Our Agrochemical Catch 22 - Part 01

Parker Hughes
Nov 25, 2020

The Rise of Agrochemicals

Since the emergence of the chemical industry after World War II, agriculture has grown increasingly reliant on herbicides and insecticides - together referred to as pesticides - to control weeds, fungi, and other voracious pests that crowd cropland. In 1970, Dr. John Franz, a Monsanto chemist, identified the herbicidal activity of glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Roundup. By 1974, the potent product was patented and brought to market as a labor-saving weedkiller for agricultural use. 

Almost five decades later, glyphosate residue can be found in soil, crops, animals that feed on crops, humans, freshwater, and the organisms that live there. In 2017, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) detected pesticides in 84 percent of fruit and 53 percent of vegetable samples, as well as 42 percent of grains and 73 percent of food samples labeled “other.” A year earlier, researchers found a 1,000 percent increase in the levels of glyphosate in California residents urine between 1993 and 2016. It is evident that Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) are passing through crop products and livestock onto our dinner plates.

Glyphosate has been referred to as a “once-in-a-century herbicide” because of its outsized effect on farming. In the time between its commercialization in 1974 and 2014, over 3.5 billion pounds of GBHs were applied to US croplands, two-thirds of which was sprayed in the ten years prior. Domestic farmers’ increasing dependence on chemical cocktails has not come without concerns. As the global market for agrochemicals surpasses $243 billion, a growing body of scientific evidence is making a compelling case for how the widespread application of Roundup and GBHs pose numerous risks to the health of agroecosystems and humans alike.

How Glyphosate Works

After spraying glyphosate on undesirable plants, the herbicide rapidly moves to areas of active growth. It nimbly blocks the activity of the enzyme referred to as EPSPS, which plays an important role in the shikimic acid pathway; a seven-step metabolic pathway used by bacteria, fungi, and plants for the biosynthesis of folates and aromatic amino acids. By obstructing EPSPS, glyphosate prevents plants from producing the essential proteins they need to survive. In addition to being applied as a broad-spectrum herbicide, glyphosate is also a patented antibiotic. As such, it is adept at killing beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms that exist in complex soil. In the absence of these microorganisms, harmful soil-borne pathogens like Fusarium can take over and kill weakened plants. Thus, when applied to the land in excess, glyphosate degrades soil to a point where it is incapable of producing nutrient-dense food. 

Monsanto’s Marketing Strategy

It was not until the late 1990s that the use of Roundup surged, thanks in part to Monsanto’s master marketing scheme. In 1996, the agrochemical behemoth introduced the “Roundup Ready” (RR) soybean, a herbicide-resistant seed. This genetically engineered (GE) product could withstand being sprayed with glyphosate, which kills off 125 kinds of annual and perennial weeds. Following the commercialization of RR soybeans, Monsanto debuted patented lines of corn, cotton, and alfalfa with a laundry list of alluring benefits: higher yields, lower input costs, and the potential to chip away at agriculture’s environmental impact. In theory, planting herbicide-resistant plants would help farmers make fewer applications of Roundup without having to resort to more severe pesticides. Monsanto went one step further and also encouraged farmers to spray Roundup on non-GE crops as a desiccant - a drying agent that makes it easier to harvest and store a plant without it rotting.

More than two decades later, GE products have failed to live up to the benefits promised by the companies that patented them. The sheer volume of Roundup and GBHs used in agriculture is a clear symptom of farming gone wrong. Between 1996 and 2011, in contrast to Monsanto’s stated goal, the use of RR crops increased US herbicide use by 527 million pounds. The amount of GBHs applied to the three biggest GE crops - corn, cotton, and soybeans - rose 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012. Since then, the share of crops produced using proprietary seeds has continued to grow. According to US Department of Agriculture (USDA) data, 94 percent of domestic soybeans, 91 percent of cotton, and 90 percent of corn were genetically engineered in 2018.

Taken from USDA.com

Stay tuned for the Part 02 coming soon! In the next article, we will be examining the deleterious effects of agrochemicals on people and the planet. In the meantime, please consider subscribing to The Regeneration Weekly. We scour the web to harvest a fresh serving of regenerative agriculture news, insights, and resources. Delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Parker Hughes
Associate at Soilworks Natural Capital
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