We Knew It Was Coming
Michael Pollan, a contributing writer for The Times Magazine and the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of ”Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.”
What a surprise! Roundup-resistant weeds have shown up in fields that have been doused with Roundup! Shocking!
Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm.
Actually, the surprise would have been if these weeds didn’t show up — the only thing in doubt was the timing. The theory of natural selection predicts that resistance will appear whenever you attempt to eradicate a pest or a bacteria using such a heavy-handed approach. And in fact the rise of Roundup resistant weeds was predicted by Marion Nestle in her 2003 book “Safe Food” and by the Union of Concerned Scientists. At the time, Monsanto rejected such predictions as “hypothetical.”
A few lessons may be drawn from this story:
1. A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, “sustainable.” Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.
2. Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm. This is the same-old pesticide treadmill, in which the farmer gets hooked on a chemical fix that needs to be upgraded every few years as it loses its effectiveness.
3. Monocultures are inherently precarious. The very success of Roundup Ready crops have been their undoing, since so many acres were planted with the same seed, and doused with the same chemical, resistance came quickly. Resilience, and long-term sustainability, comes from diversifying fields, not planting them all to the same kind of seed.
By THE EDITORS
American farmers’ broad use of the weedkiller glyphosphate — particularly Roundup, which was originally made by Monsanto — has led to the rapid growth in recent years of herbicide-resistant weeds. To fight them, farmers are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.
What should farmers do about these superweeds? What does the problem mean for agriculture in the U.S.? Will it temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for genetically modified crops that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup?