I was teaching at the University of Iowa during the mid-1990s when Monsanto first brought out crops that were genetically engineered to survive strong doses of their patented pesticide Roundup. The crops, called Roundup Ready, seemed like a kind of Frankenfood to me – how could farmers agree to put down crops that were engineered to absorb even heavier doses of poison than the ones they were already using? I started to make a movie with a friend about this – I remember scouting fields filled with Roundup Ready crops with him – but then I got a job in NYC and left the Midwest.
My alarm at the introduction of Roundup Ready crops was catalyzed to a certain extent by one of the first experiences that I had when I arrived in Iowa. I was staying in a guest house for a few weeks before finding an apartment. This was a beautiful 19th century building that once used to be a courthouse for the town. It had been converted into a guesthouse recently, and there were few other people staying in the building. One day I met a couple who had taken up residency briefly while the husband was cared for the university hospital. They were farmers. Half the husband’s face had been eaten away by cancer – he was difficult to look at. He looked like one of the war victims in Ernst Friedrich’s great Dadaist anti-war polemic War Against War. During one of our conversations, he told me that he had had no idea of the dangers of pesticides when he was younger. He used to handle them with his bare hands. Now he was a grim casualty of the U.S.’s fossil fuel-based industrial agricultural complex.
Shortly after meeting this man, I began teaching a course on the social construction of nature in the Iowa English department. Reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring for the first time, I realized that the farmer I had encountered at the guest house was not anomalous or foolhardy, that farmers had been told that pesticides like DDT were perfectly safe. When such pesticides came out, ordinary people (as well as the scientists who created them) had little understanding of the deadly effects of prolonged exposure to such toxic chemicals.
Signs of the impact of industrial agriculture were everywhere. No one drank water straight from the tap as people tend to do in NYC. Instead, there were carbon-activated water filtration machines in all supermarkets. This is because the city’s water supply is contaminated with run-off from huge hog lots. By run-off I mean effluent from the gigantic lakes of pig shit that are an inescapable feature of industrial farming. The water is also filled with fertilizer and pesticide residues. During the time that I was at the university, handfuls of women professors came down with breast cancer each year. While some said that this was because the demographic was highly educated and thus more likely to get tested and diagnosed, I couldn’t put that farmer with the caved-in face out of my mind.
With this background experience, then, I was profoundly unnerved to learn about the introduction of Roundup Ready. Leaving Iowa was sad on all sorts of levels, but I have to admit that it felt to a certain extent like an evacuation from a toxic waste dump.
Now I’ve learned that there’s another turn of the screw to this story. An unnerving recent article in the New York Times has just documented the evolution of Roundup Ready-resistant super-weeds. These weeds have evolved in the ten years since I witnessed the pesticide-GMO crop combination being introduced in Iowa and other parts of the farming belt. As the image to the right makes clear, there are now large swaths of the country where pesticide-resistant super-weeds have taken hold, making farming using methods developed over the last twenty years nearly impossible. Some of these weeks, like pigweed, grow to be the same height as corn and are so sturdy that they can damage steel harvesting equipment.
With some historical perspective, it seems that we’ve been conducting a giant experiment in how to breed super-powerful weeds. Apparently the Roundup Ready combo allowed farmers to relatively environmentally friendly no-till agricultural techniques, and so it perhaps seemed like a good idea at the time. But now those farmers are having to return to highly ecologically disruptive techniques of plowing the fields up in order to rip up the new super-weeds. Surely this outcome could have been foreseen. When you spread fields around this massive country with the same pesticide, you inevitably breed weeds that are resistant to such pesticides. We’ve essentially committed ourselves to an arms race with nature, but our increasingly sophisticated technology is backfiring because it simply produces more sophisticated, more dangerous natural antagonists. It’s like something out of a comic book: the arch-enemy who absorbs whatever power and weapon you throw at him, turning those same weapons back around on the do-gooders and threatening them with extinction.
I’ll give the last word to Bill Freese, science policy analyst for the D.C.-based Center for Food Safety: “The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction.”