Thursday, July 15, 2010

Musings: Agricultural Arms Race

The evening sky has been a special delight the past two nights, with that thin sliver of white moon angling toward madly twinkling Venus, which is all lined up with Mars and Saturn, the whole bright bunch of them gathered in the darkness above the darkness of the Wailua River, sliding down toward Waialeale.

You get those chances sometimes — actually, oftentimes — to feel and experience the essence of this place, which is why it’s hard to learn about things afoot that could harm her at the deepest level.

I’m talking about a new push in the genetically modified seed industry, which has a large and growing presence on this island, to develop seeds that can resist herbicides like 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange, as well as dicamba and HPPD inhibitors. And why? Because the first round of GMO seeds, those designed to withstand direct doses of Roundup, have resulted in weeds that are resistant to Roundup and other classes of herbicide.

Or as the Wall Street Journal characterized the situation:
“Superweed Outbreak Triggers Arms Race.”

Yes, now even agriculture is being militarized, using some of the very same chemicals that the military employed to defoliate large swaths of jungle in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and numerous sites here in the USA, including Wailua, with tragic results.

Since Kauai is a test site for Dow, Syngenta, Monsanto and the other companies developing this new round of herbicide-resistant seeds, it’s pretty much given they’ll be testing their new wares here. And they’ll be doing it with no environmental assessment of any kind, in open air trials that allow full interaction with the natural world.

We the people don’t know what the chemical/seed companies are growing, or how, or where, only that their presence now extends from Kekaha to Lihue. They are growing crops alongside our roads, next to our schools and shopping centers, and they are using herbicides on them in concentrations and combinations that very well could have a deleterious effect on native species, human health and other agricultural endeavors. Field trials are regulated by the feds, and the little oversight extended to the state will be minimized further now that Lingle has eviscerated the Dept. of Ag, especially its inspection arm.

And we certainly cannot count on these companies to regulate themselves or minimize risks, not when there’s so much money at stake to be the first out of the gate with these extremely valuable new GMO seeds. Meanwhile, the pesticide treadmill is accelerating, and as the companies conduct their field trials and then grow out the new seeds for export, they’ll be dumping more and more chemicals on Kauai’s land, where it runs into the rivers and sea.

In the process, who knows what kind of herbicide-resistant weeds will be developing here? Invasive species are the number one threat to Hawaii’s native environment, and if they can’t be eradicated with the more common types of herbicides, will their advance continue unabated, or will even more toxic chemicals and combinations of chemicals be used?

Which leads to the bigger question of just how long will it be before the weeds develop tolerance to the herbicides that will be used on this newest round of GMO seeds? When it will it ever end? And once we start on this path, can it ever end? Or will we just keep going until all our land and food is drenched with toxic substances, and super weeds and insects finally rule the world?

We'll never be able to "beat" nature. But like the nuclear arms race, we could destroy ourselves and a lot of other stuff while trying.


Anonymous said...

Just like a nuke holocaust.

Nothing left but weeds, insects...and Cher.

Unknown said...

Not to defend Monsanto, but I think it's worth tempering things a bit...

As I understand it, the biggest headache caused by Roundup-resistant weeds is for Monsanto. If those weeds take over, Roundup will become useless. Meanwhile, Roundup-resistant weeds can still be killed by traditional weed killer. In that case, farming would return to the state it was before Roundup: laborious, targeted use of pesticides. Not great, but hardly the end of the world.

Joan Conrow said...

Yes, Casey, you're right -- the Roundup-resistant weeds are a big headache for Monsanto, and the farmers who are growing its RR crops, which is like 90% of them. And yes, they can generally still be controlled by the old herbicides. My point is that before long, we'll see the same resistance develop to the other herbicides, much as bacteria have developed resistance to antibiotics, creating "super" breeds that can't be controlled.

Then what? Do you start using napalm and Agent Orange? Develop even nastier herbicides? Because some of the RR weeds are pretty gnarly -- we're talking pig weed that grows big enough to damage harvesting equipment.

Anonymous said...

That's what the farm housing bill will provide. Housing for haole migrant weed killers hoeing the rows in exchange for housing and med MJ. I can hardly wait!
for the welfare hoards to arrive.

Unknown said...

I agree in principle, Joan. As you said, nature evolves to resist new threats. But this evolution has happened since the first weed killer thousands of years ago. We still seem to be ahead of the game, which gives me hope.

Antibiotics have a similar story. Penicillin used to be the best antibiotic. Now it is largely useless, but through research we have other options.

You could view this cycle as a scary race to stay ahead. I prefer to think of it as an employment scheme for scientists!

Anonymous said...

It's a bigger problem than you are stating. The pesticides that are needed to do what rooundup used to do are far more toxic to people and the envirornment. If roundup doesn't work, and instead all the roadsides and parks and other public places that are routinely sprayed will be sprayed with products that are far far more potent, products made to kill kill, you, me and the weeds.

One solution, it's called organic farming,