Off the keyboard of JD Wheeler
Published on the Doomstead Diner on September 3, 2013
Discuss this article at the Environment Table inside the Diner
An eager young man strides in to the movie producer’s office. He offers the man behind the desk a stack of pages stapled together. The executive waves it off and says, “I’m a busy man. You have two minutes. What’s your story?”
“An evil genius invents this spray that weakens the immune system, allowing germs to flourish, while helpful bacteria die. Even after the victim’s death, the killing agent is released and can be retransmitted. The spray can last in the soil for months, even years. Genetic modification is developed to resist the effects of this spray.”
“So, it basically sounds like you want to make another zombie horror film…”
“No, it’s a documentary.”
The above exchange is fictional — but it doesn’t need to be. Such a spray already exists, except its primary (intended) victims are plants. The generic name is glyphosate, but it is much more commonly known under Monsanto’s brand name, Roundup.
Roundup is a very broad spectrum herbicide. It kills all kinds of plants. The Scotts company, who sells Roundup to consumers, specifically warns people not to use it in their lawns unless they want to kill the grass. Part of the reason for that warning is there are a number of narrower spectrum herbicides which don’t affect grasses but kill other “broad-leaved” weeds.
Roundup is actually a mixture of chemicals, glyphosate is only the active ingredient. The way glyphosate works is it disables an enzyme found only in plants. That enzyme is essentially part of the plant’s immune system. Without it, the plant is unable to fight off disease organisms. So it’s almost like giving the plants AIDS. Not quite, because at least the glyphosate doesn’t reproduce, but neither is it necessarily used up when it kills the plant. As the plant tissue breaks down, the glyphosate can be released again to kill again, continuing the cycle until the something does eventually break it down, or more likely, it gets bound to something that doesn’t break down. Under ideal conditions, that can be in as little as a few days, which is what Monsanto likes to quote, but in heavy clay soils with little organic matter, it can persist for months.
This picture is a good demonstration of the action of Roundup. The two plants on the left have been treated with Roundup. The middle one was grown in normal soil, the leftmost one was grown in sterile soil. The one on the right is the control, it is there to show you what the plants would look like without Roundup, or, if certain fungicides are applied, Roundup also has no effect.
This is where things really start to get scary. One kind of disease organism that flourishes when you apply Roundup is Fusarium fungi. Monsanto advertises that glyphosate is safe for animals and humans, because only plants have the enzyme that glyphosate targets. I’m sure that last part is true. One of many things Monsanto hasn’t taken into account are the toxins that the various Fusarium species produce. Those definitely can be toxic to plants and animals.
Much of the GMO crops being produced are so-called “Roundup-Ready”. These are meant to withstand the effects of the glyphosate. While the plants do not die, that does not mean they are not being infected by things like Fusarium, however.
Of course, Monsanto isn’t the only one who can develop resistance to Roundup. Weeds are doing it on their own, not only to the glyphosate, but to the disease organisms. In the end we are breeding weeds that are healthier and more resilient than the crop plants.
Let’s say that you decide you’re going to grow things naturally. No way you are going to use Roundup on your veggies. You’re not even going to use chemical fertilizers, just chicken manure and compost. Not so fast. What did those chickens eat? GMO corn? Then there’s a really good chance there is Roundup in their manure. Where did that compost come from? Was it from Roundup-ready crop residue? You could be killing your plants instead of fertilizing them.
Luckily there is a fairly simple test. Watercress is extremely sensitive to any kind of herbicide. If you mix some of the compost or chicken manure in some water and use it on some watercress, if it does not kill off the watercress then it is probably safe.
Another problem with glyphosate is that is binds itself to other minerals. This can cause deficiency diseases in plants, animals, and people, and it also means that the supposedly deactivated glyphosate in the soil can be reactivated by application of a high phosphate fertilizer. Talk about zombie plant killers!
And as I said in the beginning, glyphosate is merely the active ingredient in Roundup. Inactive ingredients, such as POEA, are sufficiently toxic that drinking as little as half a cup of Roundup could lead to coma or death.
Back to plants, something that has been showing up in fields treated in previous years with Roundup is Sudden Death Syndrome.
The same kind of plants would be fine in one row and dying in the next, because the soil beneath the latter was treated with Roundup.
Monsanto has a lot to answer for, but much of the damage it has done has been because of their best-selling herbicide Roundup. In the end it has the potential to kill a lot more than just weeds.