Technology equals higher yields

Posted on June 30, 2015

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The following blog was written by Dr. Graham Scoles in response to a column by Paul Hanley “Chemical-free farming viable” in which he poked fun at Patrick Moore for refusing to drink Roundup herbicide during a TV interview.

So Patrick Moore refused to drink the Roundup. He might also have refused to drink the alcohol and the vinegar or refused to eat the salt or the aspirin. As with anything we consume, whether natural or synthetic, concentration is a critical factor, “the dose makes the poison.” It is generally understood that at typical field-applied rates it would be much less harmful to drink Roundup than many things we consume. After all it is caffeine-free! Whether or not it is very palatable is another matter.

With respect to the half a million hectares of land affected by herbicide resistance, this is probably an underestimate as herbicide-resistance in weeds has been with us shortly after herbicides were introduced (and before there was genetic engineering). It is a serious issue that farmers have to deal with in planning crops and herbicide usage. Of course we also have cultivation-resistant/tolerant weeds in our fields and gardens, the ones that come back year after year. Weeds are weeds because they have so many strategies to get around our attempts to control them (to ensure their survival). We also have problems with antibiotic-resistance but I don’t hear many voices advocating that we stop all use of antibiotics.

Finally, as Paul well knows, a good organic system needs to build up soil nitrogen that was removed by the previous crop. A good organic rotation will probably include a green-manure legume crop to do just that (and also serve as a means of minimizing weeds). Thus while organic yields may be equal to those of “conventional” agriculture in any one year if soil nutrient levels are adequate, in an organic system one probably should have years when land is relatively unproductive in terms of what we traditionally think of as yield. In a “conventional” system, using synthetic fertilizers this is not the case. Over a series of years, productivity of a conventional system will therefore be much higher than an organic system.

Graham Scoles
University of Saskatchewan