I don’t know how often over the years farmers have told me, ‘If we could just use some of that magical herbicide, Roundup, I’d become an organic farmer in a minute.’ Well they can’t, and though I may have ignorantly lent such neighbors some sympathy, newly emerging evidence, not widely publicized in this country, makes us grateful Roundup is verboten on organic farms. It continues to be argued by its manufacturer, Monsanto, and swallowed hook, line and sinker by the agricultural community, that Roundup is possibly the most benign crop chemical ever devised. Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, by quickly binding itself to soil clays and being rapidly degraded by soil microbes suggested early on that the herbicide posed little environmental threat. As we’ve seen time and again with other seemingly miraculous synthetic chemicals, both pharmaceutical and industrial, nefarious natures surface over time. It would be serious enough if glyphosate’s much intensified use, since resistance to its herbicidal effect was genetically engineered into numerous crops, resulted in evolution of weeds the chemical will no longer kill. Not to worry; our sorcerer’s apprentice has waiting in the wings modified genes conferring resistance to long notorious herbicide 2,4-D and dicamba.
A more disturbing legacy of the Roundup Ready era is glyphosate’s lingering effect on soil environments, where it seriously disrupts microbial communities that mediate roots’ uptake of essential micronutrients necessary for the proper function of plant immune systems. Soil diseases, formerly well managed, are reemerging in agroecosystems dependent on glyphosate herbicides. Both target and resistant plants in these systems, compromised in their natural ability to produce defensive metabolites, invite an explosion of soil pathogen populations of increasing virulence. Glyphosate has also proven toxic to valuable rhizobium bacteria that convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into bioavailable form, enhancing the growth of legumes, like soybeans, with which these share a unique, ancient symbiosis. Failure of this association necessitates legumes be supplemented with energy-intensive synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. At a time when concern for food’s safety and bio-security is at an all time high, our government’s rubber-stamping approval of new Roundup Ready crops, alfalfa and sugar beets, last month is injudicious to say the least. Organic communities at Eco farm and Organicology were outraged by the cavalier action of USDA’s Secretary Vilsack, seemingly under a Monsanto spell. You should be too.
Read an important article: Are regulators dropping the ball on biocrops?
—Tom Willey, March 1, 2011