Skyrocketing wheat demand, sparked by World War I, incentivized farmers in the Great Plains to plow up millions of acres of prairie to plant wheat. The Great Plow Up, as it came to be called, was the cause of one of the worst environmental disasters in the U.S., the Dust Bowl. In reality, it was a combination of factors including government land policy, technological innovation, and false market signals that combined to set the stage for a human and environmental calamity. Is history repeating itself with Biotechnology and antibiotics?
In the 1990s, technology, government policy, and market forces came together to help foster the Roundup system of producing soybeans. Monsanto produced a system of controlling weeds that was simple, cheap, and efficient. The government was phasing out crop support programs, and the market was demanding more soybeans. Within a short period of time, the majority of soybeans produced in the US were done so with the Roundup system. The overwhelming use of this system had unintended consequences: the development of weeds that were resistant to glyphosate.
Meanwhile, livestock producers, facing tight margins, more demand, and higher production costs, turned to technology to help produce meat more efficiently. Antibiotics and other pharmaceutical tools were employed to boost meat and milk output. While the link between the use of these tools and the development of resistant bacteria is not as clear as in our first example, a growing concern over this issue has prompted the FDA to limit what drugs producers can give to livestock. Responding to consumer concern, retailers are also calling for a reduction or elimination of antibiotics in livestock production.
While activists have spread lot of misinformation and tried to vilify producers, the reality is that the livestock producer, just like the row crop farmer, is going to have to make some changes. Fortunately, adapting and conservation are second nature to most in agriculture.
Row crop farmers are now mixing modes of action and using a variety of production techniques to control weeds, including resistant ones. Livestock producers are using drugs more judiciously and using new compounds that will not contribute to human or animal resistance. The fear mongers like to say this is the end of modern agriculture, but that is because they don’t know farmers.
Just as producers learned to protect and conserve soil and water after the Dust Bowl, growers today are adapting to the new normal and finding better, safer, and more sustainable ways to produce. It should be noted that, in many cases, the adaption is being done voluntarily by the farmer, sometimes at his own expense. This message, however, gets lost in the uproar over the problem. Just as it was farmers adopting new conservation practices that ended the Dust Bowl, it will be farmers that help solve the issue of weed and antibiotic resistance.
By Gary Truitt