RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Pesticides Will Kill the Planet

It’s been a month since I’ve written much of anything, but I’ve been a little heartbroken lately.

I should be ecstatically happy. The weather’s delightful, the family’s all fine, the critters are healthy as ever. None of the neighbors are sick and one of my best friends, who thought she might have to move, is staying.

But the grapevines planted by Holly and DeLisa … and the redbud tree by the house, where Lushen the farm kid climbed when he was tiny … and that maple that’s always sending seeds into the lettuce beds … they’re ill.

The culprit is 2,4D. After 10 years of spraying weeds with Roundup, the weeds have become immune to that chemical, glyphosate. So now 2,4D is sprayed by neighbors to kill the weeds that survive glyphosate. His plants will be genetically altered to survive 2,4D, just as they were genetically altered to survive glyphosate.

But, 2,4D can kill my normal, non-modified, old-fashioned plants and I know I shouldn’t get attached to plants, they’re mortals, but aren’t we all?

When we first noticed the damage, the strangely cupped leaves, then the withering and the leaves that look like onion skin, I went into denial. I had seen the spray trucks on the neighbor’s field but I’ve seen them before, lots of times, and nothing died.

So, I thought, maybe there’s a fungus? Maybe a bug? We scoured our garden books and the Internet for answers. We looked for insect damage on the plants and found nothing. We sprayed with vinegar, which discourages fungi and molds but nothing changed.

I was, as I said, in denial that it could be chemical damage.

Then, my farm hosted a potluck supper sponsored by Slow Foods, and one of the guests, a professional photographer, snapped pictures of the vines. So now I had to follow up. Called the extension agent, but our local agronomist retired so the question was deferred to another county, one with an agent that didn’t seem too interested. He left a message on the answering machine, a bored voice that he was calIing to answer “something about grapes …”

Next, I sent the pictures to the state grape board and the damage was confirmed as “classic herbicide damage”.

When the agent from the next county called and asked what was going on, I explained in a nonjudgmental tone what I saw. His salary, after all, depends on the help he can give the commodity farmers and not me, a measly food grower. As I spoke, though, I could hear his voice changing. The bored sound left and he became engaged in the story. Yes, he said, when the booms are lowered on the spraying mechanism there’s a little shot of herbicide that comes out under pressure, sending a little more than usual into the air. That’s probably what got us. Although, he continued, there’s another scenario: 2,4D and dicamba (another recommended cure for glyphosate resistance) are prone to volatilizing in hot weather, moving in vaporous clouds to new areas that might be even miles away.

I called an arborist who has done work on our Timber Stand Improvement and he gave a third opinion, this one on the trees. Then he noted that trees all over the county are dying this summer and, as I looked around, I could see that he’s right. And this is the first year 2,4D and dicamba have been routinely used.

So much for my county, but what about the rest of the world?

It happens that I stumbled into a student from Africa, about as far from Missouri as you can get and still be on planet Earth. That student reported that Big Ag is taking over there, giving farmers free chemicals for a year or two, then charging so much that the farmers go into debt and inevitably lose their land. What are they raising over there in Africa, where the predominant crop was once Teff, a grain which fed the population?

“Those oil beans …” said the student.

“Soybeans?” I asked.

“Yes. Soybeans.”

Through this all, I’ve been weirdly astonished by the powerful irony of the universe. “Why me?” hasn’t been the question, it’s been more like, “who the hell do they think they are?” After all, I was onto the problems of biotech from the beginning, arguing and writing about it all along. When so many weeds have become resistant to Roundup, including ragweed, the number one allergen on the planet, I wrote about the resistance.

And I started arguing against the non-solution proposed by Big Ag. They’re telling my neighbors to start using an herbicide that’s more volatile and deadly than Roundup. So my neighbor’s bean field is clean as a whistle, but my plants across the road are dying.

Now, even though I shy away from predictions, here’s my first. I believe that in every state of the union, there have been accidental plant deaths from 2,4D spraying. Most will go unreported, because there’s no one keeping track. But if this herbicide overuse continues, I predict it will kill the planet.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2013

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