The Swine Weed Pandemic

The Swine Weed Pandemic
It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed.
It looks just like the pig weed that corn-, cotton- and soybean-farmers have been fighting in the South forever. It’s big, it kicks the crap put of any crop it’s contesting with, and it’s tough enough to stop a combine in its tracks. The only thing different about the superweed variety is that it can’t be killed by any manmade chemical.
Twenty years or so ago, that wouldn’t have been a threat to life as we know it. But it is now. The reason —  the most successful single promotion of a destructive chemical farming practice ever perpetrated. The winner was Monsanto, which in the 1970s introduced the glyphosate herbicide Roundup, which was less persistent after application and thus less toxic to groundwater and other plant life that many other herbicides. Then, in the mid-1990s, Monsanto introduced Roundup-resistant crops, which had been genetically modified so that Roundup couldn’t kill them.
It solved an old problem of chemical farming. Until then, sprays could kill broadleaf plants, or they could kill grasses, but they couldn’t knock the wild oats out of a wheat field without killing the wheat, or select broadleaf weeds in a soybean field. Now, Roundup could. It killed everything
In about ten years, the application of Roundup went from about eight million pounds (1994) to about 120 million pounds (2005). In 2006, Roundup-Ready crops occupied nearly one-half of the available cropland in the United States.
The inherent flaw in chemical agriculture is that no chemical kills everything it’s supposed to, and every application of a chemical spurs the development of resistant mutants. There are already 16 weed species in the world, nine on the United States, that shrug off Roundup as if it was a spring rain. Pigweed is one of them.
The inherent flaw in industrial agriculture, with its relentless pursuit of the economies of scale (while it ignores the simultaneous and equal concentration of risk), is that when you have ten thousand acres of one thing, a threat to that thing is going be pretty catastrophic. Sustainable farming, by contrast, will grow 20 or 50 things on a hundred acres.
So here we have the corn and soybean and cottonseed farmers of the South who are facing ruination because of pig weed. They are trying applications of four times the previously adequate amounts of Roundup. It’s not working. They are rolling out mechanical cultivators, which have not been seen in these fields for 20 years. The problem here is that sow-and-spray agriculture was so easy, and the farms got so big (10,000 acres-plus is now the norm), that the tractors, implements and manpower needed to go back to mechanical cultivation simply don’t exist.
The pigweed problem emerged as a major threat only this summer. As Arkansas extension agent Ken Smith described it, “In July we began hearing horror stories all over the state. ‘Man, there are ankle-high weeds out there that Roundup won’t even touch.’” This year, the pig weed spread to more than a million acres of cotton and soybeans. Says Smith: “I’ve never seen anything that had this major an impact on our agriculture in a short period of time.”
This winter, farm groups all over the country will be trying to come up with an answer to the spreading plague of pigweed (the most effective control yet devised — hand weeding. Try that on 10,000 acres). Monsanto has promised a vaccine — honest,  they swear they’ll have a chemical answer by 2015.
Here’s what you can count on: the pigweed plague, and the associated accumulating failures of industrial agriculture, are going to hit us all a lot harder that the swine flu.
For a careful description of the spreading pigweed panic, written for the industrial-agriculture press, check out this piece in the Delta Farm Press: “Resistance threatens conservation tillage.”
http://deltafarmpress.com/cotton/conservation-tillage-0914/
For a less restrained version, this piece in Grist: “The chemical treadmill breaks down and the superweeds did it.”
http://www.grist.org/article/the-chemical-treadmill-breaks-down-and-the-superweeds-did-it/
And for a more complete explanation of of how we got here, see my forthcoming book Brace for Impact: Surviving the Crash of the Industrial Age by Sustainable Living.

It’s ironic that while our attention is being directed to the swine flu epidemic, which doesn’t seem to be hurting much of anything, a real threat to our life-support system is crawling out of the wasteland created by chemical-industrial agriculture: the super-pig-weed. Continue reading

Weapons of Mass Digestion

Suppose that the company that supplies our water notified us that from now on it would deliver water that was perfectly safe — as long as we boiled it before we touched it. We would be in the streets with placards and pitchforks before noon. Yet the food industry takes the position that its responsibilities are met when it delivers to us meat that is safe — as long as it is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before we touch it. And we have accepted this with the silence of the proverbial lambs.
The New York Times has given this remarkable arrangement some attention with a long take [“E. Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection”] that showcased the plight of a 22-year old woman nearly killed, and left paralyzed, by a hamburger tainted with E. Coli and not sufficiently cooked. (See! It was the cook’s fault! In this case her mother, now plagued by guilt.) Like most writing on the subject, the Times spends a lot of time emphasizing the “there oughtta be a law” aspect of the issue, faulting the US Department of Agriculture for its lackadaisacal inspection practices, as if we could somehow legislate or inspect our way away from the effects of this industrial weapon of mass digestion.
The Times does a very good job of detailing how hamburger is assembled, making it clear that it should be handled in our kitchens in the same way as any other lethal biohazard. And it profiles the Mafia-like ethics of the hamburger grinders who refuse to sell their product to anyone who threatens to test it for purity. “Nice store you got here. Be a shame if anything happend to it.” (Once again, Costco stands out here as one of the few ethical companies on the planet: they test all the burger they buy before they mix it or process it further.)
But the Times piece does not point out that the food industry not only refuses to control this threat to public health — it created it! By force-feeding corn to grass eaters, industry turns the contents of their four stomachs into acid that makes the cows sick and kills most of the E. Coli bacteria that used to l;ive there happily and benevolently, helping in the digestion of grass. The surviving bacteria were 1) acid tolerant and thus able to survive where they had never been able to before — in human stomachs, and 2) teenage mutant ninjas with some weird weapons, such as incredibly potent shiga toxins, as few as 50 of which can perforate your intestines, infect your blood and destroy your kidneys.
But, hey, you’re perfectly safe as long as you, or your hamburger provider, heat the meat to 160 degrees, sterilize all utensils, pans and dishes that touched it prior to heating, and incinerate all clothing, towels or furniture that came in contact with it.
The Times says that the paralyzed young woman “ran out of luck in a food-safety game of chance.” They should have named the game. It’s not canasta, it’s Russian Roulette.

Suppose that the company that supplies our water notified us that from now on it would deliver water that was perfectly safe — as long as we boiled it before we touched it. We would be in the streets with placards and pitchforks before noon. Yet the food industry takes the position that its responsibilities are met when it delivers to us meat that is safe — as long as it is heated to 160 degrees Fahrenheit before we touch it. And we have accepted this with the silence of the proverbial lambs. Continue reading

Forget Everything, I Said

The mantra of the industrial age rises in intensity, all around us, louder and more insistent as it becomes less defensible: we have to change everything, is the way it goes, but we can’t change any single thing.
On health care: yes, it’s terrible, the system is broken. The industry (imagine: in this country, health care is an industry), as President Obama likes to remind us, is on board this time, and agrees we must reform the system. It’s just that they are against changing any single thing about the system. Reduce their profits? That would be un-American. Offer Medicare to the people they have rejected as too poor or sick to help? Socialism! Sure, they’re willing to stop refusing or cancelling coverage of people who are, or get, sick. But that’s a no-brainer when, in return, 45 million Americans, now without insurance, are going to be required by law to pay them premiums. Now that’s a reform even an insurance coimpany could like.
The journalism industry — yes, it’s an industry now, too, I’m afraid — is complicit in all this. To cite just one example: two of the country’s most successful and respected columnists, Gail Collins and David Brooks, discuss the health care reform battle as if it were a contest of ideas between Republicans and Democrats, or the House and the Senate, or the Administration and Congress.
Compromising on Health Care
http://theconversation.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/23/compromising-on-health-care/?ref=opinion
It is no such thing. It’s a contest between the 70% of Americans who want access to decent health care at a reasonable cost — and the industries that are making their profits by either denying the care or bankrupting the patient. Of course the industries are winning, at least partly because the journalists who should be shining light on what the companies are doing are instead flapping their right wings against their left wings.
Similarly. the oil industry agrees that we are going to run short of oil, and soon. Their most optimistic scenarios put peak oil — the begining of the perpetual and irreversible decline of the world’s oil supply in the face of steadily increasing demand — at 20 years away. Most reputable observers believe it’s happening now. But Big Oil says yes! we have to change everything! They even allowed their wholly-owned President, George W. Bush, say it explicity: we are addicted to foreign oil.
Just don’t try to change any single thing. Higher gas-mileage requirements for cars? No way. Tax gasoline to reduce consumption and stimulate atlternative, renewable fuels? Are you kidding? Limit carbon emissions as a late and lame admission that we are changing the climate of the planet, to our own peril? No, no, no. Instead, British Petroleum will rebrand itself as “Beyond Petroleum,” and run TV ads about how we have to change everything.
What I argue, here and in Brace for Impact, is that survival requires that we flip this brain-dead mantra on its head, admit that we cannot change everything, and then change something.

The mantra of the industrial age rises in intensity, all around us, louder and more insistent as it becomes less defensible: we have to change everything, is the way it goes, but we can’t change any single thing. Continue reading

Hope Flickers

It’s the kind of national inititative, the kind of muscular, frontal assault on one of the most dangerous problems of our time, that could actually give reason for hope.

It’s a massive program announced this week to install in the coming year 100,000 gas-fired household electric power plants in homes (where they will also heat the water) across the country. Continue reading

Burning Words

Sadly, there is yet one more thing to be said about Congressman Joe Wilson, the latest person to demonstrate that you can become rich and famous; not despite being an idiot, but because of it.
This one more thing needs to be said because, as we contnue to reduce the content of our national discourse while we increase its heat, we are all in danger of becoming idiots, and angry idiots as well, which is not only pointless but dangerous.
This thing that needs to be brought to mind is that this country is by design a republic. The president of a republic is its head of state, in addition to being its chief executive officer. Once sworn in, the president is no longer a candidate, he holds the office, and the office embodies the United States of America. It follows that showing disrespect for the president is as grave an offense against the Republic as, for example, burning its flag.
It would have been good to see President Obama, on being called a liar by Mr. Wilson during a joint session of Congress, say to him what President Truman said after being slighted by General Douglas MacArthur: you can think whatever you like of me personally, sir, but you will respect the office that I hold.
It would have been good to see the sunshine patriots and summer soldiers of the raucous right demonstrate a twinkle of awareness of the real traditions and values of the republic on whose behalf they so lavishly emote. They who get tears in their eyes at the thought that someone somewhere might one day burn a flag are happy to see the surly and vacuous Joe Wilson set fire to the country another, more destructive, way.

Sadly, there is yet one more thing to be said about Congressman Joe Wilson, the latest person to demonstrate that you can become rich and famous, not despite being an idiot, but because of it. This one more thing needs to be said because, as we continue to reduce the content of our national discourse while we increase its heat, we are all in danger of becoming idiots, and angry idiots as well, which is not only pointless but dangerous. Continue reading

Red Snow, Adobe Rain, Rippin’ Your Strip

In the new lexicon of the increasingly desertified American West, red snow is what you get after the wind has deposited what’s left of the disappearing soil on what’s left of the disappearing snow pack; adobe rain is composed of the mud splatters you get when rain has fallen through a dust cloud; and rippin’ your strip — taking out your lawn and replacing it with gravel or seriscape — is the West’s new black.

This is all laid out in a riveting article by Chip Ward, just posted on TomDispatch, titled “Red Snow Warning.” It’s a terrific elaboration on, and confirmation of, Chapter 3 of Brace for Impact, “A Drinking Problem.”

Check it out. Then tell me if you still think that we who see the whole industrial edifice coming down are alarmists. Then do something to secure a sustainable water supply for you and your family.

Water We Gonna Do?

The New York Times is running a series called “Toxic Waters” on the breathtaking extent of water pollution in the United States and the astonishing indifference of our government to its toll of human misery. The link above is to the home page of the series, so you can go back to read subsequent instalments.

To quote the opening salvo:

Almost four decades after Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the rate of water pollution violations is rising steadily. In the past five years, companies and workplaces have violated pollution laws more than 500,000 times. But the vast majority of polluters have escaped punishment.

This will not be news to anyone who has read Chapter Four of Brace for Impact.

What’s That Sucking Sound?

What’s That? A Sucking Sound?
Don’t take my word for it, or that of Brace for Impact: one of the foremost energy economists in the world says that “the world is heading for a catastrophic energy crunch that could cripple a global economic recovery because most of the major oil fields in the world have passed their peak production. [T]he public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.”
That’s the bad news; there’s worse. But first the bona fides: Dr Fatih Birol is the chief economist at the  International Energy Agency (IEA) in Paris, which assesses energy markets for the 30 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). His views appeared in the British newspaper The Independent [Warning: Oil supplies are running out fast] on August 3.
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/warning-oil-supplies-are-running-out-fast-1766585.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/25/opinion/25lynch.html?bl&ex=1251345600&en=f0a941c577e3a21f&ei=5087%0A
His views made headlines in Europe, Asia, even Canada. But US newspapers did not mention them until the New York Times ran a mocking op-ed piece by big-oil apologist Michael Lynch [Peak Oil is a Waste of Energy] ridiculing Dr. Firol and all of the world’s scientists who have come to the conclusion that there is not enough oil to satisfy preneially increasing demand, forever. Lynch and his ilk cannot, of course, claim that oil will never run out; the standards of public discourse will have to deteriorate a little more before that becomes acceptable. They rely on arguing that it won’t for a while yet.
But like their brethren the climate-change deniers, the peak-oil deniers have to ignore the avalanche of evidence from saner scientists. Such as those who, for the IEA, have just completed the first detailed assessment of more than 800 oil fields in the world, covering three quarters of global reserves, and have  found that most of the biggest fields have already peaked and that the rate of decline in oil production is now running at nearly twice the pace as calculated just two years ago.
Demand, meanwhile, continues to accelerate, especially as China emerges from recession.  According to Dr. Birol, even if demand remained steady, the world would have to find the oil equivalent of four Saudi Arabias to maintain production, and six Saudi Arabias if it is to keep up with the expected increase in demand between now and 2030.
But if you are not inclined to have confidence in a guy with a foreign-sounding name — he might be a Muslim! — speaking from France, of all places, then let me offer you this conclusion reached by the United States Joint Forces Command in its stretegic report “Joint Operating Environment 2008 published last November:
“By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD… The implications for future conflict are ominous..”
http://www.jfcom.mil/newslink/storyarchive/2008/JOE2008.pdf
In other words the Department of Defense is telling its commanders, with respect to peak oil, to brace for impact.

Don’t take my word for it, or that of Brace for Impact: one of the foremost energy economists in the world says  “the world is heading for a catastrophic energy crunch that could cripple a global economic recovery because most of the major oil fields in the world have passed their peak production. Continue reading

Go Ahead. Cry for Argentina

Go Ahead. Cry for Argentina
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/09/AR2009090903211.html?hpid=topnews
Industrial agriculture is in the process of taking down another country. For half a century, Argentina has prospered by raising the world’s finest grass-fed cattle on its vast plains. In the process, it did not degrade its land, nor did it abuse its animals. But in the world according to industry, enough is never enough.
According to the Washington Post today [“Day of the Gaucho Waning in Argentina”], the Masters of the Argentinian Universe are moving as quickly as they can to destroy their country by plowing under their sustainable grass to make way for huge expanses of corn and soybeans, and shunting their cattle off pasture and into feedlots.
The Argentinian Pampas, like our own Western Plains, is hot and arid. When you strip the soil of its protective grass, it blows and washes away. When you plow the soil, severing the myriad arterial connections linking the sunshine and water of the surface with the minerals and organic material below, the soil begins to die and lose its fertility. The industrial response is to apply massive doses of fertilizer. made with and from petrochemicals, followed by herbicides, pesticides and fungicides as needed, and in shot order the soil is entirely dead, anmd leaving.
As I report in Brace for Impact, since the 1970s American agriculture has lost, for every pound of food of fiber grown, seven pounds of topsoil. Who can blame Argentina for envying us?
Then of coure there are the cattle, fitted by eons of evolution to eat one thing — grass. They have developed four stomachs, assembled a team of microbes that pre-digests their meal for them by fermenting the grass, to turn straw into steak. But it takes three years for a cow on grass to reach slaughter weight. And its lean meat is not as desirable to today’s overweight, undernourished, diabetic and touchy consumer as meat that is marbled and juicy with saturated fat.
So Industry snatched the calf off pasture at six months or so and puts it in a concentration camp where for the rest of its life it stands in its own manure being force fed — corn. Corn makes the cow sick. Its turns its digestive system acidic (normally it’s neutral) and the animal suffers from acidosis — heartburn — often severe enough to cause physical damage. Microbes trying to ferment corn generate an excess of both gas and a thinck slime that can trap the gas, causing bloat that can kill.These chronic afflictions leave the cattle open to opportunistic infections by such things as pneumonia.
In order to keep these sick and miserable animals alive long enough to slaughter, Industry pumps them full of antibiotics to ward off the more serious and deadly infections, a practice that has a number of side effects that pose serious threats to human health.
Unnatural? Rodrigo Troncoso scoffs that the notion. The General manager of the Argentine Feedlot Chamber, Troncoso tiold the Washington Post: “Who is to say what’s natural and what’s not natural? What’s natural is for a cow to grow, to reproduce and to die.”
Yes, and God intended topsoil to blow in the wind, his creatures to live in misery, and people to swell up, get diabetes and die.
Brace for imnpact, Argentina.

Industrial agriculture is in the process of taking down another country. For half a century, Argentina has prospered from raising the world’s finest grass-fed cattle on its vast plains. In the process, it did not degrade its land, nor did it abuse its animals. But in the world according to industry, enough is never enough. Continue reading