Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Threat to cotton

One of the first really cool things I saw down here in Louisiana was a cotton field. There's something special about a field covered in white fluff balls on short, dark brown stalks. I've seen people pull off to the side of the road and grab a cotton boll right from a plant. In these days of synthetic fabrics, it's simply cool to see natural fibers growing in a field.

How long this will continue is open to conjecture, because there's a scourge afflicting the South's cotton plants. And the scourge is almost entirely man-made.

The scourge goes by the name Palmer amaranth, also known as pigweed. Pigweed grows fast (an inch a day, even in drought conditions), blocking sunlight and sucking up water intended for cotton plants. Pigweed is resistant to Roundup, the primary herbicide — created by agri-tech company Monsanto — used by cotton farmers.

Monsanto developed genetically modified cotton that was resistant to Roundup. This tied a single strain of cotton seeds to a single herbicide. Farmers could spray Roundup over their crops secure in the knowledge that it would kill everything except their cotton plants.

Some scientists warned against such a mono-culture: a single plant strain coupled to a single herbicide. Roundup killed every plant that rivaled pigweed. Pigweed evolved a strain that was resistant to Roundup. Farmers planted Roundup resistant cotton and sprayed Roundup. The result was that only two plants survived on the farms, Roundup resistant cotton and Roundup resistant pigweed. Pigweed is the stronger plant, so it started taking over. Now it threatens the South's entire cotton industry.

Here's an interesting article on Palmer amaranth.

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