Undercutting sustainable agriculture
The authors of the new article describe sustainable weed control practices that readers of this blog will find familiar—crop rotation, use of cover crops, crops and cropping practices that effectively compete with weeds, judicious use of tillage, and for non-organic systems, minimal and targeted use of herbicides.
These methods improve weed control and make it more sustainable, while reducing weed pressure. That means that when herbicides are used, it is less likely that weeds will develop resistance to them. And organic systems, of course, don’t use herbicide at all.
So in the context of these better ways to control weeds, it is perhaps most troubling that the authors document the decline in, as they put it, “…the knowledge infrastructure needed to practice IWM [Integrated Weed Management] in the future…” And, I would add, harm to the research infrastructure that can improve IWM and make it even more efficient.
The authors document a shift in land grant institutions and USDA away from research on more sustainable types of agriculture, toward more emphasis on chemical controls and engineered crops. The dramatic shift of agricultural research funding from the public to the private sector, and the growing ties between academia and the biotech industry, also do not bode well for sustainable agriculture research and infrastructure.
The biotech and chemical industries have no interest in developing the kinds of knowledge- and ecology-based farming vital to a productive and sustainable agriculture that conserves resources and biodiversity, and which will be vital to confronting coming challenges of climate change and increasing population. The companies can’t sell this knowledge, so they are not interested in it.
The authors discuss several useful recommendations to make weed management more sustainable. These include mandatory herbicide resistance management imposed by EPA, which approves these chemicals (and I would add, by USDA, which approves herbicide resistant crops); fees on GE herbicide resistant crops and herbicides to discourage their overuse, and which could be plowed back into sustainable ag research; the fostering of partnerships between all stakeholders to develop better stewardship information for farmers and to advise them on sustainable agriculture practices; and more funding and incentives for sustainable agriculture research.
These important policies face a daunting uphill fight—one that UCS and our allies in the sustainable agriculture community will continue to wage. There is considerable resistance to this important agenda by the biotech and pesticide industry and its supporters in the government and academia.
The GE and pesticide industry have no inherent interest in promoting a truly sustainable farming system, and in fact such a system is antithetical to their narrow interests of selling as much herbicide and engineered herbicide-resistant seed as possible. The kinds of sustainable IWM supported in the article would greatly reduce the need for both herbicides and engineered seeds that these companies sell.
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