Because we are not a certified organic farm we often get to field questions about the crop techniques we use in crop production, frequently in how we deal with pests and our control techniques which often require the use of agricultural chemicals. Oftentimes it is usually a matter of curiosity for our patrons or they may be experiencing a problem in their gardens. Sometimes it is with alarm in their voice and concern for what they perceive we may be doing to the environment, so we try to answer candidly and transparently. Recently there has been an uptick in the concern over a chemical known to the public as Roundup. I say at the outset of this blog my discussion should in no way be construed as advocacy for chemical use, but maybe as a vehicle to better understand what Roundup is, how it works, and how we use it . And again, I am not a chemist. I don’t clearly understand about molecular bonding or the relevance of the P orbital in chemistry. I am just trying to create a favorable environment for a tomato or strawberry plant. Most of what I know is what I read from the EPA about ag chemicals trade journals or the internet.
For starters, Roundup is a trade name. The actual chemical itself is glyphosate, and the Roundup is 41% glyphosate and the balance of the product are inert substances-water, mineral oil, mineral powders etc). Glyphosate is available from many chemical companies, but marketed and labeled as a generic glyphosate in a 41% solution. A parallel example would be Advil, which is a trade name for the active ingredient ibuprofen. The rest of the pill is made up of inert ingredients to hold the pill together, perhaps a few buffering agents to reduce the risk of stomach irritation. And like glyphosate, ibuprofren is sold by many different manufacturers and trade labels. Rite Aid, CVS and Walmart have their own labels.
Roundup, has been around in agriculture since the 70’s. Yes, we have and continue to periodically use it here on the farm. It is known as a systemic herbicide, which means it actually gets taken up by the plant into the vascular system, and translocates through the tissue to all parts of the plant on a cellular level and eventually the plant sickens and dies. Many of the fruit and vegetable growers in the northeast singularly use this when opening up sod ground to prepare for planting. It is called a broad spectrum herbicide, which means it works on a wide range of plants. For us, it is particularly effective on the pesky weed “quack grass” or also known as “witchgrass”. (See elytrigia repens in Google) It most likely is a pest for you as well in your perennial beds and borders. This weed is resilient, persistent and the only successful and practical method for organic culture is fallowing the ground for a year (you can go to Google for ”fallowing” as well). The problem with fallowing it that it has shown to be a practice that is harmful to soil structure, soil flora and fauna and burns precious carbon. So until something better emerges, periodic use of glyphosate seems preferable in our soil management practices here on the farm. Lest you think that it gets us out of hoeing the berries and vegetables and pulling weeds…think again. But it does get rid of quack grass for us prior to planting, and that is huge.
Additionally glyphosate is pretty safe to use for the applicator, with low chronic and acute toxicity. Homeowners can buy premixed gallon applicators at the box store, hardware store or garden center (not ours) to surgically spray those pesky weeds that dare show up in the cracks of the driveway pavement. So it has a widespread application, and therein the problem begins.
My first gallon of Roundup came to the farm in the late 1970’s. It was manufactured by the company BASF. My experience prior with BASF was that one of the company’s products was magnetic recording tape (remember vinyl records, reel-to-reel tape recorders and analog generated music?) BASF was the music industry’s go-to product in the recording studios. No matter, we used their Roundup to reduce the quack grass problems prior to planting our strawberries. It was easy for the handler, and it worked like magic on the quack grass. Somewhere in the 80’s Monsanto purchased the company from BASF and the fun began. They initiated a R and D program to genetically create corn, soybean, and grains that were resistant to Roundup ( I think a line of potato varieties as well, but not sure on that. But I will bet that 90% of the tofu in the American markets is made from GMO soybeans).The business model not only sold gobs of Roundup as weed control , but they could also sell farmers all the seed to go with it. It was a very big deal and, of course, America was going to feed the world as well as make farmers money. But if you follow any money, you start to find a lot of lawyers along the way. All the GMO stuff was very tightly controlled and proprietary to Monsanto, such that you had to sign binding legal agreements with them to not “save seed” and were required to use Monsantos’ Roundup before you were even allowed to buy the herbicide. Monsantos’ legal department even went so far as to try to prosecute next door neighbors whom had traditionally saved their own seed, even if they were organic and never had bought a thing from Monsanto. In highly publicized court cases, it often pitted Monsantos’ legal team against smaller family farms who saved seed from year to year under the aegis that the farmers were indirectly using and profiting from Monsantos Technology and expensive research and development when non-monsanto grains accidentally cross pollinated with Monsanto products. And, in a few cases, they actually made that argument stick in court. It was a surprise to me to hear of it, but then again, the Midwest is America’s commodity ag belt, and there is a different politic out there than there is in New England. Globally, Monsanto marched into the Mideast and Africa and hard-sold their program to local farmers. Promising success (as well as high cost of inputs) they enlisted many farmers into their grains programs only to have the farmers realize that the Monsanto GMO varieties could not compete perform in these alien geographic regions, and in many cases came up short in comparison to the varieties that had been used from saving seeds by local farmers for generations. All they ended up with was a big bill from seeds and Roundup.
About 10 years ago I had a conversation with a local farmer in Guatemala who was growing about 4 acres of the local “holy trinity”; corn, dried bean, and okra. He farmed by hand on a hillside. He had a beautiful ornamental garden by his house, and a part time job guiding tourists into a cave with Mayan artifacts on his property. In conversation I asked him if he had ever considered trying some different varieties of dried bean from America (see your Johnny’s Select Seed catalog, the section on dried beans) and he turned to me and said “Why would I want to turn my back on 3000 years of annual genetic selection?” It took me 20 minutes to get my foot out of my mouth..
Monsanto went about its business of selling hard (and successfully) a bag of goods to global ag. Suffice to say, it’s hard to imagine the quantity of Roundup that was (and is) continually being sprayed on land year after year in our Midwest alone. I return to the parallel example of Roundup and Advil. There can be benefit for me if I take some Advil. I sleep more comfortably on the beaten up shoulders and back if I take a couple of Advil at bedtime, and when I yank or twist something, it really helps in pain management. But Doc says if I take too much, my kidneys are not going to be too happy. Additionally, I love a good fast food cheeseburger (man does not live by kale alone) and a good Irish whiskey. But if I saturate my body with either of them I stand a pretty good chance of ending up with some undesirable side effects. My feeling is the same about glyphosate. When I feel it’s the best choice for a problem, I am greatful to have it. But Monsanto has taken that product and made farmers-world-wide dump an unimaginable amount of that product into the environment. And there are bound to be problems when something is used that ubiquitously and in such quantity. And truthfully, Monsanto has not gone out of its way to make many friends in its quest for marketshare, and that has generated negative press. All giving “Roundup” a lot of attention and press.
Most people who ask questions about our farming practices and us of applications don’t really know what Roundup or glyphosate is. They cannot tell you what GMO stands for. I understand that as I oftentimes don’t even know the acronyms that the USDA lays on us farmers. But perhaps glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) suffers a bit by being misunderstood, and more from the fact that Monsanto generated so much bad press by its aggressive marketing department and its proprietary behaviors. It’s a vortex of many issues. It is going to be even more complicated going forward. The other day an ag extension agent informed that the giant chemical corporation Bayer (Think of aspirin. Aspirin isn’t all they make..) just gobbled up Monsanto in a merger/acquisition. I didn’t realize they were that big..but evidently in comparison they are Goliath to Monsanto’s David. Time will tell us whether they are going to be better global citizens.