Our Agrochemical Catch 22 - Part 02
How Chemistry Replaced Common Sense
In the early years of Roundup Ready (RR) crop adoption, herbicide use on corn, soybeans, and cotton did in fact drop by 15 percent (42 million pounds). Yet American farmers’ near-ubiquitous application of Roundup has led to a surge in superweeds - such as horseweed and giant ragweed - with a high tolerance to glyphosate. Since the first resistant species was detected in a Delaware soybean field in 2000, more than 10 resistant species have been spotted in at least 22 states. By 2013, according to USDA data, nearly 70 million acres of American farmland - an area the size of Wyoming - was infested with glyphosate-resistant weeds. This systemic issue has caused major economic problems for farmers who are forced onto the “pesticide treadmill.” Once on this metaphorical exercise machine, growers must spray resistant plants with more and more dangerous pesticides, in addition to Roundup treatment. The costs of such inputs can range from $12 to $50 an acre. In addition to propagating superweeds, the overuse of Roundup has been shown to:
- Damage the microbial life found in healthy soil
- Necessitate more frequent plowing, which increases the risk of soil erosion
- Reduce the uptake of micronutrients in plants - a key factor in crop nutrient deficiencies
- Travel from the root system of a targeted weed into the soil where it comes in contact with the adjacent roots of desirable plants and trees, ultimately killing them
- Contaminate drinking water via rainwater, surface runoff, and leaching into groundwater
- Perturb the bacterial symbionts of animals living near agricultural sites, including pollinators such as bees
By 2015, superweeds cost farmers $1 billion in crop damages. Meanwhile, seed and chemical companies continue to cash in on the crisis. Between 1996 and 2012, the global GE seed market skyrocketed from $115 million to $14.8 billion in sales (Figure 1). By 2017, Monsanto - one of the largest GE seed producers in the world - raked in $10.9 billion in net sales for its RR crops that are tolerant to an ever-growing number of powerful chemicals.
The Impact of Pesticides on Human Wellbeing
Glyphosate was once assumed to be safe because it inhibits an enzyme pathway behind plant growth - one that does not exist in mammals. Yet in the past 20 years, researchers have noticed that regularly applying pesticides is more harmful to human health than ever imagined. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC), found that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans,” triggering a wave of legal and legislative challenges. When three US universities went to conduct further studies into the impacts of glyphosate, it was concluded that individuals with high exposures to the broad-spectrum herbicide have a 41 percent increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a blood cell cancer.
Further concerns about glyphosate escalated in August of 2019, following a California jury’s decision, stating that Monsanto was liable for a terminally ill man’s cancer. This historic verdict forced the company to shell out $289 million in damages to Dewayne Johnson, a former groundskeeper tasked with spraying Roundup to control weeds. The jury stated that Monsanto acted with malice, proving that the corporation had “known for decades that...Roundup could cause cancer.” In light of this new evidence, it did not come as a surprise when in June of 2020, Bayer AG, the German pharmaceutical company that owns Monsanto, agreed to pay an additional $10 billion to settle more than 9,000 class-action lawsuits to those who rightfully asserted that their signature herbicide was responsible for their cancer diagnosis.
Other human health problems associated with glyphosate-based herbicide (GBH) exposure include but are not limited to:
- Alzheimer’s disease: Roundup exposure causes similar oxidative stress and neural cell death observed in Alzheimer’s disease.
- Heart disease: Glyphosate exposure can trigger lysosomal dysfunction - a key factor in cardiovascular disease and heart failure.
- Autism: Glyphosate’s capacity to promote aluminum accumulation in the brain may make it a primary cause of autism in the US.
- ADHD: Glyphosate’s ability to disrupt thyroid hormone functions can explain why there is a correlation between Roundup exposure and attention deficit disorder in rural communities.
- Depression: Glyphosate impacts the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep. Serotonin disturbance has been linked to an increased risk of depression.
Despite the prevalence of pesticides found in Americans and our food, the FDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the USDA, continue to claim that the chemical residues in our food and water supply are nothing to fret over. If you thought the recent legal settlements would mark the end of Bayer and Monsanto’s reign over farmers, think again. In the aftermath of these lawsuits, the agrochemical giant is moving ahead with a new breed of RR corn, referred to as MON 87429. The crop is resistant to at least 5 herbicides at once - including dicamba, 2,4-D, glyphosate, quizalofop, and glufosinate. If the USDA approves MON 87429, it will further perpetuate a system of food production that coerces unassuming farmers into a business model that is reliant on synthetic inputs.
What Needs to Change
Commercializing additional biotech solutions to tackle weed and pest management will do nothing more than increase food prices, lower crop yields, raise farm costs, and generate more pollution of land and water. A safer way forward is to halt the agrochemical arms race and to shift our attention towards ecological approaches to farming. As it stands, the US has established a range of acceptable pesticide intake levels - referred to as the “Reference Dose” (RfD). It is important to note that the data upon which these exposure levels are based upon is supplied by chemical manufacturers and is not available for independent review.
The US government must encourage farmers to return to non-chemical practices that emphasize soil building rather than soil supplementing. Regenerative methods like crop rotation and cover crops offer growers an opportunity to get off the pesticide treadmill, in addition to restoring their yields, controlling weeds, and increasing soil complexity while reducing the use of herbicides by about 90 percent. As always, thanks for listening to our lecture! Looking for an easy way to stay in the loop? Consider subscribing to The Regeneration Weekly. We scour the web to harvest a fresh serving of regenerative food and agriculture news, insights, and resources. Delivered to your inbox every Friday.