GMO Aftermath on the Farm

You may have heard grumblings about Monsanto and genetically-modified organism (GMO) foods, but you probably haven’t heard much about the farms that grow GMO crops. Several reports, including this recent NYTimes article, are revealing farmer’s battles with SUPERWEEDS. On our farm, we’re fighting them too. We have found a way to win, but the strategy involves getting out of the industrial farming system altogether…

Some background: Roundup Ready crops have been genetically modified to not die from the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). The farmer can spray Roundup to kill all weed competitors, plant the crop seed, and can spray Roundup again later to kill any emerging weeds. Tilling is not needed for planting or weeding. This is great for mitigating soil erosion, which is so critical for the Bay. However, the soil is a living community, and it WANTS to be protected and covered so it won’t blow away. Weeds will come up again and again to cover and protect the soil, hence the need for Roundup.

Conyza Canadensis

Before we owned our farm, the land was leased to a farmer who planted Round-up Ready soybeans for the past several years. Marestail (Conyza Canadensis) was the first effect of GMO crops we noticed.

Marestail is now known as a “superweed” because of its documented resistance to Roundup (glyphosate). This means it has adapted on its own to survive being sprayed with Roundup. This is striking!  Within 10 years, marestail evolved on its own to survive a killer spray. How many years and how many $hundreds of millions did Monsanto require to get soybean plants to do this? Nature, including wicked marestail, is pretty incredible!

One of our neighbor’s fields was so infested with marestail last summer, I don’t know if it was worth the farmer’s time and diesel to harvest the soybeans. Marestail (and I believe waterhemp also) outstretched the soybeans and hogged sunlight and I’m sure, most nutrients in the soil. This has got to translate into decreased soybean yields, which costs farmers dearly. Without new farming tactics, marestail could effectively take over crop fields.

Marestail plant surviving among soybean seedlings after herbicide application has killed the growing point. Note the extensive branching and multiple growing points.

So what are the options for dealing with this superweed?
1. Switch to a more potent herbicide. Unfortunately, this is what many are doing. This Monsanto brochure encourages growers to “start clean and control weeds early” (spray before you plant to achieve that desired moonscape appearance), to “use Roundup Ready Technology as your foundation” (don’t give up on Roundup!) and to “add other herbicides and cultural practices where appropriate” (hey, marestail is not (YET) resistant to 2,4-D or flumioxazin or cloransulam, so let’s spray those too.) Toxic chemicals with your soy protein isolate, anyone?

2. Hand-weeding. Marestail’s kryptonite is its own roots! It doesn’t have a taproot, so it will come out of the ground real easy. But, if you’re aware of the “get big or get out” movement in farming during the past 40 years, you know this option is not doable. One farmer might plant 500 acres in soybeans. The labor costs would be astronomical for acreages this size.

3. Stop no-tilling. No-till practices + large acreages = Roundup Ready or other such herbicide-resistant GMO crops. Over time, Roundup Ready = superweeds. So, why don’t we just stop no-tilling and go back to plowing? In nature, there’s always a tradeoff. If we plow, we get erosion. Erosion means more polluted waterways and even further death to the Bay. So which do we want, toxic chemicals and superweeds or erosion of the last millimeter of topsoil we have?

Let’s think differently. What if the problem isn’t superweeds or herbicides? What if they are only symptoms? I believe this is the case. The real problem = HUGE ACREAGES OF MONOCROPS. Let’s scrap this entire set-up!

We have fought marestail by converting former soybean fields to pasture. No chemicals, no plowing.  Marestail responds to competition (from densely planted grass seed) and to some aggressive mowing. We planted a pasture grass mix on our farm in fall 2008 using a no-till drill. It was our first go at planting, so we missed several spots, leaving empty rows about a foot wide up and down our fields. Marestail thrives in these non-grass rows, but not where the grass is thick.

In summer 2009, we mowed as soon as we saw the marestail getting tall, about every 3 or 4 weeks. We were really disappointed to see its other superpower–it loves to branch at the point where it’s been clipped! It flowers and sets seed on the short branches, but the seedheads are much smaller than those that are produced by tall mature plants.

So, instead of fighting nature with Roundup, how about we fight nature with nature? We can divert acre after acre of soybeans destined for feedlots and plant these acres in grass instead. By rotationally grazing animals for nutritious grass-fed beef and lamb, the soil will repair itself naturally (no erosion, more and more topsoil) and the Marestail will be stomped to the ground.

Perhaps mega farms of monocrops with no livestock are not a good way to farm in the long term. Let’s ditch the ecological monocrop moonscapes and get back to small, diversified farms—a place and livelihood that comes to mind when we hear the word “farm”.

What can YOU do?
Farmers respond to demand. Each of your food dollars is a vote. Will your food dollars demand industrial feedlot beef or soy milk (if it’s not organic, it’s GMO), or will they demand grass-fed meats and support small, topsoil-building farms?
Learn the truth about GMO foods:


8 responses to this post.

  1. Wow, I love the way you think! Thanks for joining in on Real Food Wednesday!


  2. Thanks Kelly! Glad you liked it!


  3. Posted by Jim Peltz on May 6, 2010 at 2:25 pm

    Nice blog! Totally agree with your assessment. I believe giant monocultures are the real problem too. They are highly resource intensive (water, fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) and damaging to the soil over the long term.


  4. I’m just starting to learn about all of this. I appreciate the time you took to write!

    Thanks for making a difference!


  5. Posted by Renee on November 12, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Less and less people are willing to farm because it’s not a “desirable” job they think it’s only rednecks and hillbillies that aren’t qualified for a white collar job, society thinks farmers are getting rich off of their larger operations but the reality is that they had to increase their farm size just to survive. Income may be large but input costs are much higher than people think, many farmers have to have another side job just to support their families. I came from a small beef farm and know all too well that it’s not profitable enough to have a small diversified farm that would supposively produce this food you speak of that is supposed to replace the food we already get from conventional farmers. Conventional farmers ARE reducing resources that they use in practices with variable rate applications of fertilizers and pesticides and due to GMO’s we’ll be able to plant crops that are more drought tolerant in the near future. I don’t see how we could possibly feed the world with organic or small farms when we can’t feed the population now with operations we have because if we go back to no pesticides and grass fed animals, yields will decrease dramatically!
    You also proposed getting rid of “acre after acre of soybeans”, farmland acres are rapidly decreasing as it is, at this rate we’ll be doomed.
    Glyphosate based products have changed how we farm forever, and many homeowners buy these products every year also, alot of pesticide problems in the environment aren’t actually to blame on farmers but other consumers instead due to improper disposal. Farmers go through training and are more quailified for pesticide application and disposal than homeowners ever would be. Farmers are not in the business of killing the land or harming the soil–they just want to be able to produce a good product that will help them support their families. For these reasons, I’m proud to be in a blue collared proffesion that gets ridiculed all too often.


    • Hi Renee, thanks for commenting. I totally agree that yields will go down if we go back to no pesticides and grass fed animals. We probably disagree on the “why” though. To me, it all goes back to soil. Plants grown in poor soil with incomplete soil nutrition and biology are susceptible to bug attacks, and grassfed animals grown on poor soil have seriously low yields, especially grass-fed dairy. It takes time and a lot of know-how to bring a farm’s soil back from years of abuse (by conventional farming). We’re trying to get our soil is such a good state that yields on no -cide land are very good. It can be done. I’ve tasted grass-fed steaks from different farms. Some are fantastic, and some are really nasty. Good taste and good quantity corresponds to high quality soil and grass.

      The GMO “feed the world” argument has plenty of holes. First off, there’s no detectable yield increase with GMOs. Second, nearly 80% of America’s corn goes to animal feed and ethanol. How is this feeding the world? GMO corn, bred for quanitity, not quality, is tasteless and barely good enough for cornmeal. It packs weight on animals (including humans) really fast, but at what cost? How many feedlot steers have abcessed livers? How many links between America’s health problems and processed snacks (GMO corn) do we need before we think, maybe this isn’t working? If we’re really having a hard time feeding the world, why does 30% of corn go to ethanol? Imagine what quality food those acres could produce instead!

      I know conventional farmers who are aware of the superweed problem but still use roundup because it saves so much time and labor. I understand this, especially now that I’ve learned how much labor natural farming entails. I don’t understand farmers who are aware of the problems but go ahead and completely support GMOs and use the failed “feed the world” argument. Surely the GMO crowd can do better!


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