Sustainable America Blog

Invasion of the Superweeds

What is a weed? According to Wikipedia, a weed is “A herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank, and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation…” A fitting description for the invasive superweeds currently inundating America’s agricultural heartlands.

With names like Pigweed and Waterhemp, these invasive species are incredibly fast growing, up to 3 inches a day in some cases, and resistant to the herbicides that have become commonplace in industrial agriculture — namely Monsanto’s Roundup which became available to farmers in 1980. Hailed as a seminal breakthrough in the world of monocrop agriculture, Roundup and “Roundup-Ready” crops are used by nearly every large scale agribusiness. The “Roundup-Ready” crops are resistant to Roundup so you can douse your fields and everything except your crop, ie: the weeds and pests, will die. Until now it has been an affordable and easy method of weed and pest control for many farmers. But with the recent and swift rise of the new Roundup resistant superweeds, farmers across America are scrambling for a new solution.

It’s currently estimated that some 12 million acres of farmland are infested with the new weeds and the timing is particularly bad. The weeds both boost costs and cut production rates in a time when food costs are already at a record high and growing populations are straining existing global supplies. The simplicity of using Roundup and “Roundup-ready” crops has led most farmers to abandon time-tested methods of crop rotation and the mix of herbicides that used to help them keep weeds and pests at bay. (source – Reuters)Now there are new herbicides being developed by companies like Dow, Monsanto and Bayer Crop-Science that are specifically designed to kill the current superweeds.

Groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council are saying that some of these herbicides, like one called 2,4-D, are too dangerous to use on food crops. David Mortensen, a weed ecologist at Penn State University, also points out that eventually weeds will evolve resistance to these new herbicides as well. “When one herbicide fails, you add a second herbicide, and then a third herbicide to the package. And I am convinced that this is not a sustainable path forward.”

Stanley Culpepper, a weed scientist from the University of Georgia, believes that a mix of herbicides used in conjunction with other non-chemical methods is the only way to keep weeds from developing a tolerance to one particular herbicide. He’s found a non-chemical method for cotton growers to fight the invasive weed Palmer amaranth. The rye plant is naturally toxic to the weed, so he advises cotton farmers to grow a crop of rye on their fields and then plow it over, leaving the crushed rye on the field with spaces for planting the cotton.

In an interview with Reuters news service, Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists explained, “We are at a disturbing juncture, the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture is skyrocketing. This is not the path to sustainability.”

The levels of glyphosate, the chemical found in Roundup, are rising in both our air and waterways. According to an August 2011 report from the US Geological Survey, more than 88,0000 tons of glyphosate was used in 2007, up from 11,000 tons in 1992. Scientific studies released in 2009 showed that the glyphosate, particularly when combined with the inert compounds in Roundup, can be lethal to human cells, particularly human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells.

In response to the findings of the USGS study and critics of the data, the Environmental Protection Agency is launching a review of the safety and effectiveness of glyphosate with plans to propose a decision based on their findings in 2014. In May of this year, the National Academy of Sciences held a National Summit on Strategies to Manage Herbicide Resistant Weeds. to address the problem of the superweeds and the widespread use of glyphosate. With no easy answers in sight, farmers across America must continue the struggle to find innovative and cost effective ways to fight these new superweeds in any way they can.

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.

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