The Food Age of Herbicides

What are you eating?

An analysis of the chemical farming practices in North America

Introduction: Monsanto

It began with the promise that genetically modified seeds, in combination with herbicides, were needed to feed the world. For that promise, long-term studies could be done without, traditional farmers could fall to the wayside, and the environment could suffer— potentially and actualized— unimaginable consequences. This post will elucidate the history and practices of the agricultural mega-corporation, Monsanto. I won’t go deeply into the corruption, the funding of universities and research organizations, of bribes to judges or councils, etc. of the company Monsanto, though there is a lot of it. Instead this essay will look at the wide-spread use of chemicals in relation to agriculture as a whole, their origins, their use in the 20th century, and where they’ve brought us today. Half of the lawns in my city are sprayed with the chemical 2,4-D, a major component of Agent Orange and ranked fourth most toxic environmentally damaging herbicide in California, to get rid of dandelions. Ninety%+ of corn and soy farms in the United States use Roundup Ready Seeds (which are now Roundup Xtend Seeds, because the glyphosate in Roundup lost efficacy and the company required another toxic chemical, Dicamba + sometimes glufinosate, to be added to its regiment). Pretty much everything we consume in this society has been baked in the Monsanto oven, and therefore it also has to do with the oil industry because the Monsanto herbicides (and fertilizers/pesticides) are derived primarily from petroleum. I rank this Agricultural demon upon the highest tier, alongside a similar one, and know of no greater destroyer of this planet.

The subject of this post is also about reality itself. Is “food” what men in white lab coats and marketing teams say it is? In the case of our society, yes, and so long as our ignorance persists it will remain so. But from another perspective food is a product of Nature, and Nature does not thrive in a mono-culture. A mono-culture is not a resilient environment, it brings a mono-predator which destroys the mono-crop and the entire system. In this case, the most malicious mono-predator is Monsanto, who cleverly distributes the illusion that a mono-culture is necessary and even superior. It sucks the life from the rocks and the earth, and lays it on the fields, destroying everything eventually if left to it’s own devices. But the truth cannot be concealed forever. In the case of herbicides the truth is revealed by the fail-safes of Nature: through the words of men, and by its superior bio-mechanisms that over time create resistances to even our most rude creations.

 

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Monsanto Creations; brief history

In 1934 Monsanto began using petroleum to create chemicals and products. Today there aren’t many products that don’t need some derivative of oil or natural gas to manufacture. Plastics, for example, are almost all (except bioplastics) created with byproducts of oil. Before the integration of petroleum, chemical factories used coal to make coal-tar and other products, but petroleum massively widened the possibilities of creation. Interestingly, during WW2 the American chemical companies had already largely transitioned to chemical manufacturing with petroleum products, while the German chemical companies still relied on Coal-tar. It may be that the discovery of oil and its contribution to American and allied forces allowed for a victory against the Nazis for the world. Even the slightest technological edges in war make a big difference, petroleum allowed for making rubber-like products like tires at cheap prices, etc.

John Queeny founded the company Monsanto in 1901. He bought his chemical machine second-hand, and had a good vision: of freeing America from their dependence on the German chemical manufacturer, Bayer (who purchased Monsanto in 2016). Its first product was saccharin, a sweet ingredient sold to Coca Cola and spread across the world. They went on to make the war-weapon Agent Orange, contributed to research for the Manhattan Project, the chemical, glyphosate (Roundup), multiple genetically modified seeds including the Roundup Ready varieties, and currently they are introducing a Dicamba + glufosinate herbicide and their accompanying genetically modified resistant seeds. Dicamba was not invented by Monsanto, it is an old chemical off patent that was used decades ago before the creation of glyphosate (Roundup). It requires these old chemicals because ‘weeds’ evolve resistances to herbicides every 10-20 years. Glufinosate is another herbicide not invented by Monsanto, but which is also off patent. By combining glyphosate, dicamba, and glufinosate, an effective herbicide is formed and is currently in use. Monsanto (now Bayer) still dominates agriculture because although it does not own patent to anything other than the glyphosate (which could be replaced with an alternative chemical), it has a massive user-base built from their monopoly over the past 25 years, and because they do own patents on genetically modified seeds which have resistances to their herbicide.

Herbicides

In the early 1940s Monsanto was making a pesticide, and two herbicides known as 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. It did not invent these herbicides, but it was a major manufacturer of them. By 1944, the military was looking at these products as defolients. At the time it was not known how they killed plants, but today it’s thought that “large concentrations of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D essentially stimulate cancerous growth of plant cells.” (Elmore, J. Bart. Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and our Food Future. Olympia Publishers. (2021), 110). They are specific types of herbicides called synthethic auxins, which affect cell growth, elongating cells and killing most types of plants. The 50/50 combination of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (2,3,4-T is a chlorinated herbicide, 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) is the formula known as Agent Orange, used as a defolient in the Vietnam War, around 30% of which was provided to the US military by Monsanto. The chemicals were approved by the US Department of Agriculture for the domestic market in 1945. In 1948, Oregon’s US Forest began experimenting with these chemicals to clear the brush under electric lines and beside railroad tracks.

By the mid-1950s Monsanto created and patented Vegadex and Randox, herbicides capable of killing broadleaf weeds and grasses and used primarily for crop-farming. “Randox was used before planting and after harvest on fields devoted to corn, soybeans, and other food crops while Vegadex, as its name implies, was used to clear farms before planting vegetables. Though both of these products were later determined to be “toxic to fish and wildlife” and bore labels warning farmers of health risks, American growers used these two chemicals for decades, though they were later replaced by more powerful (and supposedly more safe) chemicals in the latter quarter of the twentieth century.”(Bart, 113.) These were some of the herbicides used before Monsanto’s greatest invention: Roundup

 

Roundup

As time went on Monsanto suffered because it’s main products, PCBs and 2,4,5-T, were bringing innumerable lawsuits and becoming regulated due to the now noticeable long-term effects. They needed a new product, and they invented Roundup.

Roundup is the brand name of a chemical called glyphosate. In order to make it, phosphate ore must be mined and burned at 2700 degrees Fahrenheit. It requires more energy than a metropolitan city to run the factory where this is done, and also emits 96% of Mercury in the entire state of Idaho (as well as massive amounts of water). The desired product is elemental phosphorous.

 

Before Roundup Monsanto was already producing phosphorous product to sell to detergent companies, but it was becoming apparent to the public that the detergents were polluting water-ways. It was because of this dead-end for their phosphorous line that they sent their chemists to work on other products. One chemist, John Franz, made the discovery of glyphosate, which they called Roundup. At the time it was thought to be an incredible discovery for the environment, as herbicides such as 2,4,5-T were proving toxic to humans and animals, and there were no known effects from Roundup to humans or animals. The company claimed that glyphosate disrupted a plant enzyme known as EPSP synthase, an enzyme not present in humans or animals. The claim was unrefuted in the 1970s, but today we know that bacteria inside humans and animals do contain that enzyme, as well as bacteria that live in the soil. If we destroy the microflora of the soil and our own digestive system, we destroy ourselves indirectly and directly.

 

Roundup-ready Seeds; Roundup Xtend

Perhaps the greatest invention of Monsanto is their line of herbicide-resistant seeds. “In the early 1970s, Stanford biochemist Paul Berg announced that he and his team had successfully transferred a gene from one type of virus into the DNA of another. Around the same time, Berg’s student, Janet E Mertz, was developing a method for transferring the genes of a virus known to cause cancer in mammals into Edcherichia coli, a move that startled one of Mert’z Stanford instructors, considering the fact that this bacterium colonized human digestive tracts.”(Bart, 198). So it was that in the 1970s this genetic-modifying technology was created, and Monsanto quickly tried to utilize it for agriculture (I wonder if any other scientists/organizations ever thought to utilize the technology outside of agriculture.)

Monsanto’s first success with biotechnology involved transferring a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which allowed crops to produce a pesticide that the bacterium emitted naturally. However the race was still on for the ultimate monetary prize, resistance to gylphosate (Roundup). One scientist, Luca Comia, discovered that by altering the shape of the EPSP synthaze enzyme which glyphosate typically blocks (thus killing the plant), he could make tobacco plants resistant to glyphosate. Monsanto’s own scientists were working on a different methodology: they were attempting to massively increase the production of ESPS synthase enzyme in their plants, thereby boosting its resistance to the chemical. However it only worked against small doses of Roundup. By the 1990s Monsanto discovered that by analyzing microorganisms in Monsanto’s glyphosate pollution piles near its factory, it could isolate a bacterial EPSP synthase gene sequence that was effective. (Bart, 202). (And that is a fine example of how natural intelligence is superior to the mental capacity of humans.) From this discovery Roundup-ready Seeds were invented.

Prior to the introduction of genetically modified seeds, farmers could only spray their crops before planting or after the harvest. Now, with the introduction of genetically modified Roundup Ready Seeds, they could spray their fields throughout the growing season. In 1996 Monsanto launched Bollgard, a genetically-engineered cotton seed that produced its own pesticide to kill its common pests and worms. In the same year they introduced Roundup Ready canola and soybeans, the first herbicide tolerant GE (genetically-engineered) crops ever commercialized. (Bart, 230.) From 1995 to 2014 genetically engineered soybean and corn seeds went from 0% use in farming across the United States, to 91-94%.

In 2014, an old chemical was resurrected by Monsanto as its Roundup efficacy declined, called Dicamba (Nature/ specific “weeds”, become resistant to the specific chemical herbicides over 10-20 years time.) Roundup wasn’t killing the weeds anymore, so In 2014 the company introduced the ‘Roundup Ready Xtended Crop Sytem,’ a Genetically modified seed / herbicide regiment that created crops resistant to both Roundup and dicamba. One of the problems of dicamba is that in the hot sun it vaporizes and travels to neighboring farms who may not have purchased the genetically modified seeds, killing large swaths of their crops. Despite knowing this effect, Monsanto still rushed the seeds for sale, and worked on modifying the genes to get rid of that quality in the meantime.

Herbicide use today is running into a bit of a dead-end. Obviously in 10-20 years time dicamba, which is already an old and used product, will become useless against resistant weeds. Instead of using just one chemical, it’s now necessary to use at least two, usually three, to eradicate all plant-life (except one cash-crop). This dicamba/glyphosate blend is still currently the dominating agricultural herbicide method used today.

For a personal interest (I was thinking about combating herbicide companies in my city), I looked into / emailed the major Weed-killer companies in my home town of Calgary, AB, to discover what products they use. Several did not email me back, but one did and two others had the information available on their websites.

Weedman – 2,4-D 
Green Drop— PAR 3 (par as in golf I’m guessing): combination of 2,4-D, Dicamba, and something called MCPP-P (I didn’t research this much, but pretty obvious with small amount of research it’s a toxic carcinogen at least). And while Monsanto eventually created Vaporgrip, a technology that stops Dicamba from spreading to other fields, PAR 3’s dicamba portion does not have that technology and will spray onto neighbor’s lawns if applied in the heat of the day.
Nutrilawn—This is a company branded as the environmentally friendly solution. Uses a product called Fiesta, which they originally termed ‘natural’ but which was legally forced to change that term to: “a low-risk selective broadleaf weed control”. Appears to be a bit better, as it isn’t a blanket herbicide approach but rather targets the visible ‘weeds’ individually. It’s method is through iron toxicity. Sounds like it needs a lot of applications, and may not be as effective as 2,4-D. Nutrilawn also offers a “traditional method” of weed control (I assume 2,4-D, or blend)

 

Toxicity

Regarding 2,4,5-T: there was an explosion in the Monsanto factory called Building 41 manufacturing 2,4,5-T, which caused health problems to the workers exposed to the chemical. The lawsuits that followed eventually brought attention to the chemical’s toxicity. “Ashe and Suskind concluded in their 1949 study—a study laborers later said they never saw—that McClanahan etc. were “suffering from systemic intoxication from a common agent arising out of their employment. This intoxication is characterized by acneform skin lesions, hepatitis, disturbed lipid metabolism, peripheral neuropathy and probably mild central nervous system involvement.’(Suskind et al. “Progress Report,” 23; Jeffers v. Monsanto, Civil Action No. 81-2239, Docket No. 225, Plaintiff’s Response to Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgement – Statute of Limitations, 55, TCP files.) The US federal government finally banned 2,4,5-T in 1985, over 35 years after the toxic effects were seen in the explosion of building 41.

Regarding Roundup: According to the EPA, “phosphorous ores (the primary ingredient in Roundup) contain approximately 60 times the levels of natural radioactivity normally found in the Earth’s crust.” The process involves creating phosphate slag, which contains uranium-238, radium-226, polonium-210. Monsanto was selling parts of its slag waste to the nearby town of Soda Springs as roadway material and building foundation. Other contaminations from the phosphate plant include: contaminated drinking wells, pollution plumes spreading into groundwater containing cadmium, selenium, and vanadium. (EPA, Office of Radiation Programs, Las Vegas Facility, Idaho Radionuclide Study (April 1990)). It also destroys a necessary enzyme in most plants, microorganisms, insects, and in the microbiome of mammals including humans. This product and its mass use is most likely the reason you no longer need windshield wiper fluid when taking a road-trip.

Regarding 2,4-D: the major herbicide plaguing our urban homesteads: A resurgence of this chemical came about in the 2000s due to the surge of Roundup-resistant weeds. It’s currently the main product being used on domestic lawns to combat dandelions and crabgrass in huge quantities, and is the second half of the formula which creates Agent Orange (not clear whether it or 2,4,5-T is more toxic). Researchers Scott Swinton and Braeden Van Deynze of Michigan State Agriculture claimed that glyphosate (Roundup) was “ten times less toxic than 2,4-D.” (Swinton and Van Deynze, “Hoes to Herbicides,” 563, 571.) The chemical was also ranked by California Environmental Health Program as the fourth most hazardous agricultural herbicides out of 150 others in use at the time. (William S. Pease et al, “Pesticide Use in California: Strategies for Reducing Enviromental Health Impacts,” (1996), 29, 63.). Mechanism of action: 2,4-D mimics natural auxin. It targets dicots, but has little to no effect on monocots (grasses). Seems to induce growth by cell elongation and kills most types of plants by this method. Action, however, is moreover unknown even today. (Song, Yaling. Insight into the mode of action of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) as an herbicide. Nov 14, 2013.)

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Did They Feed the World?

One of the motivators for farmers to implement these chemical herbicides was to reduce the need for farm laborers. During the 1950-70s there was a mass migration from rural to urban areas, and chemicals filled that labor void. Later, the marketing strategy involved playing upon the Green Revolution’s rhetoric that there was a food shortage, and these chemicals were necessary to ensure low prices and food stability. In reality, at the time (1972), the shortage was due in part to a large grain sale to the Soviet Union. It was a popular idea in the 1970s that food shortage was a major problem in the United States and around the world. (Bart, 92).

A 2012 USDA publishing showed that: “yield data from the years before introduction of GR (glyphosate-resistant) crops, continuing to the present show that the same yield trends before introduction continued after introduction.” (Stephen O. Duke et al., “Glyphosate Effects on Plant Mineral Nutrition, Crop Rhizosphere, Microbiota, and Plant Disease in Glyphosate-Resistant Crops,” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 60 (2012)). Multiple other studies showed that the increase in yield was insignificant or none. The largest study, done by the National Academy of Sciences published a 600-page tome compiling information from studies, 20 years after the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds. They noted that there was disparaging data, but overall: “There was little evidence that the introduction of GE crops were resulting in a more rapid yearly increase in on-farm crop yields in the United States than had been seen prior to the GE crops.” (National Academy of Sciences (NAS), Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, 14, 102, 154.) They added the caveate that this doesn’t necessarily mean that GE crops in the future will not increase yields or be useful, only that the promises of Monsanto did not bear fruit.

 

Conclusion

If 90%+ of our food production utilizes these toxic chemicals that harm the environment and ourselves, why is this not being discussed ad nauseam by the “environmentalists” in the mainstream media? If we care about the health of the planet, and of ourselves, should this not be a concern? And are we contributors to the problem, by demonizing something we’re ignorant of, like a dandelion? Think it out for yourself.

If you've read this entire article, well done! You're well on your way to increasing your knowledge of food and health. Please leave a comment if you have any additional details, comments, or questions. Follow us on one of our social media for video content and updates, and I hope to see you again in a later post by Plato's Garden. If you are seeking an herbalist, please take a look at our website. I'd love for you to book an appointment with us.
Justin McArthur
Herbalist

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