Guest Rant by Melany Vorass Herrera, author of The Front Yard Forager
Last month found me driving north through the Salinas Valley, a long, narrow lowland known to many as the “salad bowl of the world.” I was on my way to give a presentation on edible weeds at the National Heirloom Expo.
As my husband drove, I couldn’t help noticing the never-ending rows of perfectly straight, weed-free greens. I mentally compared this scene with my own garden, a vegetable bed in which I allow edible weeds to mature for my dinner plate. I would have to be on my hands and knees constantly to get my plot to come even close to resembling these acres in Salinas. The fact that I didn’t see a single migrant worker toiling in the field that day told me the weed control is largely by chemical death. Sure enough, about midway up the valley, we caught up with the helicopter spraying the hell out of the fields with a chemical cocktail of something that was clearly very effective.
Of course farming with industrial herbicides has been around since World War II and the helicopter wasn’t a surprise. In fact, back in the early ‘80s, I worked on my aunt’s peach orchard in the Central Valley where we hand-delivered bucketfuls of it to the bases of trees on a weekly basis. The difference between then and now is in the quantity and toxicity of the chemicals used to combat plants that “weed scientists” (yes, they actually call themselves that) now call “superweeds.”
What are superweeds? While I use the term to describe weeds that taste great on a pizza, weed scientists are referring to unwanted plants that have become resistant to common herbicides, most notably glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup.) Superweeds are the agricultural equivalent of antibiotic resistant diseases like SARS, MRSA (staph), E. coli and salmonella.
You see, plants evolve just like microbes, albeit at a somewhat slower rate, and an increasing number of plants we call “weeds” are capable of withstanding heavy applications of herbicides. This resistance is especially worrisome to industrial ag folks because today our most common crops are genetically modified (GM) to rely on heavy doses of herbicide. When the chemicals stop working as intended, the genetically modified crops have no more advantage over weeds than do the non-GM crops.
It should come as no surprise then that the weed scientists, the chemical companies and the USDA (organizations that tend to employ many of the same people over time1) are attempting to fast-track approval of new GM plants that can withstand even heavier and more toxic applications of chemicals like 2,4-D (Agent Orange), even though, as early as the 1950’s, scientists noted that many weeds had already evolved resistance to these chemicals.
So who’s to blame for the growing number of superweeds? Among other things, according to the Herbicide Resistance Action Committee and the Weed Science Society of America (both organizations which enjoy funding from the chemical companies and the USDA), farmers are to blame for not applying enough chemical. (For more, click here, here, here and here.) In 2011, 877 million pounds of pesticides were applied to U.S. agricultural crops. I hate to think of that number growing even larger.
When I got back from my trip to California, I decided to do a little more research into superweeds. Just which weeds were we talking about here? Were they any of the weeds that I encourage people to eat?
Believe it or not, it turns out my description of super weeds (good on a pizza) applies to almost all the superweeds listed by the weed scientists as herbicide-resistant! Yes, weeds listed as agricultural scourges by the USDA and Monsanto are not only edible, they are highly nutritious, not to mention delicious. (Note to readers: they also happen to grow very nicely in our flower and vegetable beds.) In fact, several of these plants are eaten in other countries and/or are promoted by the UN, the WHO and the FAS in developing countries facing agricultural challenges.
Are we crazy??!! Why on earth aren’t we eating these plants in the U.S.?! They are right-in-front-of-us-local, drought-tolerant, virtually care-free, happy in poor soils, far more nutritious than anything you can buy from a grocery store, and delicious! And mark my words, with climate change nipping at our heels, these plants just might wind up being our saviors. Unfortunately, ours is a culture that seems to prefer toil over leisure and pesticide residue over pure food. Surely we’ve cast ourselves out of Eden!
Happily, there are some voices of reason out there and, while faint in the mainstream media, they are becoming louder. The United Nations just published the 2013 Trade and Environment Review entitled Wake up before it is too late: Make agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate. It may be awhile before we see any of their recommendations come to fruition, but I nevertheless feel encouraged by the discussion.
What can we do while the scientists and policy makers are in discussion? First, tell your elected officials you don’t want your tax dollars to continue going toward propping up chemical companies and the industrial farms that over-rely on them. Look for ways in your community to voice your opinion on important topics such as the Farm Bill.
Second, resist contributing to the superweed merry-go-round by eating organic! If organic foods are hard to come by in your community or are too rich for your pocketbook, consider growing organic weeds in your yard and garden! They’re not only nutritious, easy to grow and great on your plate, many weeds are excellent companion plants in the garden and serve to attract honeybees and other pollinators and beneficial insects to your yard.
Here is a short list of some of the many super edible weeds you can grow in your own yard and garden. You won’t even need to shop the seed catalogs to start your plants; simply allow them to grow! Bon appetit!
Catsear (Hypochaeris radicata), chickweed (Stellaria media), clover (Trifolium repens), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), mallow (Malva neglecta), plantain (Plantago lanceolata and P. major), pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), creeping wood sorrel (Oxalis corniculata), lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), purslane (Portulaca oleraceae), sheep sorrel (Rumex acetosella), shotweed (Cardamine hirsute), bedstraw (Galium aparine), horsetail (Equisetum arvense), nipplewort (Lapsana communis), nettle (Urtica dioica), wild carrot (Daucus carota), dock (Rumex crispus and R. obtusifolius), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), honesty (Lunaria annua), Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica, syn. Polygonum cuspidatum), pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea), sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus, S. asper and S. arvensis), wild fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), wild mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) and perennial sweetpea aka wild pea (Lathyrus latifolius.)
Melany Vorass Herrera was an environmental policy analyst before retiring to write The Front Yard Forager, a book about identifying and cooking with common yard and garden weeds.
1The revolving door between USDA, FDA, EPA and Monsanto is well documented. For more, see “Monsanto Has Taken Over the USDA,” Nation of Change, David Swanson, May 9, 2013, http://www.nationofchange.org/monsanto-has-taken-over-usda-1368111215 as accessed 10/3/13; “Monsanto’s Government Ties,” Organic Consumers, http://organicconsumers.org as accessed 10/3/13;“Monsanto’s Man Taylor Returns to FDA in Food-Czar Role,” Tom Philpott, Prof77, http://prof77.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/jli_infographic_final_march27-3300c3973000.jpg as accessed 10/3/13; and “He’s Back! Former VP at Monsanto To Advise FDA Commissioner on Food Safety,” Huffington Post, 7/9/09, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christine-escobar/hes-back-former-vp-at-mon_b_228792.html as accessed 10/3/13.