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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Roundup Ready Human Beings

All physical systems seek equilibrium as their normal and desired state. The tides roll in and the ebb with the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon. The desert sun bakes the soil taking it into double-digit temperatures. When the sun sets, temperatures can fall to near freezing under clear black starry skies. This daily cycle keeps the life going between the daily extremes. Nature sometimes erupts shaking the landscape out of its equilibrium. Man also acts to push the environment out of the balance that it seeks return to.

In every case of out of balance conditions, the earth and its natural forces act to re-establish the equilibrium. A child can build a sand castle out of wet sand on the beach only to have it dry out and be blown back into the dune from where it came. The approaching tide may take it first, but it is gone nonetheless. Every mound of sand piled contrary to the desire of the beach to be flattened will be reduced. Men build sandstone castles high above the tides. They too will be returned to sea-level at some point in the future.

The same forces toward equilibrium also apply in agriculture. The balance occurs naturally and may evolve over time that spans many decades or even centuries. Eutrophication is the biological process whereby too much nutrient load in ponds causes them to grow algae blooms and eventually fill in the depression that becomes a meadow and eventually a forest. Plants in a field will reach an equilibrium in their growth patterns as each species strives to hold it place. Occasionally an invasive species enters the ecosystem and disrupts the equilibrium. Soon though a new equilibrium will become established. Normally, the earth doesn't really care which plant is dominant. All of the plants produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide from the air. All of them pull nutrients from the ground and produce topsoil in which plant life can thrive. It is Man who chooses that one plant is beautiful and another is a nuisance. It is we who sow seeds of desirable food plants and try to keep other plants at bay.

Scientists use chemistry and selective breeding to try to make a food crop more hearty and survive the stresses of nature so that we get a higher yield per acre to feed our burgeoning population. We find a combination of plant characteristics and horticultural modifications that works for a while and propagate it to the exclusion of the diversity that made the environment productive in the first place. When we cultivate large tracts of land in one uniform seed configuration, all the other competitors for that space are likewise motivated to change themselves to gain their place. Then when a failure happens, it happens in huge catastrophic scenarios. While agricultural 'experts' create uniform domino rows of crops, in another field of expertise, financial investment experts always warn us to diversify our portfolios so as to weather individual downturns in one investment or another.

Monsanto spent tens of millions of dollars developing genetically modified organisms (GMO) to speed up the development of 'better' crops that would grow bigger, faster, better. They would be resistant to blights and insects. In particular they created crop species that were resistant to the specific herbicide which Monsanto itself developed to combat weeds in the cash crop fields. They refer to these strains of seeds as "Roundup Ready". This way they can spray all the Roundup herbicide they want on the crops to kill the weeds and not the crops. But nature loves equilibrium. Planting cash crops and killing off the weeds puts everything out of balance.

In fields of cotton in northern Georgia there is a particularly troublesome weed that chokes out the cotton plants. Roundup Ready cotton seeds were used and Roundup was used to control the weeds. But within a very few years pigweed species spent no money to become resistant to Roundup too. Now farmers are back to where they were before and they have no poisons to stop the weeds. " it has also created a situation in which 'superweeds,' resistant to the specific herbicide being applied, are causing significant damage to crops and requiring even more herbicides to be applied. For example, in 2010, middle Georgia cotton farmers had to deal with a devastating issue related to 'RoundUp Ready' cotton. After a resistant strain of pigweed took over cotton fields, 1 million acres of cotton needed to be weeded by hand at the cost of nearly $11 million." Growers went from spending $25 per acre to control weeds in cotton a few years ago to spending $60 to $100 per acre now.

Today we still have wheat and corn strains that are GMO food crops that are Roundup Resistant and are planted in fields where the weeds have not yet adapted and taken over. This failure is only a matter of time. Nature will restore the equilibrium that humans have set out of balance. Meanwhile the human organism it very slow to adapt and must accept the possible negative consequences that might be tagging along with the genetic modifications. Maybe we will someday become Roundup Ready ourselves like the pigweed. I wonder what we will look like then.