My history with RoundUp and life on the farm
Part 1 of a series
I was born in 1952 in Spencer and my life on the farm near Royal started before the Green Revolution. I went to college at SDSU in 1970 studying agronomy and read how we were on the cusp of a worldwide famine due to a population explosion and that agriculture as we knew it would be helpless to increase productivity enough to avoid it. The doom and gloom forecast of worldwide famine in the 1970’s and 1980’s was publicized in the book, “The Population Bomb,” by Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich.
The agriculture that I grew up with was what they essentially call an organic farm operation today. We lived on a quarter section that we eventually expanded to 400 acres in order to make a living. On the home quarter section, we had some pasture for a small herd of milk cows where I chopped thistles with a hoe… the cow herd was eliminated when I was a senior in high school. We grew alfalfa, oats, corn and soybeans. We also fed cattle, hogs, and had laying hens. My father’s agricultural training was growing up on a farm and then attending farm school on the GI bill after a stint in the U.S. Army.
Weed control when I was very young was relegated to a mechanical cultivator. We transitioned from a tractor front mounted cultivator to a rear mount and from 4 wide rows to 6 narrow rows and then to 12 narrow rows. Then we sold it and never cultivated again. We started by cultivating 3 times during a season because of the lack of herbicides. That eventually declined to 2 times and then once, before being phased out of the operation by use of herbicides.
The first herbicide we used was 2-4D on corn and latter Banvel, which is now called Dicamba. Yes, it did drift over onto soybeans. It worked so well we used it anyway. The first herbicide widely used on soybeans was Treflon for grass control. Then came a few products for broadleaves on soybeans which were not spectacular. Through this whole period, we walked soybeans for weeds; typically, sunflowers, button weeds (velvetleaf) and cocklebur. Frankly, once thicker than fleas, you have to look hard in order to find any of these weeds locally these days. That is attributable to RoundUp.
I started farming on my own in 1973 and RoundUp first came on the market in 1974. Walking soybeans was mostly child labor. It was a hard summer job in the sun that no one enjoyed. It was where parents taught their kids how to work. We used a hook or pulled the weeds. That is why some families had a lot of kids. They walked corn too. Then came RoundUp herbicide. We still walked soybeans but employed RoundUp in spray bottles directly on weeds. Not having to hook or pull them, the process sped up with less labor needed to be exerted. Some bought motorized bean buggies with seats poised out over tool bars and rode soybeans applying RoundUp with spray wands. Others used wicks which were bars loaded with RoundUp that would run above the height of the soybeans brushing the herbicide on tall broadleaves. My Dad did that to get sunflowers. Regardless of the specific application method it still took time and effort, but less of both, which was good.
RoundUp safety was never worrisome. Those doing the application would often be soaked in the stuff. Loading spray bottles was messy. Then came genetic modification of crops so that they were tolerant to glysophate and everything changed again on farms. Farmers took little convincing to use RoundUp Ready crops even when some initial varieties of soybeans had a yield lag over conventional varieties. Today, commercial application is done by sprayers with 120-132-foot booms and the kids too often play videogames. Child labor walking soybeans was eliminated. Where we could once cover just a few acres/day walking soybeans, large capacity sprayers can now cover hundreds of acres. The cost of product and application is reasonable. Mechanical cultivators got stuck away in the back of machine sheds never seeing the light of day.
Mechanical cultivation burned fossil fuel, opened the ground which allowed loss of moisture and trimmed roots. All of that, typically still the primary weed control method on organic farms, negatively impacted yields. That is one reason why organic farming is not as productive. Organic farms do not use GMO crops so are generally in the same realm technologically that we could not wait to get away from in the 1960’s. That was before the late Dr. Norman Borlaug helped bring about the Green Revolution which resulted in an explosion of food production productivity that made Dr. Paul Ehrlich look foolish.
GMOs today significantly reduce the use of toxic pesticides, dramatically so on a per bushel basis because of superior productivity. Had the organic system of food production been maintained, millions of people around the world would have starved as food prices would have been unaffordable for many.
Dr. Borlaug was a strong supporter of GMOs, seeing them as a significant technological advancement. EPA considers RoundUp to be of low toxicity. The Canadian equivalent of our FDA came to the same conclusion. The impression was that glysophate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, was harmless. Now some 45 years later the impression of glysophate safety in rural agriculture areas has not changed greatly.
When asked, the local response to the question of RoundUp safety is that if it was harmful, “We would all be dead.”
What they meant was that it was so widely used and that those who did were so thoroughly exposed to the herbicide any harmful effects attributable to the RoundUp would be transparent. They see no health issues that are attributable to RoundUp use as identified by the people who have used it the most and in the most carefree manner in our ag sector. They are absolutely baffled by the judgements being rendered by juries to plaintiffs attributing their cancer to glysophate.
We will discuss this further in Part 2 next week.
David Kruse is president of CommStock Investments Inc., author and producer of The CommStock Report, an ag commentary and market analysis available daily by radio and by subscription on DTN/FarmDayta and the Internet.
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