RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Farmers Need to Hold Onto Their Topsoil

As autumn morphs into winter, farmers are treated to a plethora of riveting presentations and meetings sponsored by—you guessed it—academics! With ties to industry! And, this year’s fascinating topic is emerging. Or, rather, eroding. And, if the topic of erosion makes your eyes glaze over, dear citizen, consider that it’s the planet we’re talking about.

The preservation of topsoil is as political as any subject, with implications for everything from global warming to global trade to local food production, and, as taught in spellbinding presentations and meetings, the mechanics are often demonstrated. The speaker will take a bunch of plastic containers with soil in them and add water, which leaks out through holes in the bottom of the container. Clear water means that the soil within has resisted erosion. Dirty water means the soil is on its way to the creek, then the river and, finally, to the lowest point in the watershed.

Tillage—mechanical turning of the soil to kill weeds—is the villain. The hero is usually a cover crop, sprung from seeding in the fall with something like rye or clover, which is killed with herbicides in the spring. And, then, the clean field is planted with GMO (genetically modified organism) crops.

Because, although it’s not mentioned, the no-till system depends on GMOs. In fact, that’s the intention of GMOs. They came into existence as farmers avoided tillage and its attendant soil loss. Killing weeds with chemicals prevents erosion because farmers don’t have to plow every spring to prepare the land.

After the introduction of GMOs, in 1996, the winter forum became where industry, universities and commodity groups convinced farmers that using GMOs is the most modern and easiest way to farm. Since GMOs have been criticized by consumer groups and environmentalists, however, the presentations don’t mention GMOs by name any more. Instead, the system is praised without specifics. When I have asked presenters for details, like, “What’s the tradeoff between topsoil in the ditches and chemicals in the ditches? Which is worse?” presenters have hummed, hawed, sidestepped and evaded.

But farmers are worried, because there are unintended consequences to the use of herbicide to kill weeds. Such things as: overuse of chemicals; creation of superweeds and superbugs leading to even more chemical overuse; overspray and chemical drift onto non-GMO crops; loss of the right to save seeds; loss of traditional knowledge.

Here’s the deal. After planting a GMO seed, which can be sprayed with poisonous chemicals at any time in its life and resist the spray, it makes sense to spray and spray again. Every outburst of weeds is greeted with a douse of spray. Even the pro-industry magazine, Forbes, sounded alarmed when it reported on “the pesticide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto‘s Round Up ... Food & Water Watch found that the “total volume of glyphosate applied to the three biggest GE crops — corn, cotton and soybeans — increased 10-fold from 15 million pounds in 1996 to 159 million pounds in 2012.”

With glyphosate linked to dozens of human diseases, including non-Hodgkins lymphoma, the alarm is reasonable. But that’s just one of the side effects of overusing chemicals. Another problem is the creation of superweeds and superbugs that resist chemicals, leading farmers to apply more. On the list of resistant weeds is Johnsongrass, a giant grass that can take over a field in a couple of weeks, and ragweed, one of the most allergenic weeds on the planet.

The worst of the problems is the loss of control over the neighborhood. For the chemically-intense system, inputs like seeds and chemicals are trucked in from someplace else. The seeds are patented, so farmers can’t save the best of their crops to replant. The chemicals may be delivered by ground-level sprayer or by airplane, and neighbors usually have no idea what’s coming down. Stories of people being sprayed are becoming common. They rush into the house, choking and nauseous, run to a shower and wonder what has hit them. Was it an pesticide, targeting some bug? An herbicide, aiming at some weed? A fungicide, sprayed to kill fungus?

I suggested at the beginning of this column that topsoil is a political issue. Indeed, the entire system—all the steps of production—are part of a scheme of subsidies, paybacks and kickbacks devised through the years by our pols. The GMO crop, when it is finally harvested, goes to ethanol production or diesel fuel or perhaps to feed animals in a CAFO. The confinement animals, once harvested, may be sent to markets far away. Sometimes the pork or chicken is dumped on consumers in another land, at prices that undercut their struggling farmers.

So how do we back away from this industrial system? Consumers want better choices and farmers are catching on. Politics, however, is blocking the door. It’s time for a winter lecture series in the heartland that puts people first.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2015

Blog | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2015 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652