Preserving a Precious Natural Resource

January 01, 2003  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  Scripps Howard News Service  ·  Pest

A Texas Dust Storm in 1936

Only two good things came out of the "Dust Bowl days" of the 1930s when winds whisked away the nutrient-rich topsoil from drought-stricken American farms, forcing many farmers to simply abandon their land. One was John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The other was herbicides, which helped make massive soil erosion a thing of the past even as it made food more affordable. How so? Weeds compete with crops for water, sunlight and soil nutrients, with the potential to dramatically reduce yields. Growers who don’t control them soon fall into a special category known as "ex-growers."

The traditional method of weed control (still often practiced in the underdeveloped world and by some American growers) comprised stooping over for miles on end while yanking or hoeing the invaders by hand. This was probably great for chiropractors, but was time-consuming and expensive. By the 1930s, tractors were common and farmers found they could efficiently control weeds by tilling up the soil.

The problems with tilling were wind and rain. The wind carried the cultivated soil hither and thither, while the rain washed it into waterways. Either way, rich topsoil was lost forever with clay and rocks left behind.

The savior was something called no-till farming, which when used on a large scale requires herbicides. Instead of chewing up the land farmers spray the fields to kill all the weeds, and then come through later with equipment that opens holes just big enough for the seed.

With the help of no-till, national cropland soil erosion has plummeted. Indeed, the process can reduce soil loss by 90 to 95 percent of that which occurs from cleanly-tilled fields, according to the University of Nebraska Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Genetically engineered crops can help even more.

A new study from the National Center for Food & Agricultural Policy (NCFAP), financed by CropLife America, shows just how important herbicides have been.

Evaluating 40 different crops, the D.C.-based group found that alternative means of weed control – namely cultivation and hand weeding – would cost more than $14 billion a year compared to less than half that amount for herbicide usage. Moreover, both of those alternatives carry non-dollar prices that we don’t want to pay.

The chemicals have their detractors, including both the organic industry and self-styled environmentalist groups that prey on people’s inordinate fear of chemicals – fear that they themselves whip up.

But going back to cultivation would be an environmentalist’s nightmare. "Soil erosion and mud in streams may be the biggest source of degradation in waterways," says study co-author Leonard Gianessi. "Silting is a major problem. Moreover long-term erosion losses reduce the productivity of our farmland." A healthy, environmentally-friendly no-till corn field – courtesy of your friendly neighborhood herbicides.

What about hand-weeding? Replacing herbicides with hoes would increase labor requirements by 1.2 billion hours, according to the report. Moreover, says Gianessi, "We would need 70 million new workers." That’s over ten times the population of El Salvador.

Organic farmers do employ hand-weeders, which is why they repeatedly rank weed control as their top priority. In a recent study in California, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found weed control costs of organic vegetable growers can be $1,000 per acre in comparison to the $50 per acre that conventional growers spend on herbicides.

Hand-weeding is also backbreaking work. That’s why activist Cesar Chavez lobbied three decades ago to outlaw the short-handled hoe, while other farm worker advocates continue trying to ban both short hoes and hand-yanking.

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health has reported