[EDITORS NOTE: This post did not publish when it was supposed to due to user error – by which I mean I accidentally told it to publish in August of 2020 instead of August of 2019. So Part 4 (click here) came out first. I apologize for any confusion; the mistake has now been rectified!}
This is Part 3 of a four-part series on glyphosate. Read Part 1 here, for the history of herbicide, and Part 2 here, for the reasons why glyphosate is bad for health and for the environment.
Boy, you think, after reading my assessment of why glyphosate sucks. We should ban that! France did it! We should do that! Why aren’t we doing that?!
The simple answer is that our modern system of agriculture is heavily reliant on glyphosate. Without it, bad things happen…unless, of course, we change how we do agriculture in this country. Let’s take a look at what would happen if we banned glyphosate, without making any other changes:
Agriculture Without Glyphosate – Problems
Factually, GMO crops result in higher yields than non-GMO crops under certain conditions. Being able to spray – and kill – all the weeds, maximizes the nutrients in the soil for the crops, and results in more food being produced. In theory. Now let’s be honest: there are a lot of factors at play, and in the right environment, farmers can produce as much or more food without glyphosate. But in most modern farms, GMO crops have higher yields.
An Increase in More Toxic Herbicides
When the “Genetic Literacy Project,” a group that supports GMO crops, asked conventional farmers what they would do without glyphosate, they began listing other herbicides, all of which are significantly more toxic. Paraquat, atrazine, and 2,4D are only the tip of the iceberg of herbicides that farmers may turn to to replace glyphosate if we ban it. As you may remember from my post about herbicide history, this would be very, very bad. Glyphosate – although bad – is far better than may of the herbicides that came before it, and the last thing we need is to go backwards.
Transition Away From no-Till Agriculture
In recent years, no-till agriculture has become increasingly popular among conventional farmers – and for good reason. With this method, farmers don’t actually plow their fields the way that you might imagine. Instead, there is an emphasis on NOT disturbing the soil. This has several benefits. First, it prevents erosion. Second, it increases water retention, which can be helpful in areas prone to droughts (such as California). The higher water retention also minimizes runoff, which prevents ag fields from polluting lakes and streams with fertilizers and pesticides (for science comparing no-till and till values, click here). Third, because the soil structure is being retained, more microorganisms can flourish, increasing biodiversity and general soil health. And then, of course, there’s also the simple benefit of not having to plow. In theory, this saves the farmer in time and fuel costs, decreases the greenhouse gases produced by running farm equipment, etc. I say in theory, because the farmer will probably be using time and equipment to spray herbicides because…
(Conventional) no-till relies on herbicides. And remember, herbicides (like glyphosate) damage soil health. Think about it: if you don’t plow a field, how do you clear the land so you can plant seeds? You have to kill all the weeds somehow, and if you don’t mechanically remove them, then you have to make them die. Enter glyphosate, our friendly non-selective herbicide that kills pretty much everything. Proponents of GMOs (and subsequently, herbicides) say that no-till farming isn’t possible without glyphosate and to be fair – many no-till farmers would probably stop being no-till farmers if the government suddenly banned Round-Up from the shelves.
Higher Costs (potentially)
Glyphosate is relatively inexpensive, so there is concern that banning it would result in higher costs for farmers, as they turned to other, more expensive methods of weed control…and therefore, higher prices for consumers.
You guys have noticed that organic food is more expensive than regular food, right? Part of that is because of the crazy high administrative costs associated with organic certification…but only part of it.
There is also some concern that these higher costs would put American farmers at a disadvantage compared to farmers in other countries. South America and Africa are using crazy-high amounts of herbicides – far over the limits regulated in the USA and Europe – which often results in cheaper products (and health problems, but y’know. Details). Banning glyphosate would further widen that competitive gap.
Future of Agriculture: Problems with Keeping Glyphosate
have already addressed the environmental and public health impacts of glyphosate. I would consider these impacts to be the primary issue with long-term future glyphosate use.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t include something, somewhere, about glyphosate resistance…which I consider another significant factor in why we need to phase out glyphosate use in agriculture.
Just like bacteria can get resistant to antibiotics, mosquitoes can become resistant to DEET, and people can become resistant to eating overly spicy food…so too, can weeds become resistant to glyphosate. In fact, glyphosate resistance is considered a major problem in the agricultural world. As of 2015, 14 weed species in the United States, and 32 species worldwide are resistant to glyphosate. Glyphosate-resistant weeds are very costly for farmers, since the problem often isn’t caught until after the crops are planted and it is too late to spray alternative herbicides. It’s widely acknowledged among scientists in conventional agriculture that the costs of this problems are likely to increase over time. This tells me that the cost advantage of conventional agriculture over “organic” agriculture will decrease over time, without a new herbicide being developed. In fact, researchers are pushing conventional farmers to use more non-herbicide weed-prevention techniques, specifically to decrease the issue of glyphosate-resistant weeds!
The threat of these weeds also encourages many farmers to spray their fields with combinations of herbicides. Instead of simply using the less-toxic glyphosate, they may use a mixture of glyphosate and the more-toxic 2,4-D, for example. This minimizes the advantage that glyphosate has over other herbicides, and increases the problems of relying on herbicides in general.
Supply & Demand – People Want Organic
I use the term “organic” loosely. I don’t mean “certified organic”. That is a complex labeling process that I’m not even going to begin to address in this post. I just mean pesticide-free.
Like it or not, there is an increasing demand for organic food, and more consumers are questioning where their food comes from. This is a good/bad thing. On one hand, it’s good that people are demanding healthy choices. On the other hand, a lot of people don’t do adequate research and spread misinformation on the Internet. However, good or bad, it’s happening, so it may be worthwhile for farmers to move away from herbicides anyway, simply as a response to customer demand.
My point overall? Although glyphosate is better than other herbicides on the market, that doesn’t make it good. And more importantly, whether you like it or not…it’s long term use is probably limited.
Let’s move on to what we can do about it.
Agriculture Without Glyphosate: Possible Solutions
There are a number of ways that weeds can be minimized before they even sprout. Mulch – whether it’s woodchips, straw, hay, or something else – goes a long way toward preventing weeds. Farmers can also treat the soil thermally, either with fire (Yes. Fire.) or steam. Some farmers also have gone back to diversified plots, where they plant multiple crops at the same time. One of the crops is their “cash crop” (like corn), while the other growns up and covers the soil around the corn, preventing weeds from sprouting. The Native American “Three Sisters” method is a great example of this: The corn gets planted first, and after it sprouts, beans get planted. The bean vines climb the corn stalks, needing no other trellising. Then squash is planted, with the large leaves covering the soil around the corn, preventing weeds and deterring rodents, who generally don’t like stepping on the spiky squash leaves. Some permacultures farmers have also turned to animals to help with weed control, allowing certain animals – such as sheep or pigs – to graze and forage on empty fields. Depending on the animals in question and the type of weeds, this can potentially prevent weeds from going to seed or kill weeds all together. A famous example of this is the rice farmers in Asia who utilize ducks to prevent weeds on their rice paddies.
Although there is no question that no-till is better than till agriculture, there are quite a few ways to till a field and minimize weeds. This is generally what farmers did before the invention of herbicides, and although the yield isn’t quite as high (in the absence of other changes), it is reasonably effective. For more information about types of organic weed prevention, click here.
No-till organic farming
Remember how no-till farming is great for the environment, but impossible without herbicides….which are bad for the environment? Well, some lovely and innovative farmers came up with no-till organic farming, which is a nice meeting of two worlds.
Seeing that no-till agriculture is awesome, some scientists at the Rodale Institute developed the roller-crimper, a machine that allows organic farmers to practice no-till without herbicides. It works like this: the farmer plants an annual cover crop. Just before the cover crop goes to seed, the farmer uses the machine to cut down the vegetation, leaving a thick mat of cut plants. Then, an apparatus on the back of the roller-crimper parts the mat and drops seeds into the ground at regular intervals. The dead mat of cover crops acts a thick mulch, preventing weeds, as well as nourishing the soil. Viola. Watch a cool video of this process here.
No till + no chemical = good.
Note: moving away from chemical agriculture shouldn’t be seen as moving backwards to plowing fields with horses and hand-rakes. Instead, it should be seen as moving forwards to new innovation that is better for health and the environment.
Agriculture Without Glyphosate: The Real Problem
The REAL problem with banning glyphosate is that most farmers do not know how to farm (effectively) without it, and do not currently have the necessary infrastructure to do so. We’ve been using herbicides for almost 100 years. All those guys who used to farm effectively without them? Yeah, those guys are dead now.
Not only that, but farming is a very different enterprise today than it was in the 1800s. Most folks are growing vast fields of corn and soybeans, because people are demanding lots, and lots, and lots of corn and soy products (read: processed foods) and corn/soy fed animals (read: almost all the meat you buy in the grocery store). Growing vast fields of corn and soy is different from growing a diversified plot of corn, soy, squash, pumpkins, wheat, cows, chickens, and whatever else one farmer might grow in the 1800s.
We can’t just ban glyphosate and expect farmers to cheerfully go back to the methods of the 1800s, while also expecting them to produce the same types of crops in the same quantities that they are produced WITH glyphosate. That’s not realistic. Nor can we expect them to magically have the cash to buy fancy new equipment, like the roller-crimper, without economic impacts.
Thankfully, glyphosate isn’t going to insta-kill anybody, so we don’t need to ban it.
Dont get me wrong. I’m not a glyphosate supporter. But I’m also not a supporter of banning it and pushing farmers into using worse chemicals or going bankrupt, and/or leaving people starving because they don’t know what to eat without their high-fructose corn syrup and corn-fed hamburgers and we simply can’t grow that much corn without herbicides.
So what can we do? What should we do? Well, stay tuned, because I’ll be tackling THAT concept tomorrow.
Yes, tomorrow. Because this will be a much more fun, much more opinionated, much less science-y post.
I like action, y’all. Tomorrow, I’m gonna get you some actions you can take to solve this glyphosate problem.