The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins

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Yale Environment 360

The Folly of Big Agriculture: Why Nature Always Wins

Instead of urging farmers away from uniformity and toward greater diversity, the USDA is helping them do the same old wrong thing faster

In its short, shameless history, big agriculture has had only one big idea: uniformity. The obvious example is corn. The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that American farmers — big farmers — will plant 94 million acres of corn this year. That’s the equivalent of planting corn on every inch of Montana. To do that you’d have to make sure that every inch of Montana fell within corn-growing parameters. That would mean leveling the high spots, irrigating the dry spots, draining the wet spots, fertilizing the infertile spots, and so on. Corn is usually grown where the terrain is less rigorous than it is in Montana. But even in Iowa that has meant leveling, irrigating, draining, fertilizing, and, of course, spraying.

You can argue whether uniformity is the result of efficiency or vice versa. But let’s suppose that efficiency is merely the economic expression of uniformity. The point is this: When you see a Midwestern cornfield, you know you’re looking at nature with one idea superimposed upon it. This is far less confusing, less tangled in variation than the nature you find even in the roadside ditches beside a cornfield or in a last scrap of native prairie growing in a graveyard or along an abandoned railroad right-of-way. Nature is puzzling. Corn is stupefying.

Humans have spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the big idea behind nature is. It’s hard to tell, because we live at nature’s pace and within the orb of human abstraction. We barely notice the large-scale differences from year to year, much less the minute ones. But if we could speed up time a little and become a lot more perceptive, we would see that nature’s big idea is to try out life wherever and however it can be tried, which means everywhere and anyhow. The result — over time and at this instant — is diversity, complexity, particularity, and inventiveness to an extent our minds are almost unfitted to conceive.

"Nature... explores every possibility. It never lacks funding. It is never demoralized by failed experiments. It cannot be lobbied."

A reasonable agriculture would do its best to emulate nature. Rather than change the earth to suit a crop — which is what we do with corn and soybeans and a handful of other agricultural commodities — it would diversify its crops to suit the earth. This is not going to happen in big agriculture, because big agriculture is irrational. It’s where we expose — at unimaginable expense — our failure to grasp how nature works. It’s where uniformity is always defeated eventually by diversity and where big agriculture’s ideas of diversity are revealed to be as uniform as ever.

To a uniform crop like corn, farmers have been encouraged to apply a uniform herbicide to kill weeds. Modern corn is genetically engineered to not be killed by the herbicide in ubiquitous use. Mostly, that herbicide has been glyphosate, marketed under the Monsanto trade name Roundup. Farmers have sprayed and over-sprayed billions of gallons of Roundup thanks to an economic and moral premise: corn good, weeds bad. And yet you can’t help noticing that it has done nothing to stop the endless inventiveness of nature.

To broadleaf weeds and soil microorganisms, Roundup is not the apocalypse. It is simply a modest, temporal challenge, which is why, 15 years after genetically-engineered, Roundup-tolerant crops were widely introduced, it’s no longer working against spontaneous new generations of Roundup-tolerant weeds, especially in cotton fields. This is because research, in nature’s laboratory, never stops. It explores every possibility. It never lacks funding. It is never demoralized by failed experiments. It cannot be lobbied.

To fix the problem of glyphosate-tolerant weeds, Dow Chemical is hoping to introduce crop varieties that will withstand being sprayed with an herbicide called 2,4-D. When it was first released to farmers in 1946, 2,4-D was a breakthrough — a herbicide that killed only certain kinds of plants instead of killing them all. It’s less safe than glyphosate, especially because it’s sometimes contaminated with dioxin. But it’s not an indiscriminate, lethal killer, despite the fact that it was one of the chemicals in Agent Orange, the notorious defoliant used during the Vietnam War. (The dioxin in Agent Orange came from another component chemical called 2,4,5-T.)

"Instead of urging farmers away from uniformity and toward greater diversity, the USDA is helping them do the same old wrong thing faster."

Still, this is backward-engineering of a sort, like trying to breed birds that will tolerate DDT. And while the USDA hasn’t decided whether to approve Dow’s 2,4-D-tolerant soybeans yet, it has decided to speed up the process of reviewing genetically-engineered crops, mainly to help deal with the spread of so-called superweeds caused by the nearly universal application of glyphosate for the last decade and a half. According to Dow’s numbers, superweeds affected some 60 million acres of crops last year. If things go right, bureaucratically, that is just so much cash in Dow’s pocket.

"Farmers needs technology right now to help them with issues such as weed resistance,” a Dow official said last month. Translation? Farmers need technology right now to help them with issues created by right-now technology introduced 15 years ago. Instead of urging farmers away from uniformity and toward greater diversity, the USDA is helping them do the same old wrong thing faster. When an idea goes bad, the USDA seems to think, the way to fix it is to speed up the introduction of ideas that will go bad for exactly the same reason. And it’s always, somehow, the same bad idea: the uniform application of an anti-biological agent, whether it’s a pesticide in crops or an antibiotic on factory farms. The result is always the same. Nature finds a way around it, and quickly.

This is the irrationality of agriculture as it’s practiced in the United States and now all over the world. It has one big idea, and it will never give it up, because it has invested everything in that one big idea. Against uniformity and abstraction — embodied in millions of acres of genetically-modified crops — nature will always win. Whether it can ever win against the uniformity and abstraction embodied in the human brain is very much in doubt.

Verlyn Klinkenborg

Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the editorial board at the New York Times. His books include Timothy; Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile, The Rural Life, and Making Hay. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, Klinkenborg reflected on the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and explained why he continues to oppose geneticaly modified crops.

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