When Monsanto came up with its Roundup Ready system of genetically engineered seeds in the 1990s, designed for immunity to the herbicide glyphosate, the Big Ag giant seemed like a superhero to farmers looking for an effective way to fight weeds.

superhero
Clip from Nathan Shields’ animation, ‘Monsanto Supersizes Weed Problems.’

But alas, this was a superhero with a fatal flaw. Before they knew what hit them, farmers’ weed problems morphed into a national superweed crisis. Superweeds have now spread to more than 60 million acres of U.S. farmland, wreaking environmental and economic havoc along the way.

Monsanto and other Big Ag companies say they can fix this problem, but their solutions look awfully similar to the one that has already failed. Why consider this “let’s do it again” approach when there are real solutions available? A Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) briefing paper, The Rise of Superweeds, explains how this crisis developed—and outlines what can be done about it. UCS calls the solution healthy farms, which use practices grounded in the science of agroecology that are “sustainable and cost-effective, and more and more farmers are putting it into practice.” These practices make farms healthier, and recent research shows that they work.

To transition to healthy farms, the U.S. needs new policies and farmers need more research. UCS recommends that Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture take the following actions:

  • Fund and implement the Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides support for farmers using sustainable weed control methods.

  • Institute new regional programs that encourage farmers to address weed problems through sustainable techniques.

  • Support organic farmers and those who want to transition to organic farming with research, certification, cost-sharing and marketing programs. (Organic farming serves as a “test kitchen” for integrated weed management practices that can be broadly applied to conventional farm systems.)

  • Support multidisciplinary research on integrated weed management strategies and educate farmers in their use.

  • Bring together scientists, industry, farmers and public interest groups to formulate plans preventing or containing the development of herbicide-resistant weeds, and make the approval of new herbicide-tolerant crops conditional on the implementation of such plans.

  • Fund and carry out long-term research to breed crop varieties and cover crops that compete with and control weeds more effectively.

The grim reality being faced by farmers across the U.S.—and what can be done about it—is depicted in the following animation created by UCS member Nathan Shields of Draw4.Us.

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