evolution, again

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.

Not so tasty as it looks, sometimes.

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.

79 Responses to evolution, again

  1. Bluthner says:

    Sounds like when Gunny’s got his chain saw cranked it’s wise to stay well clear.

  2. KevinNevada says:


    yeah, I won’t even try to suggest any solution to anything. Not today. Nope. Not me.

  3. Elena says:

    There is a more temperate branch of the Chicago school, of which Austan Goolsbee is representative.

    I heard Goolsbee on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me – he’s very, very funny.

    Gunny, terrific writing here. But most folk don’t do long term thinking anymore. Especially politicians.

    Anyway, its Oscar night. It’ll be The Artist is my guess. Clooney for best actor, Streep for actress.

    But I have been wrong before!

  4. gunnison says:

    Kev, Bluthner
    No, it’s safe now, I just sawed a piece off of a dead pig, and it’s time to make supper, so I’ll be outtahere for a while.
    Pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes, wild asparagus and a delicate cheese sauce.
    Eat your hearts out.

  5. KevinNevada says:


    yeah, you SAY that, “It’s OK now”, but there you are still with that danged saw in your hand.

    Anyway, I need to correct a pile of science homework tonight.

    This has been a great thread. I hope you all read Pete Stark’s version of the Modest Proposal, linked above, excuse me, the “Cato Institute white paper” that he found, right, that’s it . . . .

  6. NatashaFatale says:

    …but there you are still with that danged [chain]saw in your hand.

    Takes all kind o’ critters to make farmer Gunny’s fritters.

  7. MadameMax says:

    Good grief. I just spent the entire day doing really, really important work and I come here to find you all endlessly discussing frivolous froth. Don’t you know that we’re all DOOMED because the grocers’ apostrophes are conquering the planet? Slithering out from under every rock, out of every Superfund site, impervious to anything mankind can throw at them, implanting themselves on signs, in books, on every blog, even this one at times!! And pretty soon they’ll be tattooed on our foreheads like barcodes.

    And you’re worried about 2,4D and Roundup-resistant weeds and puking putrid politicians when it’s the damned Grocer’s’ Apostrophe’ses that are Destroying Humanity!

    Honestly, what’s the matter with you people?

  8. Bluthner says:


    i blame it on everyone typing everything these days.

    I never make those kinds of mistakes when I write by hand. I make them constantly when typing. But because I never make them when writing by hand I never think I’m doing it when I’m typing. I’m sure when the impulse gets sent from my brain to my left third finger my right pinky requires a conscious override not to type the apostrophe. If I’m concentrating hard enough on the letters, then I override, but if I’m thinking about whole words and/or the sense and rhythm of the whole sentence, or lunch or whatever, even a little bit, the override doesn’t happen and the damn thing slips in.

    And then it becomes a matter of proof-reading. Which for me -if it’s something I wrote myself- is nigh on impossible. Brain takes in whatever is there on the page and reassembles it in my head just the way I meant it to be. I could proof-read your sentences no problem. My own… hopeless.

    But none of that was true when I wrote by hand. Which of course no one does any more.

  9. MadameMax says:

    Bluthner–– It’s nigh on impossible for most people to proofread their own writing. You (a general you) tend to see what you know you meant to say. I proofread everything I write and am then appalled at the glaring errors later found by other readers. Which is why everyone, even editors, needs an editor. Things that leap off the page and poke me in the eye in someone else’s work, will slip through one eye and out the other, bypassing my brain completely, when it’s my own writing.

    I’ve changed my mind since last night. It’s not the grocer’s apostrophe that poses the worst threat to mankind, it’s the dangling modifier. I heard no fewer than three of them on NPR this morning. We editors are the last bastions in this war for clarity and proper grammar and no one appreciates us. Weeds, dangling modifiers, and cockroaches (and Twinkies, I understand) will inherit the earth.

    Speaking of what endures and what doesn’t, did Gingrich drop out of the race and no one told me?

  10. Pornstar says:

    Madame –

    I’m sorry for the pain biting your tongue must cause from reading my “writing”! (that sounds sort of snotty but it’s not meant to be at all.) I’m fully aware that i can’t write for shit :)

  11. Bluthner says:


    Isn’t it true that the English sank the French fleet -or most of it- at Mers et Kebir, because of a mistranslated dangling modifier? 1300 men died. You don’t want to mess with those things, they can go off in your hands!

  12. MadameMax says:

    Amy! No! For one thing your writing is not shit, and for another thing I’m not bitching about anything written here. Off the cuff stuff (ooh, that has a nice sound to it!) isn’t expected to be perfect, even by the most anal retentive of critics (me).

    No, what gives me pain, sharp, soul-deep pain, is the professional stuff by people who ought to know better, and where there are editors and copyeditors who ought to be fixing it. Like at the G and other online newspapers, and in books that have gone through the whole professional editing routine. And NPR reports where you’d think someone would have looked them over before they’re read on the air.

    I’m finding dreadful errors in textbooks that are being updated, and these errors are in the originals that have been used by students for years. ESL students, who may not have the knowledge to realize they’re mistakes. Yesterday I came upon something (what constitutes a crime) in an answer key that apparently no one thought to fact-check. And this is not my job! I’m just supposed to be proofreading the updates!

    As Bluthner points out, this is dangerous stuff and people act as if it doesn’t matter. Harrumph.

  13. Bluthner says:


    But they keep cutting back on editors and copy-editors, at publishers and at newspapers. I would wager that anything blogged on the G doesn’t get edited at all, just skimmed for lawsuits. I get at least two people a month calling me looking for editors for manuscripts for which they already have publishing deals. But they know once they submit there will be no copy-editing worth the candle. It will go to press full of typos.

    And I struggle to find proof-readers for my own things, which are require a specialist of sorts, just because I often need to make grammatical mistakes on purpose, and I need someone who at least most of the time can tell which is which.

    Years ago I remember big U.S. law firms used to keep a stable of grammar and spelling hounds who would stay up all night reading the documents the lawyers (dictated in those days) and had typed up each day. They let nothing by. And regularly went insane, or so I heard. No doubt driven insane by the same mistakes appearing over and over again!

    As for the Newt, I hadn’t heard that he dropped out, but I have stopped hearing about him. Which of course is fitting. The whole world knows he’s not going to win, and there doesn’t seem to be any new dirt on him, and the old dirt is so repulsive….

  14. Pornstar says:

    I’d still take Newt over Frothy.

  15. Bluthner says:


    I reject that dilemma absolutely. I will take neither!

  16. NatashaFatale says:

    I’d still take Newt over Frothy.

    And I’d prefer pills to hanging, but I don’t really have to decide unless one of them wins.

  17. Pornstar says:

    Ok, round one failed. So then i’ll take Mittens over both of them, and failing that, and even better, Huntsman as an Indy. (Still wouldn’t vote for him though.)

  18. KevinNevada says:

    Pornilicious one:

    I doubt that you will get the chance to choose the Rom-bot. My brother told me, just now that he saw a report that the UAW in Michigan have noticed what that mechanism advocated (“managed bankruptcy” for GM, e.g. calling in the Bain Capital Vulture Brigade). It seems that primaries are sort of open in that good state, and a few of the auto workers may wander into a polling station or ten, tomorrow and register their response to that notion.

    Reporters yesterday were saying openly on air that the Rom-bot’s rallies are tepid affairs, while Frothy’s are brimming with the suds of excitement, or something.

    And let’s recall the Big Mo Photograph from Ford Field last week.

    One final note, another funny remark: a conservative columnist for the LA Times (now a right-wing rag) said last week that Willard looks just like a well-disguised alien, sent here to mingle with the humans, and report back.

  19. Bluthner says:

    You can still only get 11-4 odds on Willard. But 10 -1 on Froth. 50- 1 on Newt, Paul, Hillary and Jeb. 100- 1 on Trump. 200-1 on Ryan, Christie and Daniels, and 500-1 on Palin. That’s for the General.

    Obama you can only get 2-1.

  20. MadameMax says:

    Bluthner–– In my former long ago life I was a grammar and spelling hound at a law firm. Not officially, but when they discovered my “talent” they made me proofread the really important stuff. Of course, everyone thought their stuff was the most important so I got fought over. The two associates I actually worked for were irritated no end but couldn’t complain when a partner dragged me away from typing their stuff to proofread something his secretary had typed.

    I can tell when grammatical mistakes are made on purpose! The guy I work with now says the work will wax and wane. Maybe you could whoosh work my way during the wane!

  21. Bluthner says:

    Madame, what a stellar idea! Maybe Gunny could put us in touch, you know, round the back…

  22. Bluthner says:

    For the primary, it’s 2-7 for Mitts, 7-2 for Froth, 25-1 for Ginge & Jeb, 33-1 for Paul, 100-1 for Ryan, Christie & Daniels, and 200-1 for Palin.

  23. KevinNevada says:

    Confirmation, assuming this reporter’s other errors do not extend to this paragraph, from something called the “White Lake Bulletin” today:

    This election is open to all registered voters, but is a “closed primary” meaning voters will be required to indicate which party’s primary they wish to vote in, and they will then receive that party’s ballot. Voters do not need to be a registered member of a political party in order to receive a ballot.

    ID is required. I assume a well-organized union will remember that detail, along the way to a few of the brothers and sisters wandering into a polling place sometime today – purely at random, of course.

    Willard’s other great move, this past weekend, was to “connect with the humans” by referring several times to his wife’s US-built autos – both of them Cadillacs. Yeah, sure, that gave his campaign the Common Touch that was sorely needed. Wonderful! Great tactic.

  24. Pornstar says:

    Kevin –

    You probably missed this gem that sibusisodan posted on CiF this morning –

    Don’t know if anyone’s picked up on this, but I absolutely love Mitt Romney. He is amazing:

    Asked by the AP reporter if he follows NASCAR, Romney responded, “Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”

  25. KevinNevada says:


    to this,

    Yesterday I came upon something (what constitutes a crime) in an answer key that apparently no one thought to fact-check. And this is not my job! I’m just supposed to be proofreading the updates!

    If that textbook is a Pearson product – they are notorious for that problem.

    The issue goes beyond textbooks. I work for one of the for-profit schools with multiple campuses (campusi? Why not?) and our final exams come packaged for us in PDF files.

    I was warned by my department chair to check every question, confirm the answer key.

    He was right to warn me. One final exam, a multiple-choice affair with 40 problems had four mistakes in the answer key. Ten percent.

    The science class where I teach the nurses has a 50-question final, and I had to fix or replace eight of them.

    My experience is not unusual. Our head office screws up, a lot.

  26. gunnison says:


    Madame, what a stellar idea! Maybe Gunny could put us in touch, you know, round the back…

    That is certainly doable, but I do want to be careful about things like this.
    If you email me with a specific request to release your email to another blog participant, I’m certainly willing to do it, but I think it’s important that we follow that protocol here. In general I’m not a stickler for a bunch of rules, but in this situation, I think I have an obligation to be.

    And what the hell is a dangling modifier? I’m pretty sure I exhibit one from time to time, but it never hurts to check.

  27. KevinNevada says:


    thanks for that, I’ll add it to the collection.

    I am assembling a file to run past my LDS friends, just for chuckles.

    Gotta love the Common Touch ® chip, that software is like SO effective.

  28. Di-Ohso says:

    Only a day late! Have just begun to check out Monsanto. Wikepedia was my first stop.


  29. MadameMax says:

    Gunny: As a long time reader, Cif articles are poorly written these days. And: Driving down the street, a dog ran into the road. (The second is actually an example of a dangling participle.) Take note that Cif articles do not read, long time or otherwise, and as far as I know dogs do not drive down the street, at least not at the same time they’re running into the road.

    Kevin, OMG, I just finished working on Pearson stuff! But what I’m working on now, and what I’ve been finding the errors in, is stuff from Cambridge University Press.

    Bluthner, yes! And I see I have an email with “Bluthner” as the subject, Oh goody!

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