[Marxism] Invader Batters Rural America, Shrugging Off Herbicides
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
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
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
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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