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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Life Resists

Just a quick explanation - this sensationalist article is making the rounds of RSS feeds and the blogosphere - that "superweeds" are on the rise, threatening our food supply. What's worse is that the article explicitly points a finger as the biotech company Monsanto as being the punching bag bogeyman in this phenomenon. There are a couple of things wrong or misinterpreted in the article:

1. The concept of what a weed is stems from our understanding of what is desirable or edible in context. For example, in parts of the world, canola is considered a weed. Dandelions are pests in some yards, but just about the whole plant is edible, and you can pay a pretty penny to get "organically grown" dandelion in health food stores. Weeds only threaten the food supply if our definition of food is controlled by someone else.

2. Superweeds were so named because they are resistant to the commonly used herbicide glysphosphate, aka RoundUp. Monsanto makes a fortune off this herbicide because of their patent for the gene that confer resistance to the herbicide; a large number of commercial crops carry the patented gene, so farmers using the technology can spray RoundUp everywhere, and only plants that carry the gene will grow.

At least, that's the idea. Anyone with a modicum of understanding of evolution knows that the strategy will only work with a limited period of time. Life, with each generation, will adapt. Likely, there is more than one biochemical pathway to resistance to glysphosphate, and continued exposure to one particular herbicide, with little controlled management, will eventually result in increased population frequency of the allele. In short, the "weeds" are just adapting. They are only superweeds in the sense that they aren't staying put in evolution the way that humans would like them to.

The problem doesn't lie with Monsanto, rather, it lies in the practice of agriculture without respect for the very real forces of evolution and natural selection. The solution is education. Populations that become dependent on the use of herbicides as a way of maintaining high crop yields, rather than diversification of the diet, will continue to be faced with this problem, regardless of the suppler.

Incidentally, we face the same problem with regards to antibiotic resistance in the clinic. But that's no longer food related...unless we're talking about animal husbandry.

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