Farmers Say Gift of Herbicide Turned Out to Be a Loan

For many regional farmers, the most popular weed-killer is becoming less effective. As the Ohio River Radio Consortium's Julie Grant reports, many are reverting to older, harsher chemicals to combat so-called "superweeds."

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OPEN: For many regional farmers, the most popular weed-killer is becoming less effective. As the Ohio River Radio Consortium's Julie Grant reports, many are reverting to older, harsher chemicals to combat so-called "superweeds."

GRANT: Ten years ago, Bill Haddad thought he might be out of a job.

He sells weed killers to farmers in Ohio for a company called Valent. He had been selling a variety of types. But when agri-business giant Monsanto introduced the herbicide Roundup--Haddad says farmers didn't want to buy a variety of chemicals anymore. They only wanted Roundup. It controlled so many kinds of weeds:

HADDAD: For the farmer, instead of having a whole cabinet of medicines, he had one, you know aspirin. You know, I can control lambsquarter with Roundup, I can control giant ragweed, marestails, thistle, crabgrass.

GRANT: Farmers also bought Roundup because it was part of Monsanto's Roundup Ready farming system. The company genetically engineered soybeans, corn and cotton seeds to be resistant to Roundup. That meant farmers could spray all the Roundup they wanted, whenever they wanted. The weeds would die--but the crops survived.

Even many environmentalists approved. Roundup was less toxic than other farm chemicals. And farmers didn't have to plow the weeds to control them anymore. No plowing meant less soil erosion, and less pesticide runoff into the waterways. Today 90 percent of the soybeans and 80% of the corn grown in the U.S. are "Roundup Ready."

But recently, chemical salesman Haddad is noticing some changes. Roundup is losing its power. So, he's selling more of the older chemicals--stuff that was popular in the 1970s.

As we walk through a field in northern Ohio, Haddad points out a spot where the farmer sprayed Roundup. Some weeds are totally brown and dying, but others are still green:

HADDAD: Here. Here's a case right here. See how this thing is dead, but this thing is still alive.

GRANT: Each of these weeds can put out thousands of seeds. If just one survives the Roundup, Haddad says the seeds it produces will be even more resistant to the weedkiller:

HADDAD: And every year that goes by, you have these superweeds putting more resistant seed out there, more tolerant seed. And we're throwing everything but the kitchen sink at them.

GRANT: There are documented cases of weed resistance to Roundup throughout the Ohio River Valley. But so far, the problem is worst in the Southeast U.S. Ken Smith is a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas. He says some farmers there have lost entire fields of cotton because the Roundup is no longer killing pigweed, a tough weed with a stalk like a baseball bat.

SMITH: One farmer said, 'First time I sprayed pigweed with Roundup and I went back three days later and I thought, Oh my gosh, what a gift.' He said it just cleaned every pigweed out of the field. He said, ëNow I found out it wasn't a gift, it was just a loan. Now we're having to pay that loan back.í

GRANT: Agri-businesses are responding, by spending hundreds of millions of dollars in what some have dubbed an herbicide arms race to combat superweeds. They're trying to engineer crops that will be resistant not just to Roundup - but also to some of the harsh, older chemicals.

That frustrates Jane Rissler. She's an agriculture specialist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Rissler says twenty years ago seed companies promoted genetically engineered crops as a way to help farmers use less toxic chemicals.

RISSLER: Monsanto oversold the crop. It continued to promote and promote the crop until farmers were using it every season on herbicide tolerant corn or soybeans or cotton. And so the weeds emerged, as anyone who knows much about biology could have predicted.

GRANT: Superweeds evolved the same way antibiotic use led to the rise of antibiotic resistant germs--overuse. And it could have more consequences than just the environmental ones: experts say the loss of Roundup's usefulness could lead to higher food prices.

Monsanto admits that weed resistance is a serious issue--but says it's manageable. Farm experts say Roundup is a once-in-a-century discovery--and everything possible should be done to preserve its effectiveness.