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Soybean field, ready for harvest, showing pods, Abbeville County, South Carolina, USA, courtesy of Mlabar, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready GMO soybeans are facing a classic Red Queen race. Originally modified to include a gene that renders the soybeans resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, enabling farmers who planted them to spray their fields with Monsanto’s Round-Up without harming their crop, they are becoming less useful to farmers because the weeds that the Round-Up is supposed to kill are also becoming immune to the herbicide. Palmer’s amaranth, also known as pigweed, in particular, has evolved resistance to glyphosate and is an invasive, hardy pest in increasing numbers of fields. In order to keep up, Monsanto has developed another GMO soybean that has resistance genes for both glyphosate and another herbicide, dicamba. A farmer who planted these soybeans could spray either herbicide, depending upon the local flora that needed killin’.

That is, if they’re willing to break the law. The EPA has not (yet) approved dicamba for use on soybean fields. That hasn’t stopped Monsanto from selling the dicamba-resistant soy to farmers, claiming that farmers are interested in other features, such as a higher yield. I wasn’t there, so I can’t say if Monsanto sold the seeds with a warning not to use dicamba (wink wink, nudge nudge), but farmers in the Southeast have been doing just that.

If you’re a soybean farmer, there’s a good chance that several of your neighbors are also soybean farmers. So when someone in the neighborhood sprays dicamba, which is particularly damaging to soybeans that are not Monsanto’s latest and greatest, it’s bad news for any crops that are downwind. Dicamba causes the leaves of the soy plant to curl up, and can reduce yields by 2 to 80%, depending upon the strength of the solution being sprayed and how windy it is that day. I bet this makes for some tense moments and dramatic side-eye at the feed store.

Now, one could question many aspects of this situation. Why would Monsanto sell a dicamba-resistant soybean when the EPA has not approved the herbicide for this use, providing apparently irresistible temptation for farmers to spray illegally and to ruin nearby crops? Why would farmers spray fields with dicamba when it could have adverse effects for other farmers? Will Monsanto have to keep innovating endless new herbicides and pesticides with their matching resistance genes in order to keep up with evolution via natural selection, and will we eventually run out, much like we’re facing with the antibiotic resistance apocalypse on the horizon? Palmer’s amaranth is known to gain resistance to dicamba after only a few seasons.

For me, however, the biggest, most interesting question is the one that almost nobody is asking: why aren’t we embracing Palmer’s amaranth as a food crop? In permaculture, the problem is the solution, meaning that the best way to solve a problem is to turn it on its head and consider it an opportunity. In this case, one might consider a field full of invasive, glyphosate-resistant Palmer’s amaranth to be a feature instead of a bug.

Amaranthus palmerii, pigweed, photographed in Phoenix, Arizona, courtesy of Pompilid, via Wikimedia Commons.
Amaranthus palmerii, pigweed, photographed in Phoenix, Arizona, courtesy of Pompilid, via Wikimedia Commons.

Amaranth was a particularly nutritious staple food crop for the Aztecs, and you can still find it in the bulk bins at your local Whole Foods. The seeds are 16% protein, which is higher than our three staple food grains, and are very digestible. It’s not hard to imagine a future when our farm fields are soaked to the gills in glyphosate, the climate is hotter than it used to be, having to re-purchase GMO seeds every year gets expensive, and farmers might be unable or unwilling to soak more and more resources into the fight to maintain a soy or corn monoculture in fields choked with invasive amaranth. Why not turn this problem on its head and come up with a new American cuisine that features foods like Palmer’s amaranth, Asian carp, and garlic mustard, all of which are currently invasive and problematic? What better revenge could there be than to quite literally feast upon our enemies?

Sources:

How Monsanto And Scofflaw Farmers Hurt Soybeans In Arkansas
Monsanto Sold Soybean Farmers A Weed-Beating Tool They Couldn’t Legally Use
Dicamba and soybean yields
Rethinking a Weed: the Truth about Amaranth

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