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Finding a Better Way

Country Moon

no till

One of the biggest problems for homeowners, gardeners, and farmers is weed control. Billions of dollars are spent each year to keep weeds at bay. For the gardener and farmer it is a matter of yield, which translates to dollars. For the homeowner it is a matter of keeping a well-groomed yard.

The solution to this problem is usually Roundup herbicide, or a similar product. Hands down, Roundup is the most effective product on the market, but the question is becoming “Is it the best solution?” As of late, there have been concerns raised as to how safe this product is, not only for our food supply, but also for anyone coming into contact with the ingredients in Roundup.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets legal residue levels for every pesticide. A new study in TOXICOLOGY shows that even at the low levels that are currently legal in our food, Roundup weed killer could cause DNA damage, endocrine disruption, and cell death. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has less of a toxic impact alone than the branded chemical mixture sold to homeowners and farmers.

Solvents and surfactants (also known as surface-acting agents, which help keep the spray on the weed instead of rolling off on the ground) are inert ingredients that are mixed into products like Roundup to create chemical formulations that increase mobility and more direct access to the cells. Simply put, it just makes the weed killer more effective, and more harmful to us.

Vincent Garry, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Minnesota, puts it very plainly: “Those same chemicals that aid penetration into a plant also aid penetration into the skin. These chemicals are designed to kill cells. They amplify the effect of the glyphosate and the glyphosate also amplifies the effects of the other ingredients. In this case, it’s a double whammy, one plus one equals something a lot larger than two.”

Caroline Cox, research director at the Center for Environmental Health in Oakland, California, puts it another way: “Herbicide manufacturers are subject to fewer rules in the testing of the inert ingredients than they are for the active ingredients. Testing for birth defects, cancer, and genetic damage is required only on the active ingredient but we are exposed to both."

Now, I know there are all those folks out there who swear by Roundup; they have been using it for years. At this time there are no other choices, but that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be. Farmers definitely do not have a choice. It is a matter of get rid of the weeds or have no crop, and no crop means no income. Their hands are tied. Furthermore, seed manufacturers have genetically altered plants to be resistant to Roundup, which means that, even though Roundup is sprayed on crops and weeds alike in a whole field, Roundup will not kill the crops. Even so, it penetrates the crops and eventually makes it into our food chain. Consumers are exposed once when they eat the produce and farmers are exposed twice, once when they spray Roundup and again when they eat the food.

There are other methods of weed control that gardeners and homeowners can use that are not toxic. These include:

 1. Using ground cover and thick planting to crowd out weeds. Robert Hartzler, extension weed specialist and professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, defines weeds as “plants that take advantage of open areas with available resources." And says, "The simplest way to control weeds is to eliminate the open areas of which they take advantage.”

2. Maintain healthy soil. Keep plants healthy by keeping them fertilized and keeping soil aerated and well-drained. Talk to a specialist for an optimum plan to fertilize the plants and not the weeds.

3. Till the garden. Simply bury weeds at depths where they are unable to re-establish. I know as a kid I spent many an hour on a Farmall C tractor cultivating field corn and soybeans to keep weeds at bay. Unfortunately, many farmers do not practice this tillage method any longer. For those who still do, there are definitely benefits to be reaped in weed control.

4. Mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch is an important factor in preventing weeds. It provides a barrier that blocks light, a necessity for growth. Bark, dried leaves, and cardboard work very well. Organic mulch adds even more benefits such as improving soil structure by adding nutrients, keeping soil cool, and reducing water loss by evaporation.

5. Keep weeds from going to seed. Sometimes something as simple as mowing them off before they have a chance to propagate makes a huge difference. When dandelions go to seed, one puff ball can produce 15,000 seeds.

6. Burn the weeds. If you have a field that has gone to seed and it is safe to do so, burning will eliminate many of the weeds. Landscape flamers allow homeowners to torch weeds along walks and pathways.

7. Biological controls like insects and animals. Some of these feed on weeds, but be careful that you do not trade one problem for another.

8. Organic herbicides. Vinegar and salt can be very effective in weed control. Vinegar will kill the weed itself but not the root. Adding salt will kill the roots as well and make the ground sterile so that nothing will grow there. However, it may take several applications to achieve total weed control.

This last one brings me to my point that there has to be a better way. This year I am foregoing using any Roundup at all in favor of the gentler approach. I am using a mixture of 1 gallon vinegar, 1¼ cups table salt, and ¼ cup Dawn dish soap. I dissolve the salt in about a quart of hot water first, then mix with the other two ingredients. This assures that the salt is thoroughly dissolved, otherwise it tends to clog the sprayer nozzle.

I know what I am doing is small, but change has to start somewhere. I want my grandkids and future generations to enjoy the fruits of the land and good health. I am also scared for our generation. How many farmers, not alone consumers, are developing cancer earlier and earlier? I am certainly not blaming the whole epidemic on Roundup, but I do believe that it is a major factor, along with many other chemicals. We need to make changes for the better and it starts with each of us.

To be continued…