Archive for sustainable agriculture

The Swine Weed Pandemic

Posted in Losing Ground with tags , on October 9, 2009 by talewis
The Swine Weed Pandemic
It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed.
It looks just like the pig weed that corn-, cotton- and soybean-farmers have been fighting in the South forever. It’s big, it kicks the crap put of any crop it’s contesting with, and it’s tough enough to stop a combine in its tracks. The only thing different about the superweed variety is that it can’t be killed by any manmade chemical.
Twenty years or so ago, that wouldn’t have been a threat to life as we know it. But it is now. The reason —  the most successful single promotion of a destructive chemical farming practice ever perpetrated. The winner was Monsanto, which in the 1970s introduced the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, which was less persistent after application and thus less toxic to groundwater and other plant life that many other herbicides. Then, in the mid-1990s, Monsanto introduced Roundup-resistant crops, which had been genetically modified so that Roundup couldn’t kill them.
It solved an old problem of chemical farming. Until then, sprays could kill broadleaf plants, or they could kill grasses, but they couldn’t knock the wild oats out of a wheat field without killing the wheat, or select broadleaf weeds in a soybean field. Now, Roundup could. It killed everything
In about ten years, the application of Roundup went from about eight million pounds (1994) to about 120 million pounds (2005). In 2006, Roundup-Ready crops occupied nearly one-half of the available cropland in the United States.
The inherent flaw in chemical agriculture is that no chemical kills everything it’s supposed to, and every application of a chemical spurs the development of resistant mutants. There are already 16 weed species in the world, nine on the United States, that shrug off Roundup as if it was a spring rain. Pigweed is one of them.
The inherent flaw in industrial agriculture, with its relentless pursuit of the economies of scale (while it ignores the simultaneous and equal concentration of risk), is that when you have ten thousand acres of one thing, a threat to that thing is going be pretty catastrophic. Sustainable farming, by contrast, will grow 20 or 50 things on a hundred acres.
So here we have the corn and soybean and cottonseed farmers of the South who are facing ruination because of pig weed. They are trying applications of four times the previously adequate amounts of Roundup. It’s not working. They are rolling out mechanical cultivators, which have not been seen in these fields for 20 years. The problem here is that sow-and-spray agriculture was so easy, and the farms got so big (10,000 acres-plus is now the norm), that the tractors, implements and manpower needed to go back to mechanical cultivation simply don’t exist.
The pigweed problem emerged as a major threat only this summer. As Arkansas extension agent Ken Smith described it, “In July we began hearing horror stories all over the state. ‘Man, there are ankle-high weeds out there that Roundup won’t even touch.’” This year, the pig weed spread to more than a million acres of cotton and soybeans. Says Smith: “I’ve never seen anything that had this major an impact on our agriculture in a short period of time.”
This winter, farm groups all over the country will be trying to come up with an answer to the spreading plague of pigweed (the most effective control yet devised — hand weeding. Try that on 10,000 acres). Monsanto has promised a vaccine — honest,  they swear they’ll have a chemical answer by 2015.
Here’s what you can count on: the pigweed plague, and the associated accumulating failures of industrial agriculture, are going to hit us all a lot harder that the swine flu.
For a careful description of the spreading pigweed panic, written for the industrial-agriculture press, check out this piece in the Delta Farm Press: “Resistance threatens conservation tillage.”
For a less restrained version, this piece in Grist: “The chemical treadmill breaks down and the superweeds did it.”
And for a more complete explanation of of how we got here, see my forthcoming book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living.

It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed. Continue reading

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Go Ahead. Cry for Argentina

Posted in Fat of the Land with tags , on September 10, 2009 by talewis
Go Ahead. Cry for Argentina
Industrial agriculture is in the process of taking down another country. For half a century, Argentina has prospered by raising the world’s finest grass-fed cattle on its vast plains. In the process, it did not degrade its land, nor did it abuse its animals. But in the world according to industry, enough is never enough.
According to the Washington Post today [“Day of the Gaucho Waning in Argentina”], the Masters of the Argentinian Universe are moving as quickly as they can to destroy their country by plowing under their sustainable grass to make way for huge expanses of corn and soybeans, and shunting their cattle off pasture and into feedlots.
The Argentinian Pampas, like our own Western Plains, is hot and arid. When you strip the soil of its protective grass, it blows and washes away. When you plow the soil, severing the myriad arterial connections linking the sunshine and water of the surface with the minerals and organic material below, the soil begins to die and lose its fertility. The industrial response is to apply massive doses of fertilizer. made with and from petrochemicals, followed by herbicides, pesticides and fungicides as needed, and in shot order the soil is entirely dead, anmd leaving.
As I report in Brace for Impact, since the 1970s American agriculture has lost, for every pound of food of fiber grown, seven pounds of topsoil. Who can blame Argentina for envying us?
Then of coure there are the cattle, fitted by eons of evolution to eat one thing — grass. They have developed four stomachs, assembled a team of microbes that pre-digests their meal for them by fermenting the grass, to turn straw into steak. But it takes three years for a cow on grass to reach slaughter weight. And its lean meat is not as desirable to today’s overweight, undernourished, diabetic and touchy consumer as meat that is marbled and juicy with saturated fat.
So Industry snatched the calf off pasture at six months or so and puts it in a concentration camp where for the rest of its life it stands in its own manure being force fed — corn. Corn makes the cow sick. Its turns its digestive system acidic (normally it’s neutral) and the animal suffers from acidosis — heartburn — often severe enough to cause physical damage. Microbes trying to ferment corn generate an excess of both gas and a thinck slime that can trap the gas, causing bloat that can kill.These chronic afflictions leave the cattle open to opportunistic infections by such things as pneumonia.
In order to keep these sick and miserable animals alive long enough to slaughter, Industry pumps them full of antibiotics to ward off the more serious and deadly infections, a practice that has a number of side effects that pose serious threats to human health.
Unnatural? Rodrigo Troncoso scoffs that the notion. The General manager of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber, Troncoso tiold the Washington Post: “Who is to say what’s natural and what’s not natural? What’s natural is for a cow to grow, to reproduce and to die.”
Yes, and God intended topsoil to blow in the wind, his creatures to live in misery, and people to swell up, get diabetes and die.
Brace for imnpact, Argentina.

Industrial agriculture is in the process of taking down another country. For half a century, Argentina has prospered from raising the world’s finest grass-fed cattle on its vast plains. In the process, it did not degrade its land, nor did it abuse its animals. But in the world according to industry, enough is never enough. Continue reading

Coming Detractions

Posted in Apocalypse When? with tags on June 26, 2009 by talewis

Want a preview of the likely deterioration of climate and agriculture in this country over the next several years? Watch India today.

Time Magazine [“The Truant Monsoon: Why India is Worried” June 26, 2009] reports widespread panic in the country because the monsoon season of heavy rains that replenish the rivers and make agriculture possible has simply not appeared — it is at least two weeks late.

Save the story. You’re going to hear the same quotes from the chambers of commerce, the politicians, the global-warming skeptics and the miserable farmers out of the American Central Plains and Southwest over the next decade.