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June 28th, 2018 / Scientific American

Herbicides are under evolutionary threat. Can modern agriculture find a new way to fight back?

For farmers, protecting fields from pests and plagues is a constant battle fought on multiple fronts. Many insects have a taste for the same plants humans do, and pathogenic microbes infect leaves, shoots and roots. Then there are the weeds that compete with crops for soil and sun.

Although academics and companies are looking for technical alternatives such as sprays made from biological compounds, a recent review by researchers at North Carolina State University cautions that society may not be able to science its way out of this thorny problem. There is a “considerable chance,” the authors write, “that the evolution of pest resistance will outpace human innovation.” Addressing the situation requires a collective effort between funding agencies, regulators, farmers and others, the authors add in the review, published in Science. “We need to approach things from more than a single technical fix,” says co-author Jennifer Kuzma, co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at NC State. While regulatory action seems unlikely to happen anytime soon at the federal level, several efforts are underway to figure out how to tackle the problem.

Herbicide resistance dates at least as far back as the 1950s. But the idea that weed control is a collective problem requiring collective action emerged relatively recently, says George Frisvold, an agricultural and resource economist at the University of Arizona, who was not involved in the new review. “People thought that weeds aren’t as mobile as insect pests,” Frisvold says. “But then more and more research came out to suggest that even if they aren’t as mobile, they’re still mobile enough” to spread resistance. Read more