Rounding Up the Risks of Big Ag

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Elana Conis, Los Angeles Review of Books, May 6, 2018

THE BACKYARD of our Berkeley home is crisscrossed with gravel-lined paths. Not long after we moved in two years ago, I sought advice on how to keep rainy-season weeds from swallowing them whole. One gardener recommended a handheld Japanese blade called a scraper, but using it was like painting the Golden Gate Bridge: by the time I finished it was time to start over again. A second gardener suggested something called a hula hoe; slightly better than the scraper, but still. A third came by, looked at the yard, and said there was only one solution: Roundup. A quick spray, he said, and all the weeds would be gone.

I had used the weed killer before, a few years earlier, on a stubborn stand of poison ivy one of our dogs kept rooting through in the yard of our previous home, in Atlanta. It was magic. Yanking out the ivy by the roots didn’t do the trick; Roundup did.

But I bought that first bottle with reservations. As someone who studies the history of health and the environment, and the infamous and long-banned pesticide DDT in particular, I was familiar with Roundup’s backstory. The weed killer — active ingredient glyphosate — was introduced in the 1970s, and its use skyrocketed after agricultural giant Monsanto began rolling out “Roundup Ready” soybeans and other crops in the 1990s. The crops were genetically modified to contain plant-bacterial DNA that made them resistant to death by Roundup. Spray a row of Roundup Ready corn, and the surrounding weeds perish while the corn stands tall and green. Today, more than 90 percent of US soy and 80 percent of US corn is genetically modified to stand up to Roundup. And US farmers apply more than 100 million pounds of glyphosate to soy and more than 60 million pounds to corn each year.

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