Herbicide-resistant weeds: investigating a sustainable future for arable farming
"Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result" is often quoted as Einstein's definition of insanity. It could easily be argued that is exactly the practice that farmers and agronomists have found themselves following in recent years. This is because herbicides in the past were highly effective, cheap and easy to use. But reliance on herbicides alone has contributed to the widespread herbicide resistance problems that we are seeing today. If you look at the problem simply, herbicide resistance is nature's way of telling us herbicides alone are not sustainable and introducing more diverse weed control methods is required to disrupt the weed’s life cycle.
With my study I aimed to see how farmers and agronomists were dealing with the challenge of herbicide resistant weeds. To investigate this further I visited the USA, Australia and Argentina as well as attending numerous events in the UK discussing how to manage herbicide-resistant blackgrass. I chose to visit the USA because by many it is seen to be the home of glyphosate, genetic modification technology, and vast acres of just corn and soybeans. Australia promised me world class herbicide resistance problems and also the chance to see Harvest Weed Seed Control in the flesh. I found Argentina to be one of the most intriguing countries that I visited. It gave me the opportunity of seeing how farmers will react to political decisions such as export quotas and tariffs on certain crops, and the result of this. It led to over 60% of cropping land being placed in soybean production and the rapid development of herbicide resistance in a number of weeds.
I found that farmers and agronomists were actively looking for better ways of dealing with herbicide resistance, with the momentum moving to more cultural controls of weeds rather than relying on synthetic chemistry. This is particularly important since no new herbicidal mode of action has been discovered for over 20 years, and even if a new mode of action was discovered today it would take many years to work its way through the regulatory process before reaching the market.
I also saw the value of effective communication when it comes to talking about herbicide resistance. This starts with effectively communicating new research on herbicide resistance in a format that farmers and agronomists can understand, right through to 'farmer to farmer' discussion groups where sharing and finding solutions as a collective is really working.
To put it simply: herbicide resistance is a problem that is not going to go away, but it is certainly manageable!