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Food crops out, tobacco in

3/27/2013

caption Many Iowa farmers are preparing to make the switch from corn and soybeans to the more profitable tobacco due to the Roundup-resistant weeds stifling harvest yields and quality.

caption
Many Iowa farmers are preparing to make the switch from corn and soybeans to the more profitable tobacco due to the Roundup-resistant weeds stifling harvest yields and quality.

Disembarking from a flight in Des Moines a few years ago, I observed a lady behind me being greeted by two children and an older woman. As soon as they saw her, the kids ran up enthusiastically proclaiming, “Mommy, Mommy, guess what? Grandma gave us chicken that had bone in it.” Those kids weren’t that young either, maybe 10 to 12. I said something to the grandmother like, “Way to go, girl.” She rolled her eyes at her daughter.

With my eyes opened to the fact that too many people have no idea about the sources of the food they eat, I began speaking to school and other youth groups, particularly about meat. I soon became concerned about the unintended consequences of a food system that uses large quantities of antibiotics, many similar to those in human medicine. That is routinely done to prevent diseases in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where most of our chicken, cows and pigs spend their brief lives. I have written quite a bit about this and about the outbreak of MRSA — a condition in which simple infections can become deadly because the microbes causing these infections have become resistant to antibiotics.

Earlier this year the Pew Charitable Trusts invited a number of journalists, scientists and farmers to an event in Des Moines to promote their lobbying efforts to rid CAFOs of preventative antibiotics. During cocktail hour, I recognized the same grandmother I had seen at the airport several years ago. After updating me about her grandkids’ eating habits, she introduced me to a pair of scientists seeking a friendly ear. They seemed rather timid and wore no name tags like others did. They then told me something that I did not believe until I got home later that night and verified it on the Internet. Glyphosate is an antibiotic.

How is it possible this is not well known? Before Monsanto discovered that it could kill weeds with it (renamed Roundup), glyphosate was patented as a heavy metal chelate used to cure lead, mercury and arsenic poisoning. As recently as 2010, a scientist applied for a new patent to use glyphosate as an antibacterial and antiparasitical for human treatments of infections as wide-ranging as gonorrhea, chlamydia and malaria. Most of his patent applications suggested one to two parts per million (ppm) would be effective. Why does that matter? I asked one of the timid scientists.

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“It takes about 1,000 ppm to kill salmonellas or E. coli, but it only takes one half of a ppm to kill the beneficial enteroccoccus feacalis — the stuff we need in our gut for good human health. There’s a lot of concern now about antibiotics in livestock, but that doesn’t really trouble me. Animals piss away most of it, literally,” explained one of scientists, on condition of anonymity. “On the other hand, we’re pouring 200 million pounds of glyphosate into our soil and all over our grains each year — more every year since Roundup went off patent. Glyphosate’s purpose is to inhibit the way fungi and microbes behave. I’m afraid to drink beer.”

Farmers I talked to were more worried about their livelihoods.

“Last year’s drought taught me a lot. I had 40 acres of organic corn and 200 acres of GMO corn (genetically modified to withstand glyphosate),” explained Levi Phoenix of Boone County. For the first time, my yields were much better in the organic fields — that’s because the microbes and fungi that help soil retain water had been killed in the Roundup fields.”

Another farmer’s problems reminded me of MRSA.

“Roundup doesn’t work anymore. I’ve got half a dozen new super weeds that have become resistant to it, and they kill my soybeans,” said Madison County farmer Roger Rosen.

Both farmers reached the same solution. They’re not planting soybeans this year because of weed problems. Instead they’re converting those fields to tobacco.

“With global warming, Iowa summers are expected to be a prime tobacco-growing climate in coming years,” said Rosen.

“The cigarette industry has proven to be more profitable overall than food or fuel, so we might as well embrace the change,” Phoenix added. APRIL FOOLS

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