Wary of environmental disasters like the Dust Bowl, when deep plowing caused soil to uproot and fly about the country in giant wind storms, some farmers have longed embraced the practice of no-till agriculture. However, this environmentally friendly practice is no more for many farmers. A superweed has taken hold in America’s field, and farmers are being forced to kill it by plowing stronger herbicides into the soil. The New York Times reports that a new generation of superweeds is resistant to famed weed killer Roundup. Further, the weeds have evolved to become resistant to the herbicide, just as germs evolve to become resistant to bacteria. 

Roundup is made by agriculture giant Monsanto but is now sold under the generic name of glyphosate. Traditionally, it kills a wide range of weeds and has a lower environmental impact, as it breaks down rapidly. Monsanto genetically engineered a Roundup ready crop which today makes up about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn. These GMOs were chemically resistant to Roundup, so farmers were free to spray with abandon without harming their crops. But now up to 10 Roundup-resistant weed species in at least 22 states have sprung up. According to reports, these superweeds have infested millions of acres of soybeans, cotton and corn.

Consequently, farmers are now being forced to adopt less eco-friendly and more expensive practices. They are pulling weeds by hand, spraying with more toxic herbicides, and plowing the fields regularly. Experts are worried that this could lead to higher food prices with lower crop yields. Environmentalists point out that this will increase pollution of both land and water runoff.

Monsanto stands to lose millions if the superweeds continue to proliferate, as farmers will buy less Roundup and Roundup-ready seeds. The NY Times reports that the company is concerned enough that it is going to subsidize cotton farmers’ purchases of competing herbicides to supplement Roundup. Scientists are also encouraging farmers to alternate glyphosate with other herbicides.

Others are concerned that big agriculture will continue to develop plants that are resistant to herbicides, leading to a monopoly of the market. Bill Freese is a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington. As he tells the NY Times, “The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in the opposite direction.” Others point out that glyphosate is as important to food production as penicillin is to fighting infections. 

So what happens when these medicines no longer work? Louie Perry Jr. is a cotton grower whose great-great-grandfather started his farm in Georgia in 1830. As he concludes to the NY Times, “If we don’t whip this thing, it’s going to be like the boll weevil did to cotton … It will take (the crop) away.”

For further reading:

Roundup-resistant weeds plague farmers
Roundup, the former go-to of weed killers, no longer works on new “superweeds”.