The standard GOP boilerplate answer nowadays to the question of evolution is that it’s “just a theory”. Maybe they should consider talking to a few more farmers.
A little background first; back in the 1970’s, the Monsanto corporation developed and patented a non-selective, post-emergence plant killer which within a few years came to be marketed as the weedkiller “Roundup”. Basically, it kills any plant life after germination. It was immediately and widely used as a “weed” killer in all kinds of applications — cosmetic, illegal drug eradication, invasive weed control — all over the world. It still is, in fact it has been the #1 weedkiller used in the world since about 1980.
Then, in the 1990’s Monsanto got a bright idea, the genetic modification of “desirable” plants (foodstuffs, say) such that they would be resistant to Roundup. That way, whole fields of desirable crops (corn, soybeans, cotton etc) could be sprayed with the stuff and it would only kill the competing species, which, when those species are something we don’t want, we call weeds. And so Monsanto said let it be done, and it was done, and behold, it was good.
How good? Depends on who you ask, and also when you ask them. For Monsanto, very good indeed. While their US patent on the formula (glyphosate, mixed with a surfactant to aid penetration in plant tissue) for Roundup expired in 2000, and other “generic” versions of the chemical can now be sold by competitors, Monsanto maintained a healthy market share throughout the world. But the real payoff has been the pas de deux combination of Roundup and the various “Roundup Ready” genetically modified seeds. Whereas the sale of Monsanto’s version of Roundup alone declined, to make up only about 10% of Monsanto’s annual revenue (as of 2009), the combination of seedstock sales and Roundup comprises about 50% of the company’s revenue. So we’re talking big, big money. So if you ask Monsanto, it’s been very good.
There’s a reason the sales took off like that; it works. Farmers are captive customers of Monsanto once they get into the system, that’s true, so the old holding back some of the crop for next year’s seedstock became a thing of the past — they have to buy their seed every year from Monsanto now — but the cost saving in fuel and labor for the “no-till” farming methods this combination enables, and the costs to keep the crop weed free were dramatically slashed, so monetarily it made sense. So in the early days, up until the last few years in fact, if you asked the industrial farmers how good, they too would say pretty darn good.
This naturally caused a lot of friction between farmers dedicated to the “old ways” and the new industrial super-farms, and law suits were thick in the air about cross-pollination and all the rest, with Monsanto slinging out lawsuits against other (non-client) farmers for infringements when their patented plants were found growing on “unlicensed” land. So if you asked the organic farmers how good, well, you might not want to do that at all, unless you’ve already got your quick escape route all planned out.
Fast forward to today, and the topic of evolution.
The thing about “weeds”, as every gardener knows, is that they’re tough little buggers. That’s because they’re pretty quick on their adaptive little feet, and can survive changing environments fairly readily. Including Roundup, as it happens, and whole new generations of “superweeds” have now emerged that are barely affected by Roundup at all, no more so than the Roundup Ready crops themselves.
I suppose, on the off-chance that Rick Santorum or Ron Paul et al are reading this, we’ll have to offer some other explanation than “just some oddball evolutionary theory” — how about we say it looks like god moved the goalposts. Again. Because this kind of thing is happening all over the place — in medicine with Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, the so-called flesh-eating bug, and there is a mad scramble for ever more powerful and specifically targeted antibiotics to treat all kinds of ailments that are no longer vulnerable to the old ones. I know, I digress, but really, how can you not? (also, to be frightfully correct, an adaptation that gives resistance to a toxin like this is not a complete evolutionary step, but it ain’t chopped liver either). But back to farming.
So, like so many other instances where technology has decided the best way to “steward” the Earth is to bully it into submission, the old game is rapidly becoming worthless.
For 15 years, Eddie Anderson, a farmer, has been a strict adherent of no-till agriculture, an environmentally friendly technique that all but eliminates plowing to curb erosion and the harmful runoff of fertilizers and pesticides.
But not this year.
On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted.
Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.
To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years.
Never fear, however, the Monsanto cavalry is riding to the rescue. Again. And this time they’ve teamed up with the other “better living through chemistry” giant , Dow Chemical. Only this time of course the problem is a little tougher to solve.
(There’s a whole field of study on this shit, about how, since we don’t understand everything about anything, then no problem is fully understood and thus no “solution” is really a solution at all, but merely a “pseudo-solution”. And one of the many unavoidable properties of pseudo-solutions is that they produce “residue effects”, which for a number of formal reasons, including augmentation, are always harder to find an answer for. The answer being, of course, yet another pseudo-solution. And so it goes. If you’re fixing a snowblower, or baking a cake, it’s not maybe such a big deal, but when you’re screwing around with the biological dynamics of an entire planet, things like this kinda matter.)
In a match that some would say was made in hell, the nation’s two leading producers of agrochemicals have joined forces in a partnership to reintroduce the use of the herbicide 2,4-D, one half of the infamous defoliant Agent Orange, which was used by American forces to clear jungle during the Vietnam War. These two biotech giants have developed a weed management program that, if successful, would go a long way toward a predicted doubling of harmful herbicide use in America’s corn belt during the next decade.
The problem for corn farmers is that “superweeds” have been developing resistance to America’s best-selling herbicide Roundup, which is being sprayed on millions of acres in the Midwest and elsewhere. Dow Agrosciences has developed a strain of corn that it says will solve the problem. The new genetically modified variety can tolerate 2,4-D, which will kill off the Roundup-resistant weeds, but leave the corn standing. Farmers who opt into this system will be required to double-dose their fields with a deadly cocktail of Roundup plus 2,4-D, both of which are manufactured by Monsanto.
Now 2,4-D is yet another thing that is not fully understood, but it has been linked to both Hodgkin’s and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the EPA has suggested it has endocrine-disruptor potential, the US Forest Service has research suggesting it may be toxic to honeybees, birds and fish. It is also banned in many European countries as well as Canada.
Not exactly the kind of stuff you’d use to make salad dressing. You may not have much choice in the matter. The USDA is considering deregulating Monsanto’s new genetically modified corn variety (the one which will be used in conjunction with the 2,4-D) and is accepting final public comments on the matter until the 27th of this month. If it comes into wide use, it won’t be long before soybeans and other things are approved too, we’ve been down this road before, and before you know it you’ll either be eating the crop itself, or eating something that has been fed by that crop. And with the laws governing food labeling in the US you will have no way to know it.
Time to get to know your farmer, personally, and get these crazy fucks out of your food supply chain. Seriously.
Oh, I forgot, it seems that the prolific use of Roundup in the War on Drugs’ efforts to eradicate coca production has engendered a Roundup resistant coca plant. Who could possibly have predicted that?
And in 1996 Monsanto was accused of false advertising when they represented Roundup as being “safer than table salt and “practically non-toxic” to mammals, birds, and fish.” Finally, in 2007, they were convicted. Roundup is classified by European agencies as “dangerous to the environment” and toxic to aquatic organisms, so it’s not salad dressing either.