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Antibiotics, the war on weeds and the medical model in agriculture

Modern agriculture and modern medicine go hand in hand. And, perhaps one of the best-known ways they interact is the use of antibiotics. If we humans get an external infection, we can now easily reach for topical antibiotics to kill the infection without harming ourselves. And, of course, we can take oral or injected antibiotics for internal infections.

In agriculture, antibiotics are used on livestock, in part because the drugs enhance growth and in part to prevent disease in close conditions typified by confined animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs--in which animals live so crammed together that they are constantly exposed to an array of infectious agents.

Now the director-general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Margaret Chen, says that we are facing a world without antibiotics because of increasing antibiotic resistance brought on by overuse. Increasing antibiotic resistance is actually old news; but the idea of living wholly without antibiotics is really the news here.

That's the medical model applied to animal agriculture. But the same model is being applied to crops. In the medical model pathogens identified as the cause of a disease must be eliminated. Of course, there are plant diseases. But they tend to be treated through a much more wholistic approach than human and animal disease. The emphasis is put on prevention since treatment, once a plant is infected, is very difficult. So, the general approach to plant diseases doesn't exactly fit the medical model.

Instead, if we look to the farm field as the subject to be diagnosed and treated, we can see right away what is considered an infection: weeds. Weeds are considered the equivalent of pathogens in the farm field, something that must be eliminated because they drain the vitality (i.e., lower the yield) of the crops in question.

And, this is where a parallel problem is arising. The genetically engineered crops of the 1990s were designed to allow herbicides to be used for chemical weeding while the crop is growing since the crop itself is genetically engineered with resistance to the weedkiller. The most popular combination has been Ready Roundup soybeans and Ready Roundup herbicide.

Now, however, the weeds are evolving and, just as insects do, becoming immune to the chemicals used to kill them. The solution apparently is to go back to old herbicides for weed control such as 2, 4-D which comes out of the 1940s. So much for Ready Roundup (which is a trade name for the weedkiller glyphosate).

But 2,4-D is difficult to use when crops are growing since it can kill both the weeds and the crop. To solve this The Dow Chemical Company, the world's major producer of 2,4-D, has now created corn that is immune to the company's herbicide. Many farmers and environmental groups are opposing the increased use of 2,4-D because of its toxicity, its ability to drift and fall on areas where it's not being applied, and--you guessed it--the fact that it will inevitably result in superweeds that are resistant to 2,4-D--thereby rendering that herbicide less and less useful.

In the same manner, drug companies have developed new antibiotics through the years to combat the resistance problem. But at least they were developing new drugs. In the case of Dow Chemical and the Monsanto Company, the leading producer of genetically modified seeds, both are reaching back to the past. And, this points up a very interesting disconnect between the path of the drugmakers and that of the agricultural chemical manufacturers and seed developers (which are usually one and the same). Herbicides appear to be a tougher sell to regulatory authorities than genetically modified crops which--so long as they do not act as a "pest" themselves--sail to approval under the doctrine that they are "substantially equivalent" to other crops. Of course, such crops aren't pests themselves; they just create new kinds of weeds that become a giant headache for everyone else.

The point here is that the agricultural chemical and seed producers are not developing new weedkillers which would require enormous research, regulatory approval and then capital expenditures to build the necessary factories. They are taking the easier route of implanting resistance to their existing herbicides into crops. So you can forget about a new generation of herbicides that might be less toxic or quicker to break down in the environment.

Of course, this war on weeds is one that we cannot win. Weeds in a farm field are not an infection. They are part of natural succession, and farming, as ecologist William Catton Jr. once said, is "a war against succession." (Succession, you'll recall, is the progression of any ecosystem toward its climax or stable state.) There are many better ways to control weeds on the farm including crop rotation and the planting of cover crops. Neither have the deleterious effects of the relentless chemical applications central to the war on weeds.

But that approach wouldn't enrich the agricultural chemical giants who figure they can make quite a bit of money--while pushing the costs off onto others--between now and the time they and their allies in the farming community lose this pointless war.

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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