“Why is that man dressed like an astronaut, Dad?”
I must have been 10 or so when I asked that question from the back seat of the car while my parents drove by a golf course. The seeming astronaut was a groundskeeper, dressed from head to toe in a white hazmat suit, waving a metal wand back and forth over the ground as he walked the edge of the putting green.
My dad explained that he was probably spraying toxic chemicals to kill weeds that the golfers did not want on the course. Because he was working with concentrated levels of the herbicides, he needed special clothing to protect himself.
“It’s bad stuff, Holly. Really dangerous chemicals,” said Dad, who’d grown up reading Rachel Carson’s accounts of the devastation wrought by DDT.
The man on the golf course was using pesticides for cosmetic reasons, but elsewhere they have become a staple of our daily lives.
Every summer, the suburban homes in my neighborhood peppered their lawns with little white flags warning dogs and children to “Keep Off.” More importantly, pesticides are used throughout our agricultural system to ensure consistent, high yields: Herbicides beat back the weeds that compete with our crops, and insecticides kill off the bugs that might nibble on food destined for our table. The vast increases in crop yields achieved by the “Green Revolution” of the 20th century were made possible in part by similarly vast uses of agricultural pesticides.
But when Carson publicly broached the topic of these chemicals’ dangers, and as evidence mounted linking pesticides to environmental and human health risks, scientists started to wonder which chemical cures were worth their side effects.
No wonder glyphosate — or Roundup, as it’s known commercially — took the market by storm when its herbicide properties were discovered by a Monsanto Company scientist in 1970. Not only is it strikingly effective at knocking back fast-growing weeds, but it supposedly breaks down rapidly in nature, leaving freshly treated surfaces fit for play in a matter of days and limiting exposure to the chemical for those who nibble on fresh-picked fruits and veggies.
By 1996 (read: four years before its Roundup patent expired in the United States), Monsanto was marketing “Roundup Ready” crops. The seed line — which today includes soybeans, canola, corn, cotton and alfalfa — produces fields full of glyphosate-resistant plants. This allows farmers to liberally spray down their entire fields, killing off annoying weeds without damaging their crops.
Predictably, with the advent of this new technology, use of Roundup soared. Today, more than 180 million pounds of the herbicide are applied to American farms each year. And Monsanto continues to see double-digit growth in the business sectors that feature Roundup pesticide and Roundup Ready crops.
But all is not rainbows and butterflies when it comes to Roundup.
Particularly not butterflies, says the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency for better regulation of glyphosate late last month. The NRDC points out that the widespread use of glyphosate kills off many important native plants, including the milkweed that feeds the most charismatic of North American butterflies: the monarch. The striking black-and-orange butterflies that migrate through America’s agricultural heartland each year have declined by 80 percent in some regions, in part due to loss of habitat and food supply. And since the EPA hasn’t issued new regulations on glyphosate use since 1993 — before the advent of Roundup Ready crops — the NRDC thinks it had better do so before monarchs are gone for good.
(While the EPA is at it, the Food and Drug Administration might also consider starting testing for glyphosate residues: Apparently the commonly-used pesticide isn’t a part of the Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program!)
Perhaps more importantly than the survival of a pretty but arguably expendable butterfly, though, we also have to face the fact that glyphosate won’t work forever. Under the intense natural selection pressure of heavy glyphosate usage, just four years after Roundup Ready crops were introduced, glyphosate resistance was reported in weeds. The promise of glyphosate is, therefore, short-lived: As these resistant competitors grow in diversity and abundance, farmers will be forced to turn to different and potentially even more dangerous means of defense.
What does it mean to live by chemical warfare — in an arms race against evolution that, even now, we know we are losing?
Monsanto knows the answer: Quick profits. It managed to adapt with Roundup, but with no real incentive beyond the lifetime of its patents, the company’s motivation is to exploit new technology quickly before moving on to the next temporary solution. And while it’s easy to vilify the successful corporate giant, our economic system — for all its commendable ability to stimulate innovation — has really provided the selection pressure that allowed the Monsantos of the world to evolve.
Quite frankly, with no built-in economic consequences for environmental degradation, as well as absent effective regulations on chemical products, it’s easy for companies to sweep through the market with quick “fixes” that might just do more harm than good.
That’s why it’s important to pay attention to what watchdog groups and environmental advocates (and even the occasional tree hugger) have to say. One can only hope that, when prodded, the EPA and other regulatory agencies will step up to the task of evaluating scientific evidence and putting the proper regulations into place.
Holly welcomes questions, comments and ideas for creative leashing of the otherwise-useful capitalist system at [email protected].