Superweeds: Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

The heavy use of Roundup weed killer is creating pesticide-resistant superweeds that threaten farmers and may worsen seasonal allergies.

May 4, 2010

Weedkiller-resistant ragweed is one consequence of using chemical weedkillers.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Chemical weedkillers may seem cheap. Roundup weed killer, a common chemical used in conventional agriculture and by homeowners, sometimes costs less than a gallon of milk. But we're starting to pay the price in other ways, as pesticide-resistant superweeds develop and spread throughout the country, potentially causing lower yields on farms and affecting food prices. After years of use all over the country, about 10 species of weeds—including the allergy-inducing ragweed plant—are starting to outsmart us and have developed ways to survive the sprayings. Aside from their impact on agriculture, could these superweeds also make their way into people's yards and the parks they love to visit? "Yes, and they already have," explains Jeff Moyer, chair of the United States Department of Agriculture's National Organic Standards Board and farm manager at the nonprofit Rodale Institute, an organic research farm in Pennsylvania. "Weed seeds travel by many ways," he explains: "wild birds' and animals' digestive systems, wind, flooding, field and harvest equipment, crop seed that is improperly cleaned, bird seed put in feeders, mulch hay, composted plants and manure, improperly sterilized potting media, and so on."

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THE DETAILS: Dubbed "the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen" by a conservation expert quoted in a recent New York Times article on the subject, the rise of superweeds created by chemical agriculture has experts concerned that this will spur the use of more toxic pesticides, leading to an increase in land and water pollution and human illness, and a lowering of crop yields. The seeming convenience of chemical farming has caught up with us, and now the agrichemicals are actually making farmers' jobs harder, more dangerous, and less profitable. "More and more farmers are being instructed to mix herbicide strategies to reduce the possibility of resistance from building up to any one herbicide," explains Moyer. "This adds to the costs of production and reduces profit potential."

WHAT IT MEANS: Scientists have already proven that the overuse of antibiotics in industrial farming (which supplies most of the meat and dairy in this country) is rendering some of our most important medicines useless by producing bacteria that are resistant to medication. And just as bacteria evolve to survive antibiotics, weeds are evolving to resist chemical weed killers. Initially touted as a "safer" pesticide, more recent research is finding that Roundup is more toxic than originally believed. A 2008 study published in the journal Chemical Research in Toxicology found that Roundup's inert ingredients significantly boosted the toxic effects of the main ingredient, glyphosate. In the study, the combination of the two killed or damaged many more cells than glyphosate alone.

Industrial agriculture's reliance on chemicals for weed control is causing another health-related concern for all of us—allergies. "Anything that has an impact on allergenic plants such as ragweed will facilitate these plants into producing and releasing more pollens," says allergy expert Clifford Bassett, MD, spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. A single ragweed plant can generally produce about one million pollen grains, but climate change, more carbon dioxide in the air, and practices of routinely spraying pesticides on crops may boost that number to upwards of 3 to 4 million grains per plant, says Dr. Bassett.

Here's how you can combat superweeds on a personal level:

• Demand organic. When you go to the store, you have a choice to protect the health of your family and the environment. Buying organic could even help keep the weed problem at bay. The main difference between chemical and organic agriculture? Organic farmers manage weeds, chemical farmers try to control them, which is turning out to cause more harm than good. "Here is where the beauty of organic systems really shines. Weeds can never become resistant to biological management strategies," explains Moyer. "They cannot mutate around cultivation or crop rotations, cannot become resistant to tillage, and can always be suppressed by the smothering effects of cover crops."

And since chemical agriculture is creating a surge in superweeds like ragweed and pigweed, your sinuses will also thank you when you choose organic.

• Grow a green lawn and garden. Walk right past those shelves of Roundup and other chemcial weed killers and pesticides at the home and garden center. Practice organic lawn-care strategies, such as mowing your lawn to three to four inches and leaving grass clippings on the lawn, and organic weed-killing methods.

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