Midwest Farms: Too Big to Be Sustainable?

May 22, 2012
Doug Gurian-Sherman
Former contributor

On May 10 the National Academy of Sciences sponsored a “weed summit,” to address the threat from weeds resistant to the herbicides used to control them. The immediate motivation for this meeting was the dramatic rise of weeds resistant to the herbicide glyphosate—used in herbicide-resistant GE crops such as soybeans, corn, and cotton that are grown mainly in the Midwest and Southeast. These weeds now infest millions of acres of cropland and are raising farmer costs and reducing yields—in some cases driving cotton farmers out of business—while increasing herbicide use by hundreds of millions of pounds.

Soybeans infested with pigweed and lambsquaters. Photo credit Pawpaw67

Several of these weeds can spread amazingly fast. One scientist at the meeting noted that a single resistant Palmer’s pigweed plant—which can produce several hundred thousand seeds—can lead to 50 infested acres within a few years.

The pesticide/genetic engineering industry’s solution is more of the same: crops engineered to be resistant to old herbicides like 2,4–D, which have a nasty propensity to move off site and damage fruit and vegetable crops, and will further increase herbicide use. At this point, we should follow the old adage: “When you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

But the meeting took a head-in-the-sand approach to new herbicide-resistant crops.  The weed summit did not address the pros and cons of these new crops, although they are likely to lead to more resistant weeds.

Several recommendations coming from the meeting are particularly troubling. Although there was some discussion about diversified farming to reduce weed problems, the emphasis was on continued high levels of herbicide use. At least one speaker recommended a scorched-earth policy—”leave no resistant weed standing.”

Similarly, along with an emphasis on herbicide use recommendations and better farming practices, the Weed Science Society of America recommends controlling weeds in areas near crops, such as fence rows and roadsides. But we know from several studies that uncultivated areas provide pollinators needed to produce our fruits and vegetables, and insects that help keep crop pests under control. Eliminating these helpers results in much higher insecticide use. So the consequence of business as usual is likely to be greater environmental harm and negative impacts on crop production.

Scientists should reject pesticide industry solutions built around their products

Simply substituting herbicides, even when used more sensibly in combination, is not going to solve this problem. The rise of weeds resistant to multiple herbicides is already occurring and is likely to get worse.

And contrary to the expectations of many farmers, as noted during the meeting, there are no new herbicides in the pipeline to bail them out when the existing chemicals increasingly fail.

What is needed are more diverse farming systems, which grow several crops, reducing the need for herbicides and other pesticides by reducing pest populations, and also reducing the likelihood of resistance developing when pesticides are needed. Organic farming done well is an example of diversified, ecologically sound farming that prohibits the use of synthetic chemicals entirely. These diverse systems reduce the impact of pesticides on the environment, as well as harm to farmers and farm workers. They can be as, or more, productive than current monoculture corn or soybeans.

But realities on the ground make it unlikely that these sensible farming systems will be widely adopted without incentives to change course. Increasing efficiency—narrowly defined to exclude negative impacts on the environment—is the driving force in row-crop agriculture. This efficiency is highly dependent on simplified farming systems, which in turn rely on the overuse of herbicides, and is antithetical to the diverse systems needed for truly sustainable agriculture.

The religion of efficiency

This was driven home several times during the meeting when farmers remarked that where their fathers could farm only a few hundred acres, current technology, which relies on heavy herbicide use, allows fewer people to farm thousands of acres.

And they are not about to go back to their father’s farming methods!

But the efficiency of these farms comes at huge costs to the environment—as I have pointed out many times in previous blog posts. The current food production system rests on dumping the costs of pollution onto society as a whole, as we have detailed for  the livestock sector, to be picked up in the form of higher water treatment costs, antibiotic resistant food-borne pathogens, harm to farm workers, fouled waterways, and impoverished landscapes.

And fundamentally, the uncritical acceptance of the the drive to squeeze the last ounce of efficiency out of our farms completely avoids the issue of who benefits from higher efficiency. Is the displaced labor really a good thing, if more and more people end up in cities where increased labor productivity means fewer urban jobs as well? Ultimately, we need to consider not only efficiency, but who benefits when efficiency increases.

This places the debate about industrial, monoculture farming squarely within the ongoing debate about who reaps the benefits of work and production in our society.

To be clear, the owners of farms are not the main beneficiaries of our current farming system. Big input suppliers—seed, fertilizer, pesticide and machinery companies—and integrators, processors, and retailers on the output side extract more and more of the farm gate dollars. This raises the pressure on farmers to increase efficiency.

And the genetic engineering/pesticide companies that produce products like genetically engineered herbicide-resistant crops facilitate the increase in farm size and simplification by allowing fewer farmers to farm more acres with less labor, at the same time that they charge much more for seed.

Not your parents’ farm

Fundamentally, we are not talking about going back to farming as it was done 50 years ago. Research is improving diverse farming systems, making them highly productive.

The argument in favor of simplified farms does raise some challenging issues, because methods like cover crops that reduce nitrogen pollution by 40 to 70 percent, or diverse crop rotations that are highly productive and profitable, do often require more labor. But is that a bad thing if society as a whole benefits?

The big input companies drive more and more of the research and farm policy agenda, as documented in a new Food and Water Watch report. They are not interested in incentives, research, extension, and other policies that would move us toward an agriculture that is more diversified and better for society–but one that doesn’t push their bottom line of selling more of their products.

Which gets me back to our choices for dealing with herbicide-resistant weeds, and the related, bigger problems of our oversimplified agricultural systems. Will we follow the pesticide-heavy, business as usual approach that will lead to more environmental degradation and ultimately, reduced sustainability, or will we learn from our mistakes and invest in diversified farms?

Public policy provides an important means for moving in the right direction. We need a new farm bill (and other farm policy) that supports healthy farms and foods rather than more of the same—for example, by providing incentives for diversified farms, such as whole farm insurance, rather than for monocultures.

If we don’t change the direction of agriculture, especially those of us in urban areas that are at the receiving end of the farm system, but who typically stay clear of this debate, we can be sure that the powerful interests that want to keep farming moving in the same troubled direction will continue to prevail.