Organic glyphosate?

I promised a post this week on technology and the Amish but for various reasons I’m going to hold that over for a couple of weeks – mostly pressure of work, including attending the launch of a UK Via Campesina branch over the weekend, a very exciting development. More on that in another post soon.

Still, I don’t want to disappoint my avid readers so I thought I’d tide you over with a few thoughts on glyphosate, culled from some links on Ford Denison’s excellent Darwinian Agriculture blog.

First up is this interesting discussion about herbicides and organic farming. The problem: you grow a grass/legume ley – the key organic fertility-building strategy – but then you need to get rid of it in order to plant your crop. How? In organic farming you basically have to till, which isn’t great for a whole bunch of reasons already discussed on this blog. And it’s energy intensive, which is one of the factors underlying the common refrain that organic farming compares unfavourably with ‘efficient’ conventional agriculture. So should organic farmers learn from their conventional counterparts and start killing off their leys with herbicides like glyphosate? Of course, that’s presently banned under organic standards, but maybe it’s time to rethink the rigidity of the standards and make them deal better with difficult ecological tradeoffs like tillage/herbicide. Or so says Andy McGuire in his blog post. Cue interesting, well informed and polite discussion. How refreshing.

I’ve argued before on this site that the heavy soils and moist climate hereabouts in Somerset incline me to think that judicious tillage in my situation may not be the great evil that is often supposed, but on balance it’s hard to get too enthusiastic about tillage as a wise agricultural strategy. With drier climates and lighter soils there’s little doubt that it is a great evil – soil erosion is one of the greatest threats to agricultural sustainability – and since such regions are often major food exporters this isn’t a problem that anyone can dismiss lightly.

So should we lobby IFOAM to allow glyphosate derogations? Well, it would help if President Obama could nationalise Monsanto once he’s outsmarted the NRA and removed every last gun from the US. And about as likely. Even then I’m not really persuaded about the wisdom of using glyphosate routinely, but there’s a genuine dilemma here. Other ideas discussed on the website included grazing regimens and that good old permaculture standby, mulching. Of course mulching would be great, but it’s not practical on agricultural scales – so perhaps here’s yet another argument for small-scale horticulture over agriculture. Mulching is a lot of work, mind you. And with millions of merry mulchers, you do wonder where all that mulch would come from. Invest in the used carpet trade – you read it here first.

Andy McGuire made the interesting point that glyphosate may be a once in a lifetime discovery – in other words, it won’t be easy to find another comparably effective non-selective, translocated and (relatively?) benign herbicide. A shame, then, that glyphosate resistance in weeds is already developing apace (they say a picture’s worth a thousand words, and the photo on the previous link of glyphosate-resistant corn being overtopped by what’s now glyphosate-resistant ragweed speaks volumes for what’s wrong with modern agriculture). Moreover, the possibility of direct gene flow from transgenic glyphosate-resistant plants to weedy wild plants now seems established. Be afraid. But don’t be surprised – there’s no such thing as an ideal agriculture. Pests and weeds will adapt to whatever management strategies you apply to the agroecosystem. But I’d have thought that if your management strategy involves copious routine spraying of a non-selective herbicide, then it’s fairly obvious that the useful lifespan of your chosen toxin will probably be short. Perhaps there’s another unlearned historical lesson there from the story of antibiotics.

So how about this future scenario, which appeals to my sense of historical irony? On conventional farms weed resistance renders glyphosate ineffective as a routine management measure, forcing farmers to resort to energy intensive and environmentally destructive tillage, at least until they’ve re-established some kind of crop-weed balance on their farms. Meanwhile organic or quasi-organic farmers, whose farms lack the superweeds, use glyphosate sparingly, spraying just a small proportion of their fields every few years as part of a mixed overall farming strategy, thereby keeping resistance at bay. And the press write endless accusatory articles about the inefficiency of ‘conventional’ agriculture compared to the sensible mixed strategies of the mainstream organic farmers, and gleefully point out that conventional agriculture will never feed the world. Well, everyone  can dream…

9 thoughts on “Organic glyphosate?

  1. And a really cute dream – that one.

    But here’s a quibble. How will organic producers prevent encroachment to their lands of herbicide resistant weeds? Will there be some mechanism in place to stop the wind. Will a ‘no-fly-zone’ be established to prevent weed seed carrying birds from flitting overhead? Can all manner of feral critter be stopped at the boundary of organic fields to be exquisitely brushed (or otherwise ‘de-seeded’)?

    And another quibble – what of glufosinate (Liberty) as a possible alternative to Roundup? Not that this is a total solution. One imagines that in time there will also be Liberty resistant weeds (if there aren’t already).

    Quibbling aside – its still a pretty cute dream.

  2. Hi Clem

    Yes, excellent ideas – I’d like to add a no wind zone and no fly zones for birds to my dream. Especially no fly zones for pigeons and crows, but maybe not for the barn owl that’s recently taken up residence on our site. Oh, and perhaps a bit of wind for pollination etc. Hmm this dream is getting complicated…

    Yes, I guess eventually the superweeds would catch up with the organic farmers too. I’d be interested to know how quickly. From what I’ve read my sense is that most seed doesn’t travel all that far, and if farmers aren’t routinely spraying everything then the resistant weeds wouldn’t be so strongly selected. I’d be interested to know about quantitative assessments of weed ingress rates – Ford probably has some in his book, but I read it over three months ago, which sadly is about as long as I seem to be able to remember anything.

    I’m interested in your point about glufosinate – being an organic grower, I’m blissfully ignorant about all these different herbicides. Do you think it ticks the boxes that glyphosate can’t reach?

    • Tick the boxes? I suppose – at least for now.

      I’m not aware of any glufosinate resistant weeds right now. It has a different mode of action compared to roundup, so the roundup resistant weeds can currently be controlled. There are glufosinate resistant crops (all are GMO to my knowledge) such as corn and soybean.

      As for weed ingress – I forgot to include two other sources (and still others may lurk beyond my experience) First – improperly screened seed. This may be more an issue for seed savers and small holders (though I personally have had one experience of planting seed sourced from a multinational that contained a weed seed). Second – uncleaned grain fed to livestock (pigs and chickens especially) with resulting livestock manure spread onto uninfested acres.

      And on the matter of wind moving things… think pollen more than the actual seed.

      • Sorry for the delay in replying – I had some website problems. Ah yes, pollen – good point. I’l put it down to posting late at night when I wasn’t thinking straight. Oh well, it was a nice dream but I think it might have to end like many bad stories do with “and then I woke up”.

        Presumably glufosinate resistance is likely to go the same way as glyphosate resistance though if it’s managed in a similar way, the main problem being the management strategy rather than the herbicide per se.

  3. Your dream isn’t so ridiculous. Weeds don’t move among farms nearly as much as insects do. Despite the various modes of movement mentioned above, Boswell Ranch has essentially eliminated weeds, to the point that they rarely use herbicides, or so I’ve heard. It presumably helps that they’re so huge, reducing the ratio of area to perimeter. So a small organic farm surrounded by herbicide-abusing neighbors could have trouble, but maybe a cluster of small organic farms could try your approach.

    One could argue that even very limited use of glyphosate would be a slippery slope leading to widespread use of more-dangerous chemicals, but I say “if we let them use the slippery-slope argument this time, who knows how they’ll use it in the future?”

    Hasn’t glyphosate’s patent expired?

    • Thanks for that, Ford. I particularly like your anti-slippery slope argument, which I will try to remember for future use.

      Interesting point on perimeter to area ratio, which slightly undermines another one of my dreams, namely a future for small farming (not to mention the permaculturist’s love of maximising edge). But then again I guess it could be framed in terms of dominant agroecosystem styles rather than farm size as such.

    • The glyphosate patent has expired. But what has that to do with this discussion? There are still some weeds it will control, and for these it is a fine choice.

  4. Some of us suffered digging up brambles, bindweed and couch grass (etc). You greens told us it was unacceptable to spray! I lost my temper with slugs (3 sowings of French beans!) and nuked them with chemicals last year so I sympathise. A moment of madness took me over as I looked at the stumps of my crops. But really, shouldn’t we shamefully keep these indiscretions to ourselves and not advocate them as a strategy? Just a thought…

    • Don’t worry, I’ve been there too mate. And I’m not really advocating it as a strategy, I’m advocating it as something to discuss. I think it’s fine for home gardeners to err occasionally and keep quiet about it if they wish, but not for commercial growers. I do think commercial growers need to raise the tricky tradeoffs that they face with their customers and certifying bodies though, and have a good discussion about the issues. As someone sagely points out on the web discussion linked above, the problem with the organic standards is that they’re a ‘one size fits all’ solution, whereas what we really need – not necessarily in relation to herbicide – are approaches tailored to specific situations.

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