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…