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.
When I was a kid, I worked next to my folks pulling weeds from around fences and buildings on the farmstead every Saturday afternoon. Those were the days.
Starting when it was first released in 1974, the herbicide Roundup became a great labor saver for us. Dad loved to spray it around the farm, killing all those weeds and grasses without ever once shaking out a root ball.
He thought Roundup was the best thing ever.
I also remember the time Dad sprayed too close to the corn east of the house on a windy day, killing off about half an acre. That's when he said if we could ever develop crops immune to Roundup, the farmer would have it made.
He died a year before Roundup Ready soybeans were released in 1994.
Dad always read the label, even if he didn't take it to heart. He used to say Roundup was so benign, you could eat it on your breakfast cereal. He also pointed out it made a great hand cleaner. That’s true, it did. Grease comes right off with Roundup. That may have been at least in part due to soapy chemicals that help the product coat plants evenly. But it’s also a characteristic of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
Besides being a farmer, for awhile during the ’60s and ’70s Dad ran a farm-supply business that sold feed, fertilizer and farm chemicals of the day. An old farmer once told me he owed everything to my dad, who convinced him to apply another herbicide different from Roundup, atrazine, to his weedy corn crop.
We used that one on our farm too.
Dad carried epinephrine tablets in his pocket because he had allergic reactions to much of what he sold: aldrin, heptachlor, malathion, lindane, methoxychlor. And he sold chemicals known only by letters and or numbers: DDT; 2,4,5-T; and 2,4-D.
I worked for Dad in his chemical warehouse when I was a high-school teenager. It wasn't unusual for me to have a stiff neck by the end of the day, something Dad said was the result of being so close to so many pesticides.
He was never concerned by that.
I took this trip down memory lane when a friend contacted me the other day, asking about glyphosate application to wheat. Though Monsanto has developed glyphosate-resistant wheat, none to date has been approved for sale. So if we don't have Roundup Ready wheat, why are wheat farmers using glyphosate?
With a few reservations, glyphosate can be applied to wheat and small grains as a desiccant, which removes moisture by causing the plant to die. That's according to 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.
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.