Back in the early 1980s, I recall a discussion in a high school vocational agriculture class about how tilling the soil and disrupting the soil’s profile was a less than optimum farming practice in terms of soil conservation and moisture preservation. In short, the benefits of no-till farming have been known for decades but there was always a big hurdle: controlling weeds. Weeds sap moisture and they rob yields. 

Glyphosate helped end the reign of the weed once it was approved in 1974. Then, when combined with genetic modification to make corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets tolerant to glyphosate, it became a transformative technology. It’s now the most widely used herbicide in the United States, employed on more than 90 percent of U.S. crop acreage.

Glyphosate’s cost-efficient and effective weed control has enabled farmers to implement conservation practices on millions of additional acres by moving from full tillage to conservation tillage, no-till, and/or cover crops. These practices create healthier soils, and result in cleaner water and less erosion. Moreover, these conservation practices contribute to climate resiliency by reducing carbon emissions. Now, 40 years after that high school vo-ag class, and the evolution of conservation practices catalyzed by glyphosate, Aimpoint Research was recently asked to study the complexities of its impact on agriculture and outline what a future without glyphosate could look like.  

Over the years, some weed varieties have evolved and developed a resistance to glyphosate. The market has generated new innovations to fight weeds, however, they are not yet at the commercial scale necessary to overcome the near-term economic shock of an immediate loss of glyphosate. In fact, farmers would be forced to adapt by switching to more expensive alternatives, at a substantial two to two-and-a-half cost per acre to increase in costs.

Or, weed control could convert to more conventional tillage. However, tilling the soil to control weeds not only disturbs the soil, which results in releasing into the atmosphere carbon that is now captured, but because tilling requires more horsepower and more fuel which releases more emissions.  

Further, U.S. farmers would bear a $1.9 billion burden in increased operating costs by reverting to conventional tillage. That also approximately a doubling in costs compared to glyphosate practices. No doubt, small farmers would be disproportionately affected by these costs.

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There are ripple effects to consider as well. Increases in emissions would change the carbon intensity score for corn and soybeans used as feedstock for renewable fuels; this reduces the overall environmental benefits ethanol and biomass-based diesel use. Likewise, with higher aggregate commodity production for feedstuffs, such as corn and soybeans, could be passed on to end consumers of meat, poultry, dairy and eggs.

Elsewhere in the world, China's burgeoning glyphosate market would likely continue to grow, allowing their agriculture sector to benefit from increased production efficiency. Ironically, conservation gains would increase in China, while decreasing in the U.S. Brazil and Argentina, the world’s largest soybean producing region, would continue their unabated use of this technology. In the end losing glyphosate would negatively impact U.S. agriculture’s global competitiveness.   

Notably, progress towards the development of future weed control technologies in the United States would stall due to limited return on investment, regulatory uncertainty, and political risk. This would be particularly felt among biological products, which are being developed to improve the efficiency and efficacy of conventional herbicides. In short, the loss of glyphosate would certainly result in a chilling effect on further research, development, and investment in the advancement of new weed control technologies. 

A loss of glyphosate would result in a litany of unintended consequences, from higher production costs and less innovation to a reversal of decades of conservation and sustainability gains. This not only harms U.S. farmers, but everyone that consumes the food, fiber, and fuel they produce.

Gregg Doud is the research vp & chief economist with Aimpoint.

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