It was already too late for Darren Nicolet to reverse course last June when he heard that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned E.P.A. approval of three products containing dicamba, a controversial but widely used weed killer. A farmer in Kansas, Nicolet had planned his season around the herbicide, planting his fields with soybeans that were genetically modified to survive being showered with the chemical. He was well aware of dicamba’s tendency to vaporize and drift from field to field, causing damage to crops and threatening nearby wildlife and trees, but he didn’t feel as if he had much of a choice: Dicamba was one of the last tools that provided some control over Palmer amaranth, an aggressive weed that would quickly go on to choke out his sorghum crop — and that threatened to overtake his soybeans too. “There was a little bit of a moment of panic there for a few hours,” Nicolet said; he was worried that a season without dicamba would mean devastation for his farm.
If there’s a plant perfectly suited to outcompete the farmers, researchers and chemical companies that collectively define industrial American agriculture, it’s Palmer amaranth. This pigweed (a catchall term that includes some plants in the amaranth family) can re-root itself after being yanked from the ground. It can grow three inches a day. And it has evolved resistance to many of the most common weed killers, continuing to reproduce in what ought to be the worst of circumstances: A three-day-old, herbicide-injured seedling, for example, can expend its last bit of energy to produce seeds before it withers up and dies. Unchecked, Palmer amaranth can suppress soybean yields by nearly 80 percent and corn yields by about 90 percent.
Weeds always adapt to whatever’s trying to kill them. Lawn mowers exert evolutionary pressure on plants until they’re growing outward instead of upward, keeping close to the ground and avoiding the blade. Rice farmers weeding their paddies by hand skip over grasses that look like rice seedlings, allowing the imitators to reproduce — and making hand-weeding all the more difficult. Yet the speed and persistence with which herbicide-resistant weed populations have taken over American farmland is very much an outgrowth of the last few decades of industrial agriculture. Plants like Palmer amaranth evolved widespread resistance to Roundup precisely because it was ubiquitous.
When Monsanto introduced Roundup in the mid-1970s, it worked better than any other weed killer on the market, and it was dirt cheap as well. “It was so good,” Kumar says. “Wherever you put it, it was so effective.” “Top control at a rock-bottom price,” subsequent television ads would crow. “The herbicide that gets to the root of the problem.”
Two decades later, Roundup’s complement, an innovation that caused sales to surge even higher, arrived: Roundup Ready seeds. The genetically modified plants that sprouted from them could survive spray after spray of the herbicide. This enabled farmers to simply plant Roundup Ready seeds, wait until the weeds emerged, then spray the entire field with Roundup. Everything but the valuable crop quickly wilted and died. The development revolutionized weed control: Farmers no longer needed to buy a vast array of expensive herbicides each year or till their land every season.
Monsanto first rolled out Roundup Ready soybeans in 1996. Farmers rushed to adopt the paired products: By 2011, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, about 94 percent of all soybean acres in the United States were planted with seeds engineered to resist herbicides. Cotton and corn followed similar trajectories. Between 1990 and 2014, the volume of U.S. glyphosate use increased more than 30-fold. “It was just so cheap and effective that that’s all people used for almost 20 years,” says Stephen Duke, a former researcher at the Department of Agriculture.
It turns out that Palmer amaranth was perfectly adapted to evolve resistance and to do so quickly. The plant is native to the Southwest, and its leaves were once baked and eaten by people among the Cocopah and Pima tribes; the Navajo ground the seeds into meal. But as the pigweed spread eastward, the plants began competing with cotton in the South, emerging as a serious threat to the crops by the mid-1990s.
Whereas cash crops are virtually identical — farmers purchase new genetically engineered seeds containing the glyphosate-tolerance trait every year — Palmer amaranth benefits from incredible genetic diversity. It mates sexually (obligate outcrossing, in biology-speak), and female plants produce hundreds of thousands of seeds each year. The plants that sprouted with random mutations that inadvertently equipped them to survive showers of herbicide lived to reproduce with one another. Then, once applications of Roundup annihilated all the weeds in a field except the resistant Palmer amaranth, the pigweed could spread without competition. In one study, researchers planted a single Roundup-resistant Palmer amaranth plant in each of four fields of genetically modified cotton. In three years, the weeds choked out the cotton, and the crop failed.