How super weeds like Palmer amaranth are changing agriculture

In the arms race between biology and biotechnology, the weeds are winning. Worse, Kumar says, growers are clinging to the unrealistic id...


In the arms race between biology and biotechnology, the weeds are winning. Worse, Kumar says, growers are clinging to the unrealistic idea that chemical companies will invent a miraculous new herbicide before it’s too late. Even if such a miracle product were at hand, an even greater threat looms: There is mounting evidence that weeds can actually metabolize herbicides, breaking them down before they do their job. In other words, Palmer’s pigweed may have developed resistance to weedkillers that has yet to be invented. “It’s not something I just created in a lab,” Kumar says, referring to the early days of herbicide resistance. “Everything is there in nature, happening everywhere. “

Weeds always adapt to anything that tries to kill them. Lawn mowers exert progressive pressure on plants until they grow outward rather than upward, staying close to the ground and avoiding the blade. Rice farmers who weed their paddy fields by hand jump on grasses that look like rice seedlings, allowing imitators to reproduce – and making manual weeding all the more difficult. Yet the speed and persistence with which herbicide-resistant weed populations have invaded American farmland is in large part a consequence of recent decades of industrial agriculture. Plants like Palmer’s amaranth have developed widespread resistance to Roundup precisely because it was ubiquitous.

When Monsanto introduced Roundup in the mid-1970s, it performed better than any other weedkiller on the market, and it was also very inexpensive. “It was so good,” Kumar says. “Wherever you put it, it was so effective.” “Superior control at a rock bottom price,” would sing the following television commercials. “The herbicide that gets to the root of the problem.”

Two decades later, Roundup’s complement, an innovation that drove sales even higher, arrived: Roundup Ready seeds. The genetically modified plants that sprouted from them could survive spray after spraying with the herbicide. This allowed farmers to simply plant Roundup Ready seeds, wait for the weeds to emerge, and then spray Roundup all over the field. Everything but the precious harvest quickly withered and died. Development revolutionized weed control: farmers no longer needed to buy a huge range of expensive herbicides each year or plow their land each season.

Monsanto first introduced Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996. Farmers rushed to adopt the paired products: in 2011, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, about 94 percent of all soybean acres in the United States were planted with seeds designed to be herbicide resistant. Cotton and corn have followed similar trajectories. Between 1990 and 2014, the volume of glyphosate use in the United States increased more than 30-fold. “It was so cheap and effective, that’s all people used for almost 20 years.” , explains Stephen Duke, a former researcher at the Department of Agriculture.

As it turns out, Palmer’s Amaranth was perfectly suited for evolving resistance and doing it quickly. The plant is native to the southwest and its leaves were once baked and eaten by the Cocopah and Pima tribes; the Navajo crushed the seeds into flour. But as amaranth spread eastward, plants began to compete with cotton in the south, becoming a serious threat to crops in the mid-1990s.

While cash crops are virtually identical – farmers buy new genetically modified seeds each year containing the trait of glyphosate tolerance – Palmer amaranth benefits from incredible genetic diversity. It mates sexually (obligatory crossbreeding, in organic language), and female plants produce hundreds of thousands of seeds each year. Plants that grew with random mutations that inadvertently equipped them to survive the herbicide rains lived to reproduce with each other. Then, after Roundup applications killed all the weeds in a field except Palmer’s resistant pigweed, pigweed was able to spread without competition. In one study, researchers planted a single Roundup-resistant Palmer amaranth plant in each of four genetically engineered cotton fields. In three years the weeds choked the cotton and the harvest failed.

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