Purdue University scientist Bill Johnson in soybean field confronting waterhemp
Farmer Mark Nelson bends down and yanks a four-foot-tall weed from his northeast Kansas soybean field. The “waterhemp” towers above his beans, sucking up the soil moisture and nutrients his beans need to grow well and reducing the ultimate yield. As he crumples the flowering end of the weed in his hand, Nelson grimaces.
“When we harvest this field, these waterhemp seeds will spread all over kingdom come,” he said.
Nelson’s struggle to control crop-choking weeds is being repeated all over America’s farmland. An estimated 11 million acres are infested with “super weeds,” some of which grow several inches in a day and defy even multiple dousings of the world’s top-selling herbicide, Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.
The problem’s gradual emergence has masked its growing menace. Now, however, it is becoming too big to ignore. The super weeds boost costs and cut crop yields for U.S. farmers starting their fall harvest this month. And their use of more herbicides to fight the weeds is sparking environmental concerns…
At the heart of the matter is Monsanto, the world’s biggest seed company and the maker of Roundup. Monsanto has made billions of dollars and revolutionized row crop agriculture through sales of Roundup and “Roundup Ready” crops genetically modified to tolerate treatment with Roundup.
The Roundup Ready system has helped farmers grow more corn, soybeans, cotton and other crops while reducing detrimental soil tillage practices, killing weeds easily and cheaply. But the system has also encouraged farmers to alter time-honored crop rotation practices and the mix of herbicides that previously had kept weeds in check.
And now, farmers are finding that rampant weed resistance is setting them back – making it harder to keep growing corn year in and year out, even when rotating it occasionally with soybeans. Farmers also have to change their mix and volume of chemicals, making farming more costly.
For Monsanto, it spells a threat to the company’s market strength as rivals smell an opportunity and are racing to introduce alternatives for Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds.
“You’ve kind of been in a Roundup Ready era,” said Tom Wiltrout, a global strategy leader at Dow AgroSciences, which is introducing an herbicide and seed system called Enlist as an alternative to Roundup.
Then there are countries taking the position that reduction in use of fertilizer, pesticides, herbicide – is beneficial for farmers and consumers alike. Even if it takes a bit longer and reduces short-term profits.
Think North American farmers would stand for that?