurs in the so called “super-weeds.” IWM involves careful, sparing use of chemical herbicides only when absolutely necessary. The article says that instead of bringing out the big guns first, IWM utilizes proven methods including “crop rotation, cover crops, competitive crop cultivars, the judicious use of tillage, and targeted herbicide application, to reduce weed populations and selection pressures that drive the evolution of resistant weeds.” This system is tailored to production agriculture, and actually increases farmer profits by reducing seed and pesticide costs without cutting into productivity. Unfortunately, due to deep ties within the current system between the USDA and the rest of the large-scale agricultural economy with the biotechnology industry's profits, the adoption of environmentally sane methods such as IWM has significant inertia to overcome.
Image: "Spray Plane" by Teo on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons Licensing.