While I have generally focused on the positive contributions technology makes to our lives, and the opportunities it creates to benefit both people and planet, this column will sadly have to take a different tack. Technology can bless us, but it can also burden and even bury us. The story of herbicides is a somber case of the latter.
WEEDS, WEEDS, EVERYWHERE
For home gardeners and food growers, weeds can be a perennial problem. The more the ground is disturbed, the more the weeds appear and advance. As agriculture became more and more dependent upon tillage and soil disturbance, weeds became more and more problematic, especially for larger-scale growers. Intensive monoculture agriculture from the Roman Empire on has always faced this issue. The ancient solution was slave or similar cheap manual labor to carry out the back-breaking work of crop cultivation.
For modern agriculture, the solution has not been to move toward more environmentally sensible, ecologically smart farming systems, but to a dependence upon chemicals, especially the leftovers from chemical arms developments in times of war. While many people claim that the U.S. has never experienced a war with invaders on its own shores, our native soil, plants and animals would likely differ.
Defoliants and other warfare chemicals related to nerve gases were found to be effective not only against enemy troops but to annihilate at-home pests, of both the plant and insect varieties. A new paradigm of agriculture was born, built not on partnership with nature, but on the violent terms of war, plunder and domination.
Now a household name, and in some circles a four-letter word, Roundup (brand name of the active ingredient glyphosate) became the herbicide par excellence among farmers and suburban home owners alike. Indeed, Roundup is used not solely for weed control, but also as a desiccant to hurry harvest of such crops as wheat. The problem? It also killed many crop plants along with those pesky weeds. The solution? Genetic modification (GM) technology, to create plants that would withstand dousing with this potent poison. Roundup’s use is so widespread that in 2007 it was estimated that just under two hundred million pounds of it was used in the U.S. alone.1
Yet people tend not to learn the lesson that nature cannot be scorned. Nor can she be so easily beaten. Over the past four decades of herbicide and pesticide dependence, like a drug addict needing ever greater highs, industrial ag finally hit a snag. The law of diminishing returns set in. Nature adopted and adapted. She fought back. As with the rise of antibiotic resistance and new, deadlier strains of bacterial diseases, weeds and insects have also adapted to this ill- informed approach to agriculture.
Now we find ourselves surrounded by quickly spreading super weeds and super bugs, resistant to glyphosate and Bt (found in crops containing a gene from the insect-toxic bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis). Roundup-resistant weeds now occupy well over sixty million acres of real estate in the U.S., are found on fifty percent of surveyed farms, and include over two dozen types of plants.2 The spread was sudden, expansive and certain.
Undaunted, Big Ag came up with a solution. Supported by nearly all departments of the federal government and subsidized heavily by the same, their plan is perfectly positioned to ensure the continued dominance of industrial agriculture at the high cost of citizens’ dollars and health, while assuring the continued spread of new generations of resistant species, both plant and insect, with potentially more detriment to the rest of nature.
NEXT GENERATION HERBICIDES
When the inevitable end of the “miracle” of glyphosate and Bt-genetically engineered traits and chemicals arrived, agro-death dealers immediately began working on the next generation of herbicides and herbicide-resistant GM strains of common commodity crops. Government agency lapdogs EPA and FDA will waste tens of thousands of dollars assailing small, honest, and integrity-driven businesses like Wilderness Family Naturals and essential oil companies, while speedily rubber-stamping Big Ag science and chemical concoctions safety reports.
One of the new herbicides is aminopyralid, first registered for use in 2005 in the U.S. under the brand name Milestone, among many others. From Dow Agro-Sciences’s own product report: “Aminopyralid is a recently introduced herbicide developed by Dow AgroSciences to help control noxious, poisonous and invasive broadleaf weeds. . . [and] was accepted for review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under its Reduced Risk Pesticide Initiative and met all guidelines for the registration of an herbicide in the U.S..”
There is a lot that could be said about this slick piece of PR. It is instructive to note, first of all, that most broadleaf plants are neither weeds nor noxious. This castigation befell many of them because their presence disturbed the homogenous tableaux of turf grasses in suburban lawns even while many of them benefitted lawns, gardens, and pastures, such as the clover family, which fixes nitrogen, attracts pollinators, and supports the soil food web. Many of them are also beneficial to us, nutritionally speaking. Some so-called weeds contain ten to one hundred times the nutrition of modern lettuces and green vegetables.
By re-christening these plants as “weeds,” lawn care and chemical companies got a two-for-the-price-of-one deal. First, they charge customers to kill off said “weeds” and then again to apply chemical concoctions to replace what the weeds naturally provided to the soil food web and ecosystem. A sinister arrangement based on ignorance and greed.
Further, aminopyralid is of concern to vegetable growers, as it can enter the food chain via manure, which contains long-lasting residues of the herbicide. Its sale has been suspended in various parts of the world, but that has not stopped instances of contamination from continuing to crop up in those countries. Such suspensions have generally been short-lived, as regulatory bodies merely impose a “strict program of stewardship,” which theoretically protects the public from these poisons.
One of the main ingredients of Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War, was 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid, more commonly known as 2,4-D. This herbicide, associated with many health problems, is now making a reprise in concert with glyphosate in a very recent product debut, again by Dow AgroSciences. Using a trade name with decidedly military flavor, Enlist, this latest cocktail of poisons was registered by the EPA in October 2014 for restricted use in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin. In 2013, the product was approved by Canada for the same uses, namely as a replacement for the original Roundup-Ready system that is now losing ground to the rise of “super weeds.”
Already environmental groups predict a new wave of resistant weeds will develop in response to deployment of the Enlist system, which is designed to be applied to corn and soybean crops (and soon cotton) genetically modified to resist both herbicides. The chemical arms race, like any arms race, has no endpoint other than mutually assured destruction (MAD).
PROTECT YOUR POTATOES!
With aminopyralid in particular, there is no current test to detect its presence in soils. So for growers, fastidious practices are needed to protect food plants. First, any compost should be bio-assayed before purchase (see sidebar below) until testing for aminopyralid contamination becomes affordable and available. Second, for those needing hay, visually inspect the fields before and during harvest. If the field lacks clovers and similar broadleaf plants, there is reason for concern. Milestone is a broad leaf herbicide, so any field that lacks typical broadleaf pasture plants is a prime suspect for having had it, or a similar product applied at some point. Good hay should contain a perennial polyculture of various grasses mixed with other species.
Also, note the risk of fence lines and other boundary areas. Many farmers won’t spray their main fields, but may use these chemicals for fence lines, around outbuildings, and other similar maintenance applications. This means that the hay, straw or animal manures from grazing along these areas may be contaminated. Some bales of hay or straw may thus be clean, while others may be heavily contaminated.
The best defense is a good relationship with the people who supply your growing inputs and clear communication about your concerns. Getting a written agreement that inputs are raised without herbicides is an important precaution and alerts your grower to the high level of vigilance you require.
Understand that destroying a farm’s or homestead’s economic future for many years is as simple as having “bought hay at auction, fed it to my horses, and put the manure in my hoop houses.” Realize that the people who produce this poison have one thing to say to you when your farm and financial future are destroyed by their deeds: “What I was told by Dow is that they are not legally responsible for it.”3
You must be absolutely sure of what you are obtaining as a grower of any scale and kind. The chemical companies deny any and all responsibility for damage caused by contamination from their killer moneymakers. Their bureaucratic buddies and political pals ensure these protections are in place.
Only you can protect your growing spaces. Also, in cases of damage caused by overspray and drift, the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund may be able to help if you document the incident properly and promptly.
SURELY ORGANIC GROWERS ARE FREE FROM THIS PLAGUE?
The main focus of this article is the new wave of herbicides spilling over into sustainable growers’ gardens and growing systems, with sometimes catastrophic results. Imagine an herbicide that has a half-life of three to five years, damages and destroys plants at one part per billion, breaks down only very slowly in compost systems and healthy soils, and passes through ruminant animals’ digestive tracts and into their manures unmolested. Say hello to aminopyralid, a grower’s worst nightmare.
With four different ways it can end up in gardens—manure, compost (municipal or farm-made), straw and hay—aminopyralid and several others are some of the worst of a host of the next-generation herbicides. But aminopyralid so far leaves them all in the dust in terms of danger and damage, though all must be avoided.
If aminopyralid makes it into a grower’s soil, for the next three to five years the only crop they can hope to grow is . . . corn. Yes, there is some real irony that one of the two main crops responsible for the development of this herbicide is the only thing you can grow if it gets into your ground. If a grower is certified organic, his certification is immediately lost for three or more years. If you have limited space, your only option is to pay to have all your dirt removed, regardless of how thick, healthy and happy your humus is. That dirt is now death, and there is nothing you can do to resurrect it quickly.
In the northeast U.S., thousands of backyard and organic growers, thinking they were doing the “green thing,” picked up municipal compost or composted animal manures for use in fertility building, only to find out later that their choice was fatal. In England, legions of gardens now lie fallow following exposure. Yet use is continuing to increase and spread for this herbicide from hell and others like it.
BIO-ASSAY FOR COMPOST SAFETY
Until reliable tests for herbicide contamination are available, growers must rely on less precise methods. Bio-assays require advance planning, since you will need at least four to six weeks to complete the test, and will want a time cushion in case something goes wrong with the trial and you must retest. You don’t want to be a few weeks out from planting only to realize that you lack certainty regarding the safety of your soil.
The bio-assay is a typical high school science experiment, involving two sets of plants, one using known clean planting soil, one using soil containing compost or other inputs that may be herbicide contaminated. A full explanation of this method, along with helpful pictures, is available for free from Washington State University, puyallup.wsu.edu/soilmgmt/Pubs/CloBioassay.pdf
3. http://www.biocycle.net/2011/06/16/the-aminopyralidchallenge-continues/; http://www.biocycle.net/2011/06/16/dupont-label-says-do-not-compost-grass-clippings/;
http://www.cornucopia.org/2014/03/roundup-weedkiller-found-75-air-rain-samples-gov-study-finds; http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/the-microbiota-crisis-how-the-herbicideglyphosate-is-killing-microbiomes/; http://www.ncagr.gov/spcap/pesticides/documents/AminopyralidGardenerResponse29Apr09.pdf
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2015