It’s a familiar cycle on farms. Food is a good thing until there’s too much or too little. That can be either because Mother Nature affected production or governments got involved. Prices react and farmers lose money.
Then we lose farmers.
Two things farmers think about most are the same but different: prices. First, there’s what we pay for things we buy. And second, there’s how much we get for what we sell.
Farming in the 1970s and ’80s was all about doing more with less because there were crop and livestock surpluses, and high interest rates on borrowed money. (Most of us borrow at least some of the money we use to buy things like replacement animals, feed, seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, equipment, and the buildings to house all of it while paying the transportation costs.)
That’s when no-till cropping first took hold, as a way to cut costs. Depending on where they lived and worked, other farmers chose tillage as the cheaper way rather than buying expensive pesticides.
To each his own.
One game changer that came along in the ’70s was a non-selective weed killer named glyphosate that the chemical company Monsanto christened Roundup. Monsanto didn’t discover glyphosate. It was a Swiss chemist named Henry Martin who in 1950 created it to clean pipes. It turned out the chemicals that create hard-water scale are also plant nutrients–like calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
Twenty years later a chemist working for Monsanto discovered glyphosate’s herbicidal activity on plants. That’s when Monsanto patented Roundup.
In comparison to some other herbicides of the time, Roundup was very expensive when it first came out. Since none of the crops we grew then were resistant, it killed just about everything it touched. We first used it to eliminate hand weeding of fence rows and road sides around the farm with grim consequences when wind or overspray carried it into surrounding fields.
Eventually farmers and manufacturers adapted recycling sprayers that shot thin streams of diluted roundup across and above the crop canopy, spraying only the taller growing weeds. Any time plants didn’t intercept the spray, it was caught, filtered, and returned to the sprayer tank for reuse. Other farmers made what we called weed wipers, consisting of a framework with nylon rope or some other spongy material mounted on the frame and connected to a tank of diluted roundup. Valves controlled the amount of chemical wicking into the wipers. The whole thing was usually mounted on a farm tractor and carried just above the crop canopy where it rubbed the solution onto taller weeds. Still other farmers mounted a spray bar on their tractor with seats where riders (usually family members and friends) used hand sprayers to spray weeds as they passed by.
Even though roundup was expensive, costs for using it this way were usually very reasonable if weeds weren’t too plentiful. That’s because the more weeds in the field, the more Roundup was used. And all of it replaced tedious and expensive hand labor as the only alternative in crops like soybeans or cotton. Some farmers even used wipers or recirculators to control rogues, or genetic misfits, in fields of grain sorghum. But there was always a concern that off-target spray could kill the crop, and grass relatives like grain sorghum or corn were very susceptible to glyphosate. Just a drop or two could kill the whole plant.
All that changed when crops were modified to tolerate glyphosate. Now, farmers could spray the chemical on both weeds and the crop, and only the weeds would die. When the patent on Roundup expired, Monsanto began to extract profits previously gained through chemical sales from patented Roundup Ready seeds instead.
There was plenty of competition in generic Roundup markets but not so much for the endless procession of corporate patented seeds. As more crops became tolerant and farmer acceptance grew, glyphosate got cheaper when manufacturing moved to China. Seeds got more expensive.
Suddenly a product that farmers once used as little as possible began to be broadcast over hundreds of thousands of acres of corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. As weeds became naturally resistant, glyphosate got still cheaper, and farmers upped the amount of glyphosate they added to spray tanks so that we went from using 800,000 pounds in 1974 to 250 million pounds in 2014.
One bit of research, largely overlooked by all but a few, is the effect of glyphosate on soils. Remember how glyphosate was first used, to flush mineral deposits from pipes? Some research has shown that glyphosate can do the same thing to plants and soils, making them less healthy when vital nutrients are flushed away by glyphosate mixtures.
As usual with all chemicals, one side presents research supporting connections to bad things, with the other side funding studies showing the opposite. Consumers want healthy food, cheap as they can get it. Consumer groups warn of chemicals and genetically modified plants. Agriculture says it’s all perfectly safe, and without it food costs would be higher.
Remember though, that “Agriculture” is comprised of both farms and their corporate sponsors who make profits no matter how well farmers do.
On most farms, glyphosate has lost a lot of its efficacy against broadleaf weeds but is still very effective on grassy weeds. Now it’s used in many commercial formulations much the same way the herbicide atrazine is used, not as the sole killer but as a habitual backup to other chemicals.
With so much glyphosate being used these days, it’s starting to show up in our food. Because of that, and because research has identified glyphosate as a potential carcinogen, the Food and Drug Administration has announced they will begin to test some food for glyphosate residue. Is it too much of a good thing?
Only time will tell.
Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter from Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.