June 5, 2003
by Dennis T. Avery
“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.” Thus did the New York Times cast yet another curse against high-yield farming, in a February 19 editorial titled “Roundup Unready” that claimed we’re overusing the herbicide glyphosate.
The Times editorial admited that Roundup is safe, broadly effective, and relatively benign—quite a concession for a paper that deplores virtually all synthetic pesticides. However, it also said Roundup has become so widely used, on millions of acres of conservation tillage and also on millions of acres of genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops, that Roundup-resistant weeds are emerging.
“On soybeans alone last year, farmers sprayed about 33 million pounds of glyphosate,” wrote the Times. “Two weeds, mare’s-tail and water hemp, have already begun to show resistance, and others will certainly follow . . . nature is also throwing all her resources at defeating it.”
The Times editorial was part of a larger, ongoing campign against pesticides. On the issue of pesticide resistance, critics are right to be concerned, but they need to be thinking about the way ahead, not the way back. Weeds are humanity’s true competitors for food, and weeds are the premier problem for organic farmers, too. (Organic farmers mostly try to plow them down or dig them up, both of which invite soil erosion.)
Would it make sense to argue that we shouldn’t give antibiotics to little kids with pneumonia because that might hasten the development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics? Having a remedy and not using it is little better than not having a remedy at all. The answer is to research new antibiotics and herbicides, not to ration the ones we have. But that would call for more pro-pesticide, pro-pharmaceutical public policies.
Nor do the anti-pesticide forces seem to understand that resistant weeds can be managed (though often with somewhat higher costs). Roundup kills about 125 different weeds, which is why farmers love it. But if one weed isn’t killed, the farmer can tank-mix another herbicide to rifle-shot the problem species.
A Delaware soybean grower could tank-mix his Roundup with a Dow product called First Rate (cloransulam) to kill any mare’s-tail resistant to the Roundup. In Missouri, a farmer with resistant water hemp in his field could tank-mix his Roundup with another rifle-shot herbicide to kill the water-hemp.
Ideally, of course, we’d also be investing in research for another herbicide as “safe, broadly effective and relatively benign” as Roundup, but with a different mode of action. Unfortunately, high-profile campaigns against one of the safest, most broadly effective and relatively benign pest controls in history doesn’t exactly encourage corporations to pour the requisite $100 million into researching another new herbicide. Or help to get it past publicity-conscious government regulators.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency continues its decade-old vendetta against our other major “safe, broadly effective and relatively benign” herbicide, atrazine. (Which does indeed have a different mode of action than Roundup.) Atrazine has never been found to cause harm to any consumer. To get above the no-effect level in rats, we’d have to drink 150,000 gallons of atrazine-laced water per day for seventy years. (And for at least nine months of each year, we’d have to supply our own atrazine.)
Nevertheless, traces of atrazine turn up in some corn-region water supplies during the spring flush. The EPA hates anything turning up in the water, even if it’s not dangerous. The agency is now conducting another “special review” seemingly aimed at revoking atrazine’s registration.
Maybe the New York Times should have a word with the EPA, because keeping atrazine available would seem to cut the Times’ Roundup resistance concern roughly in half.
Atrazine is a safe, effective substitute for Roundup on the 200 million acres of U.S. farmland being farmed with low-till systems that radically cut soil erosion.
We gave up DDT for malaria control without any replicated evidence of danger to people or birds—partly because people claimed the mosquitoes were becoming resistant. That resistance could have been managed too. Instead, we’ve let at least twenty million people die needlessly from malaria, and left whole countries too sickened to achieve economic growth.
Is that the famed precautionary principle?We should use the safe, effective pesticides as broadly as good judgment and good results dictate. No more, but also no less.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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