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Opinion: "The Folly of Big Agriculture"

The recent emergence of herbicide-tolerant weeds on U.S. farms has shown that nature ultimately finds a way to subvert uniformity and assert itself, argues Verlyn Klinkenborg in a post on the web site of Yale Environment 360.

Klinkenborg, a member of the editorial board at the New York Times and author of The Rural Life, points to “big agriculture” and its devotion to producing an efficient crop as a direct challenge to nature.  “When you see a Midwestern cornfield, you know you’re looking at nature with one idea superimposed upon it,” he writes. And why is that a problem?

To a uniform crop like corn, farmers have been encouraged to apply a uniform herbicide to kill weeds. "Modern corn is genetically engineered to not be killed by the herbicide in ubiquitous use. Mostly, that herbicide has been glyphosate, marketed under the Monsanto trade name Roundup. Farmers have sprayed and over-sprayed billions of gallons of Roundup thanks to an economic and moral premise: corn good, weeds bad. And yet you can’t help noticing that it has done nothing to stop the endless inventiveness of nature.

"To broadleaf weeds and soil microorganisms, Roundup is not the apocalypse. It is simply a modest, temporal challenge, which is why, 15 years after genetically-engineered, Roundup-tolerant crops were widely introduced, it’s no longer working against spontaneous new generations of Roundup-tolerant weeds, especially in cotton fields. This is because research, in nature’s laboratory, never stops. It explores every possibility. It never lacks funding. It is never demoralized by failed experiments. It cannot be lobbied."

Klinkenberg says big ag’s fix appears to be the introduction of more genetically engineered products:

"When an idea goes bad, the USDA seems to think, the way to fix it is to speed up the introduction of ideas that will go bad for exactly the same reason. And it’s always, somehow, the same bad idea: the uniform application of an anti-biological agent, whether it’s a pesticide in crops or an antibiotic on factory farms. The result is always the same. Nature finds a way around it, and quickly."

Click here to read the entire editorial.