EDITORIAL: Swing toward sustainability

March 15, 2014

Thousands of dedicated scientists worldwide, like those working for Indianapolis-based Dow AgroSciences, are searching for ways to feed an escalating global population on shrinking amounts of arable land. Since the mid-1990s, much of their research has focused on genetically altered crops that farmers have embraced for their cost-cutting ability to minimize insecticide use and tillage.

As IBJ reporter Dan Human reported last week, Dow AgroSciences is about to roll out a new brand of genetically modified corn, soybean and cotton seed—and an accompanying herbicide the crops can resist.

But nature was intricately designed. One piece of the puzzle can’t be fundamentally changed without affecting all the innate connections. Less than 20 years after manufacturer Monsanto introduced soybean seed that resisted its Roundup herbicide, an estimated 85 percent of U.S. farms fight weeds that have also grown resistant to Roundup.

So even though the millions of dollars Dow AgroSciences and other researchers are investing in new seeds and herbicides will almost surely regain the edge over nature, that gain will be temporary. Like Whac-A-Mole, crop science is inadvertently creating ever-more-resistant weeds, then developing more sophisticated GMOs and herbicides to fight them.

Long-term solutions to the age-old problem of weeds should work within nature’s design, not just trick it into working a new way.

There’s nothing wrong with developing short-term fixes, as long as they are recognized as such and additional resources are funneled to finding those sustainable answers.

Unfortunately, the opposite mind-set has dominated agriculture for decades. The bulk of government and private solutions have addressed one narrow problem at a time, without acknowledging how very little is actually known about Earth’s symbiosis.

Some recent signs are encouraging, like a moderate funding shift in the 2014 federal Farm Bill signed into law last month. Money was increased for research into both specialty crops (ag-speak for fruits and vegetables that are not considered commodities) and organic agriculture. We hope some of that research will focus on increasing farm profits through such sustainable strategies as cover crops, rotational grazing, and landscape and crop diversity.

Many agriculture experts for years have scoffed at the notion that the success some moderate-size farms have reaped through sustainability can be replicated on scales large enough to feed a projected global population of 9 billion by 2050. But more recent research supports its viability on large farms, especially when several complementary practices are used in tandem. Careful management of such practices for some kinds of crops can net yields every bit as large as those of conventional farming.

Further research can unearth ways to close the gap for all crops. The battle waged by Dow AgroSciences and other companies against weed resistance is an important one. So let’s also put more effort into solutions that will last.•


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