COVERCROPS, MONSANTO AND YOU

From John, April 28th, 2012

Modern agriculture tends to view plants as monocultural events.  Hence a field of corn standing alone; a hill of beans all by its lonesome or a crop of squash with no competition.  And yet plants did not evolve this way and, until fairly recently, agriculture did not work this way.  Before Europeans adopted corn as a staple it was grown by native Americans as part of a  “sacred triangle” incorporating beans and squash into the cultivation.  These plants not only complemented each other physiologically in terms of what they added and took away from the soil around them but they also complemented each other nutritiously so that, when consumed as a group, they provided a balanced diet of amino acids, vitamins and minerals. The plant community in general tends to work this way with different plants often complimenting each other and providing synergy to the system.
When one applies this thinking to the growing of grapes, a plethora of covercrops (that is those plants grown between the rows of grapevines) begins to emerge.  Clover fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere and makes it available to other plants such as grapes.  Buckwheat accumulates insoluble phospohorus and when it is turned over releases it back into the soil in plant available form.  Peas and chicory send long tap roots down into the soil and mine it for insoluble minerals such as potassium which they then return as plant soluble entities.  Mustard also sends down taproots which spew out allelopathic chemicals which kill or inhibit nematodes.  The more that you search, the more that you find.
But let us return to the original premise that modern agriculture is blind to this community of plants.  Corn is corn and nothing else should compete with it or be allowed to live in the same field with it.  We will wrench nitrogen out of the atmosphere by using copious quantities of petroleum to fuel the Haber process and we will add other nutrients such as potassium and phosphorus by mining them. None of these activities are ultimately sustainable but pay that no mind because we have our attention fixed on killing anything that might want to sprout and grow in that corn field other than corn.  Enter Monsanto, one of the biggest agricultural chemical companies in the world.  At first they were interested in selling Roundup (glyophosphate) a herbicide which pretty effectively killed broadleafs and many grasses.  So they genetically modified a corn plant to be resistant to glyophosphate so that farmers could spray copious quantities of that chemical on their fields.  And as one might predict since evolution is proceeding around us, soon many weeds became Roundup tolerant and those expensive seeds that farmers were buying and the expensive Roundup that they were spraying became ineffective.  So enter the new regime: 2,4-D resistant corn plants and the use of an even more potent herbicide than Roundup (anyone over age 50 will remember 2,4-D which was one of the teratogenic parts of Agent Orange, that wondrous chemical sprayed all over Vietnam which caused mayhem amongst the people of Vietnam).
However, it also turns out that 2,4-D is extremely toxic to grapevines and it is very volatile.  In its most common form (available in a product called Crossbow) this chemical can literally vaporize and move a mile or more infecting anything in its path.  So imagine if you will the scenerio of not only corn farmers but backyard suburban warriors all using massive quantities of Monsanto’s product.  I have yet to hear any outcry from the wine industry over the impending licensing of this product by the Obama administration but they should be alarmed, and so should you.  There is a way to live in this world that promotes health and harmony and I guarantee that spraying lots of carcinogenic herbicides in our fields is not it!

Ziggy Stardust, the Proverbial Spring Chicken

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