When the biotechnology antagonists try to stoke fear by warning about “superweeds,” they make these plants sound like an alarming cross between the unruly dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and the carnivorous botany in “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“I was talking to a farmer from Arkansas and he’s got weeds that are now 8 feet tall, they’re the diameter of my wrists, and they can stop a combine in its tracks,” Gary Hirshberg, a leading anti-biotech activist, told U.S. News & World Report last year. “The only way [farmers] can stop them is to go in there with machetes and hack them out.”

Gary is actually right — but this is nothing new, and has nothing to do with biotechnology.  Hand weeding has been practiced since farming started.  One of the least favorite jobs of my youth was walking through fields cutting out weeds.  It is hard work. You are not just battling weeds, but also the weather and insects.  Often when you started in the morning the crops you were walking through were soaking wet from dew, and the air was cold.  By the end of the day the heat and humidity was stifling, and no matter you were in the field there were flying, crawling and biting bugs.  There was nothing noble about hand weeding; it is simply hard, uncomfortable work.

Weeds are among farmers’ oldest foes because they compete with the crops that we grow for food. They suck moisture from the ground, steal nutrients from the soil, and block sunlight from the sky. Our job is to minimize the harm they do in our fields.

We can control weeds from season to season, but the weeds will always be with us. They’ll never suffer a final defeat. We fight them and they fight back. They’re always responding to everything farmers do, in a generational struggle for survival. My dad, who was also a farmer, faced weeds that I’ve never seen and he probably wouldn’t recognize some of the weeds I encounter in my fields.

 

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Farmers are playing chess with nature, in an endless game with new pieces added to the board each year. We will never checkmate nature; instead our goal is to maximize what we produce given the challenges that are part of farming.

Just in my generation farmers have acquired new tools to combat weeds.  Herbicides that help control weeds have transformed agriculture.  They are safe, effective and reduce the amount of tillage farmers need to do to their fields.  Less tillage also means less soil erosion and less energy used to produce our crops.