January 20, 2004
by Dennis T. Avery
A committee of the California legislature recently voted to ban hand-weeding on the State’s commercial farms. California wants its weeds controlled without anybody having to bend, squat, crouch, or kneel and thus risking degenerative back problems.
At the same time, other activists want to force farmers to control the weeds without using any chemical sprays. Political activists in both California and Canada are attempting to ban the use of chemical weed-killers as a lurking, if unproven, threat to worker and consumer health.
Welcome back the weeds!
As California is disarming the weed control troops, it’s Wildflower Seed Company is advertising a “hand-weeding hoe” that helps “sever weed roots without disturbing the soil or bringing up dormant seeds into the germination zone.” The company says, “We find ourselves reaching for this tool almost every time we’re in the garden.”
Handyman Allen Dong’s internet website suggests buying a flat, pointed steel mason’s trowel and serrating the edges with a file so they cut better. Mr. Dong says, “compared with a hand hoe, less effort is required for working a trowel blade below the soil because the blade is thinner.”
The catch: the handle is only six inches long, so you have to use it on your hands and knees.
We can’t ban all weed-control weapons and still eat. I’ve visited “no weed control” test plots in agricultural experiment stations where I couldn’t find the crop plants. The weeds had stolen the moisture and soil nutrients, and ultimately outgrown the crop plants so they could steal all the sunshine. Weeds can easily cut crop yields in half—and we’re already farming half the world’s land that is not covered by deserts or glaciers.
In fact, we can’t ban weed controls and still have playgrounds, parks, and safe neighborhoods. The city of Edmonton in Canada is considering a total ban on chemical weed killers, but the city park that’s been chemical-free since 1994 is unusable because of weeds. Some are big, some are poisonous; all are plants in the wrong places.
Having started my own career in weed control at about age 5 in my family’s huge vegetable garden, I can assure you that there is no non-chemical way to control weeds without courting back problems.
If you’ve ever used even a long-handled hoe, you know it can’t be used while standing up. Upright, your arms have little power, so you can’t slice through the soil or cut through tough weed stems. Upright, your hands have little control of the blade, so you may slice off your vegetables or flowers instead of the pigweed.
One anti-pesticide website notes that using some herbicides exposes our kids to “growth hormones.” But they are growth hormones for plants, not people. The anti-pesticide websites scream that the weed-killers are “poison.” Virtually everything is a poison at high doses, including water, salt, and sunlight: but, the tiny residues allowed by government regulators are no health threat to kids, pets or anything else except targeted weeds and pests.
Leonard Gianessi of the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy says that if we used only cultivation and hand-weeding, the cost of controlling weeds would rise by $8 billion per year, and the additional crop losses would cost $13 billion.
And then there’s soil erosion. When we used “bare earth farming” in 1938, our soil erosion losses totaled nearly 4 billion tons per year, says Gianessi. Today, soil erosion losses are only one billion tons—thanks in large part to herbicides that make it possible to disc or no-till instead of plowing and hoeing
One group urgently opposed to the California ban on hand-weeding is—you guessed it—organic farmers. A large part of the organic mystique is that they don’t use chemical weed killers. “We have a more difficult time controlling weeds than conventional farmers,” said Vanessa Bogenhollm, of the Organic Farmers Association.
“If we’re not able to hand weed, the economic losses would be disastrous,” said Malcolm Rickey, who grows organic carrots.
Obviously, California is wrong on the weeding issue. If most of the women in Africa can spend half of their waking hours pulling weeds by hand, why can’t Americans? Or, maybe safe, effective weed killers should be viewed as saving the backs of farmers, gardeners, and homeowners.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.
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