Time for Tom Vilsack to show leadership on weed control

Commenting on the latest evidence of herbicide-resistant "superweeds" spreading in Iowa, Drake Law Professor Neil Hamilton argued in an editorial this week that we must not embrace "solutions" offered by biotech companies that "will simply repeat our mistakes."

Hamilton’s appeal was not addressed to any specific person. Yet one Iowan is uniquely positioned to heed his warning: U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. As the USDA considers the biotech industry’s “next silver bullet solution” for herbicide-resistant weeds, Vilsack should think hard about the risks, “rather than just believing people who have some shiny new product to sell,” in Hamilton’s words. Vilsack’s record raises doubts about whether he is up to this task.

I encourage you to read Hamilton’s June 29 Des Moines Register guest editorial in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Anyone who thought about it predicted what widespread and unrestrained planting of herbicide-resistant seeds and the increased use of glysophate would yield – selecting for tougher, more resistant weeds, difficult if not impossible to control. Exactly what we have today and what every scientist quoted knew and said would happen.

So the GMO chickens are coming home to roost, and we must decide how to address the “crisis.” You will note one thing not in [Des Moines Register reporter Donelle Eller’s] article – any apology or expression of regret from the companies that helped create the mess or the public officials and cheerleaders who promoted GMOs as the answer to our needs.

The sad truth is, in less than 20 years we took a powerful and elegant scientific advance – plant biotechnology – and through hubris and greed frittered away some of its potential. In the process, we created a more threatening weed problem farmers must confront or risk economic disaster.

But not to fear, industry has a new solution – if you call it that: Take an older, harsher weed killer, 2,4-D, and breed resistance to it into seeds so more can be applied, enough to kill those pesky Superweeds. Meaning we are going to start over with the same approach, asking farmers to pay more for the privilege.

How long do you think it will be before today’s Superweeds evolve to resist this “technology”? Adding to the risks, this “solution” threatens other important parts of agriculture – the grapes and horticultural crops expanding across Iowa. Of course the chemical makers have an answer for this – a newer version of 2,4-D that is less likely to drift.

Bleeding Heartland user black desert nomad went through many reasons to oppose expanded use of 2, 4-D here. The chemical “has been linked to major health problems”, and it’s only a matter of time before the laws of natural selection create more superweeds.

For the moment, I’m more interested in these “public officials and cheerleaders who promoted GMOs as the answer to our needs,” but have no apology to the farmers now threatened by herbicide-resistant weeds. Hamilton is too polite to say so, perhaps because of his long association with Vilsack, but no governor has been as big a cheerleader for biotech as Vilsack. Don’t take it from environmentalists like me: the Biotechnology Industry Organization named him their governor of the year in 2001 and applauded his appointment to President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Vilsack has never given much credence to warnings about genetically-modified crops. On the contrary, as governor he complained when biotech companies showed uncharacteristic caution in choosing not to grow “pharma-crops” in Iowa, where food crops could be contaminated. Several people with close ties to Monsanto or other biotech companies obtained senior positions in Vilsack’s USDA. In 2011, the USDA “decided to approve the use genetically modified alfalfa without any [geographical] restriction,” despite evidence of a growing superweed problem.

I have tremendous respect for Hamilton’s huge body of work on food and farming. Now it’s time for Vilsack to listen to his “informal adviser” and the many scientists who recognize that the agriculture sector needs to change the trends that gave rise to “superweeds.” Vilsack is smart enough to connect these dots. An apology is probably too much to hope for from a politician, but Vilsack can start to make amends by ensuring that we do better next time.

  • Neil Hamilton called a "spade" a spade

    Professor Neil Hamilton connected the dots in his op-ed.  

    Secretary Vilsack has always been on the other side of this issue.  It has always been about the money for him.  One of his biggest and best fundraisers was Monsanto lobbyist and Polk County Democratic talking head Jerry Crawford.  

    Sadly, the citizens who want less Roundup and other herbicides in our environment are going to have to lead here.  The politicians have ALL been bought and paid for.   Have a conversation with the Democrats in our congressional delegation about Monsanto.  I have.  Listen to their glowing praise of the advances made by Monsanto in plant breeding, and then after scratching your head, check their FEC campaign contribution reports.  

    The good news is that there are more Iowans who are concerned about the environment than there are Roundup herbicide addicts.  We can out vote them.  We just need to get organized and overcome the Monsanto money in politics.

    • he connected the dots

      but he didn’t name any names. It was all in the broad first person plural: "we" should do this, not that. Few people have as much power to influence our ag policy as Vilsack. If "we" are going to change things, he needs to be part of the solution.

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