The New York Times published a story on Tuesday about the spread of weeds that have become weedkiller-resistant following the widespread application of the “glyphosate” herbicide (trade name: “Roundup”). And today in the Times, six guest writers debate what farmers can do in light of this new dynamic. As expected, perennial Times contributor and foodie object of worship Michael Pollan is the first to spout off. His advice? Well…he doesn’t really have much besides “diversify,” but he does offer plenty of his typical criticism of modern agriculture:
Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem—like any pesticide or herbicide—this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends.
Translation: Monsanto stinks.
Pollan harps on the supposed lack of “sustainability” inherent in modern crop growing. For anyone who’s followed his work, his “solution” to problems like the above is basically to turn back the clock and return to a heavily romanticized nineteenth-century agriculture.
It’s a dandy daydream to imagine a Fantasia in which Civil War-era farming practices ruled. People would be welcome to buy organic, heirloom produce at a premium price.
But it’s just not “sustainable”—at least if your definition of sustainability includes “sustaining” the human race. Just getting today’s cattlemen to turn the clock back 60 years would require an additional 165 million acres of land to produce the same amount of beef. And dairy production has immensely improved its efficiency in the same six decades. As Foreign Policy writer Robert Paarlberg points out, what the foodies call “sustainable” is actually eco-unfriendly and counterproductive to battling world hunger.
Fortunately, Blake Hurst (a farmer, not a puritan journalism professor like Pollan) offers more constructive thoughts to New York Times readers. While acknowledging that “none of this [weed resistance] is surprising,” Hurst sees it as part of the natural technological process:
Of course weeds evolve, and certainly some farmers have overused a wonderful tool, just as doctors have over prescribed antibiotics. Being a technological optimist, I assume that weed scientists and crop geneticists are working overtime to solve the problem. Martial metaphors are disturbing to those who imagine farming as a pastoral stroll with Gaia, but we’re in an arms race with weeds, and thus has it always been.
Should farmers grab their hoes, yoke their oxen, and start digging? Or should we all work on a 21st-Century solution?
Memo to Michael Pollan: Time marches forward, not backward.