Letter from Langdon: Ready for Roundup?

Chemical weed killers have become a big part of mainstream, commercial agriculture, saving farmers time and back-breaking labor. But they also come with a cost, as loss of effectiveness forces greater use just to keep up. Now there's a move afoot to add new patents to some of the old chemicals.


South Dakota State University.

Even though Great Britain allows the import of genetically modified crops and food containing GMO's, growing genetically altered plants is still on hold there. But glyphosate can be applied to wheat in the United Kingdom the same as it is here. 

We know it's done because glyphosate has been detected in grain harvested from treated plants.

Awhile back I found an interesting tidbit on glyphosate I never knew. According to what I read, the product was first formulated in 1964 by Stauffer Chemical Company to remove mineral deposits from pipes and boilers. The serendipitous discovery that it also killed plants on contact was then patented by Monsanto.

Later in New Zealand, when Stauffer tried to develop its own patented herbicide from glyphosate, Monsanto sued and won the right to be sole patent holder. That is similar to the way Monsanto was able to patent glyphosate-resistant genes in plants.

The rest is history.

We used atrazine in the ’60s and ’70s much the same way we use glyphosate today, but as a residual or longer- acting herbicide too. Over time, we’ve seen atrazine lose most of its effectiveness, just like Roundup, though the honeymoon may have lasted longer this time with glyphosate. We went from applying a little over a pound of atrazine here at home where we grew corn every year, to more than four pounds per acre when we stopped using it.

Obviously crop rotation was not part of the program, and certainly not possible, because crops like wheat and soybeans don’t tolerate atrazine. Eventually atrazine became totally ineffective as weed control. But some still say it has a use. Over the last few years, I have spoken many times with a corporate representative of a large chemical company who still defends the use of atrazine because he says it helps other, newer herbicides work more effectively.

Roundup still works on some of our weeds and grasses, but we have gone from very low rate of use to much higher ones, just like atrazine. Now, just as my chemical-company friend advocates for atrazine, we use glyphosate in conjunction with other herbicides. I noted this year on our farm that when reducing rates of one herbicide to my corn crop allowed some weeds to slip through, every mid- to late-season herbicide product available to correct the problem included some glyphosate.

It's gotta be in there!

Is that a bad thing? Well, it doesn't seem good. But maybe that's just the way nature and corporations work.

Now Dow Chemical Company wants to patent a gene that makes crops resistant to another of Dad’s old favorites, 2,4-D, that was first synthesized in 1941.

Environmentalists link 2,4-D to Vietnam War-era Agent Orange, associated with serious health side effects experienced by many Vietnam vets. But scientists say it wasn't 2,4-D in the mix that sickened people, but the dioxin that was part of the mixture.

[imgcontainer left] [img:L_GLYPHOSATE_by_year.png] [source]Via the U.S. Geological Survey

The graph shows the increase in Roundup usage from 1992 to 2011, with various colors denoting which crop farmers treated with the herbicide.

Old as it is, 2,4-D and members of its molecular family are still effective on most broadleaf weeds. It can be used before crops are planted and before seedlings emerge from the soil. And it can be applied to crops that have matured to kill growing weeds before harvest. It's also used in the development of new varieties of conventional crops. But there are concerns about planting crops that can tolerate 2,4-D anytime. That's because the chemical might be applied throughout the growing season with many adverse effects on less tolerant crops and ornamental vegetation when vapors or spray drifts well beyond the edges of treated fields.

That's nothing new to farmers, because that's always been a problem with herbicides, especially volatile ones like 2,4-D.

Genetic resistance to 2,4-D in crops could also mean gradual loss of 2,4-D effectiveness as farmers rely more and more on the old, inexpensive, patent-free generic standby.

Development of crops that resist 2,4-D is kind of a freebie for seed and chemical companies. They could develop a profitable, new patented gene based on an old chemical, in lieu of doing expensive research on new, better, safer herbicides.

Dad never followed through on his statement he could eat Roundup on his breakfast. And even though I have breathed and sometimes almost bathed in all sorts of pesticides — including 2,4-D — for most of my life, I really don't want to either.

Now the question is whether I have a choice.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.