[Marxism] Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Aug 12 09:14:26 MDT 2014


Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human 
victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on 
us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the 
results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite 
different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The 
people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed 
the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing 
along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture 
they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those 
countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the 
southern slopes, so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had 
no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy 
industry in their region; they had still less inkling that they were 
thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part 
of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious 
torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the 
potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they 
were at the same time spreading scrofula. Thus at every step we are 
reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a 
foreign people, like someone standing outside nature -- but that we, 
with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, 
and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the 
advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and 
apply them correctly.

Frederick Engels, The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man


NY Times, August 12 2014
Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides
By MICHAEL WINES

WHEATFIELD, Ind. — The Terminator — that relentless, seemingly 
indestructible villain of the 1980s action movie — is back. And he is 
living amid the soybeans at Harper Brothers Farms.

About 100 miles northwest of Indianapolis, amid 8,000 lush acres farmed 
by Dave Harper, his brother Mike and their sons, the Arnold 
Schwarzenegger of weeds refuses to die. Three growing seasons after 
surfacing in a single field, it is a daily presence in a quarter of the 
Harper spread and has a foothold in a third more. Its oval leaves and 
spindly seed heads blanket roadsides and jut above orderly soybean rows 
like skyscrapers poking through cloud banks. It shrugs off extreme 
drought and heat. At up to six inches in diameter, its stalk is thick 
enough to damage farm equipment.

“You swear that you killed it,” said Scott Harper, Dave Harper’s son and 
the farm’s 28-year-old resident weed expert. “And then it gets a little 
green on it, and it comes right back.”

Botanists call the weed palmer amaranth. But perhaps the most fitting, 
if less known, name is carelessweed. In barely a decade, it has 
devastated Southern cotton farms and is poised to wreak havoc in the 
Midwest — all because farmers got careless.

Palmer, as farmers nicknamed it, is the most notorious of a growing 
number of weeds that are immune to the gold standard of herbicides, 
glyphosate. Cheap, comparatively safe and deadly to many weeds, 
glyphosate has been a favorite ever since the Monsanto Company 
introduced it under the name Roundup in the mid-1970s.

After Monsanto began selling crops genetically engineered to resist 
glyphosate in the 1990s, the herbicide’s use soared. Farmers who once 
juggled an array of herbicides — what killed weeds in a cotton field 
might kill cornstalks in a cornfield — suddenly had a single herbicide 
that could be applied to almost all major crops without harming them.

There were even environmental benefits: Farmers relied less on other, 
more dangerous weed killers. And they abandoned techniques like tilling 
that discouraged weed growth, but hastened erosion and moisture loss.

But constantly dousing crops in glyphosate exacted a price. Weeds with 
glyphosate-resisting genetic mutations appeared faster and more often — 
16 types of weed so far in the United States. A 2012 survey concluded 
that glyphosate-resistant weeds had infested enough acreage of American 
farmland to cover a plot nearly as big as Oregon, and that the total 
infestation had grown 51 percent in one year. Glyphosate-resistant 
palmers first surfaced in 2005, in a field in Macon County, Ga. Nine 
years later, they are in at least 24 states.

“There’s no substantive argument about whether the problem’s gotten far 
worse in this era of genetically resistant crops,” said Charles 
Benbrook, a professor and pesticide expert at Washington State 
University. “The advent of herbicide-tolerant crops made it possible for 
farmers to load up so much herbicide on one crop that it was inevitable 
that it would develop resistance.”

Now farmers are going back to older techniques to control weeds, using 
more varieties of herbicides, resuming tilling — and worse.

Palmer amaranth is the prime example. Consider the cotton fields that 
blanket many Southern farms: Without glyphosate, almost no herbicides 
can kill the weed without also damaging cotton plants. Some farmers have 
mowed their crops to keep palmer seeds from maturing. In 2009, Georgia 
spent $11 million to send laborers into a million acres of cotton fields 
to pull palmers out by hand.

For many farmers, including the Harpers, manual labor has become a last 
resort in the battle against carelessweed.

“I consider myself a Roundup baby, and it was great,” Scott Harper said. 
“You didn’t have to think about anything. And now we get this weed that 
flips everything on its head.”

The Harpers’ 2,500-acre soybean crop is an object lesson in palmer’s 
adaptability and how far farmers must go just to keep it in check.

Palmer amaranths seem as if they were designed by nature to outwit 
herbicides and farmers. Unlike many weeds, it has male and female 
versions, increasing genetic diversity — and the chances of a 
herbicide-resistant mutation — in each new seed. And each plant is 
astonishingly prolific, producing up to 200,000 seeds in an average 
field, said Dave Mortensen, a professor of weed and plant ecology at 
Pennsylvania State University.

“If one out of millions or billions of seeds contains a unique trait 
that confers resistance to herbicide,” he said, “it doesn’t take long 
when a plant is that fecund for it to become the dominant gene.”

William G. Johnson, a Purdue University professor of botany and plant 
pathology, said the weed probably arrived at the Harpers’ farm in 
typical fashion: in manure, purchased as fertilizer, from cows that ate 
cottonseed — and, inadvertently, palmer seeds.

The Harpers initially mistook the weed for waterhemp, a close relative. 
Before they learned otherwise, combines had already harvested fields 
containing mature palmer seed pods and had spread the seed far and wide.

A glyphosate-resistant palmer is a mighty beast indeed. Its seeds can 
germinate any time during the growing season, so herbicide sprayed in 
April is useless against a palmer that appears in July. Once sprouted, 
palmer amaranth can grow more than two inches a day. Once it exceeds 
four inches, even herbicides for which it lacks resistance begin to lose 
their effectiveness.

The Harpers have kept palmers at bay in their 5,500 acres of corn by 
spraying dicamba, a weed killer that is benign to corn. Soybeans are a 
different matter.

Last year, the Harpers sprayed palmer-infested fields several times with 
glyphosate and two other herbicides, pushing herbicide costs to $80 an 
acre from $15. About eight in 10 palmers died. The rest wilted for a 
couple of weeks, then resumed growing.

This year, they are trying a different chemical cocktail that raises 
herbicide costs only to $45 an acre. Their big gun, a herbicide that 
blocks palmers from synthesizing amino acids, was sprayed on July 3, the 
first of two applications allowed each summer.

“I came back from the Fourth of July weekend, and they looked dead,” Mr. 
Harper said. “I said, ‘I think we smoked ’em.’ My dad says, ‘Awesome.’ ” 
He paused. “Ten days later, there’s green coming all over them again.”

Should the second herbicide application fail, Mr. Harper said, he is 
unsure what to do next.

More broadly, experts in glyphosate’s travails — farmers, scientists, 
regulators, the herbicide industry, environmentalists — feel much the 
same way.

The industry has readied a new barrage of genetically engineered crops 
that tolerate other weed killers. The Environmental Protection Agency is 
set to approve plans by Dow AgroSciences to sell soybean seeds that 
tolerate not only glyphosate, but a much older herbicide, 2,4-D, and a 
third widely used herbicide, glufosinate. Monsanto hopes to market 
soybeans and cotton next year that resist dicamba.

Dr. Mortensen and others say the companies are simply repeating the 
history that made palmers resistant to glyphosate. He says natural 
solutions, like planting what are known as cover crops that keep light 
from reaching germinating palmers, may cost more but are also effective.

Mr. Harper said he believes Dr. Mortensen is right. He also said he 
cannot wait for Monsanto and Dow to begin hawking their new soybeans anyway.

“I’m not stupid. I know you can only ride a pony so far,” he said. 
“It’ll probably take another 10 years before palmer becomes a real big 
problem again. But that just brought me 10 years I didn’t have.”




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