Inside 'the politics of weeds'
The Canadian Weed Science Society membership represents some of the leading drivers of weed management science and strategy globally. Featured speakers at CWSS 2008 offered a front line view of the politics behind the headlines and the ever-shifting battle of public perception.
Posted: December 8, 2008
Pesticides are under attack and today's headlines tell the story:
"Super crops lead to super weeds." "Death of the bees: GMO crops." "Ubiquitous herbicide emasculates frogs." "Canadian Cancer Society applauds pesticides ban." "Weed and feed ban spreads to Alberta." These are just a few of the recent, sometimes alarmist headlines that both reflect and feed public perceptions, observes Dr. Neil Harker, a weed scientist at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Lacombe.
But what are the politics behind these perceptions, and what do they mean for both the science and practice of weed management? This was the question posed by Harker as he chaired the plenary session on "The Politics of Weeds," at the Canadian Weed Science Society (CWSS) annual meeting, Nov. 25-27 in Banff, Alberta.
The CWSS annual meeting is one of the most comprehensive sessions on weed management in North America. The society is dedicated to the study and understanding of weeds and invasive plant species and their impact on the agricultural landscape. Members include those involved in weed research, extension, education, product development, marketing or regulation, and others with an interest in weed management.
The meeting offers a broad overview of the latest weed management technology, strategies and challenges. It also serves as a barometer on major issues and where things are headed in product development and the regulatory environment.
"There have been a lot of things going on as they relate to the politics of weeds and these can be seen in the headlines, some of which are rather provocative," says Harker. "A lot of them impact on our weed situation."
Analysis of the trends and implications was provided by a line-up of plenary session speakers representing several different viewpoints and areas of expertise. Here are a few snapshots of their comments:
Politics and public perceptions of GMOs
Dr. Simon Barber, regulatory affairs manager with Syngenta, provided observations based on eight years working in Europe on biotechnology industry issues. He summed up the climate of negativity surround genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and how that is driving government policy and regulations.
"Clearly there is more in a politician's mind than just public perception. That obviously is going to play a role. But there is also an extremely negative media, and very well organized and very effective anti-GMO special interest groups. The organic farming sector has aligned themselves with those groups. And if you talk to people in the parliament or the commission, they are influenced by huge mailbags full of very negative comments about the technology."
To combat this climate, Barber prescribes advocating a more holistic view of agriculture and biodiversity, where the debate shifts focus away from hard lines such as pro or anti-GMOs, or pro or anti-organic, to how best support sustainable practices from both agricultural and environmental perspectives.
The frog factor and ingredients of alarm
Research scientist Dr. Dean Thompson of Natural Resources Canada, Canadian Forest Service, reinforced some parallel challenges in a presentation on the politics of herbicide use in forestry. Part of his talk focused on the impact of a flawed yet widely publicized study that raised concern about the impact of herbicide use in forestry on frogs and other organisms in aquatic communities, resulting in headlines such as "Popular herbicide kills tadpoles."
Thompson and colleagues publicly refuted the study findings, arguing it did not test a natural wetland system and did not represent realistic use conditions. In fact, they argued, all other major studies, including their own, indicate wetlands organisms are not at significant risk from herbicide use.
"This situation was a classic example of what can happen when you put those ingredients together – misinformation, conflicting studies from the science and extremist headlines. The lay public looks at that and goes 'oh my God, there's a huge problem here,' when in fact, if you look at the details, that is not the case."
Risk assessments should not be based on any single study, but on the weight of scientific evidence principle, he says. "That means applying the cumulative knowledge base. It's critical that we understand that knowledge base and incorporate it into an overall assessment, instead of just going with what the latest study has purported to show."
Product development hurdles
While the climate of perception surrounding crop protection products is far more negative in Europe than it is in North America, it adds to what on the whole is a challenging global environment for product development.
Dr. Iain Kelly, product safety manager with Bayer CropScience outlined the key hurdles, among them the need to introduce products with new modes of action at a time of restrictive regulatory systems. On a global basis, approximately six fungicide targets, six herbicides targets and three insecticide targets account for more than 75 percent of market share.
"We're really dominating the market with few modes of action," says Kelly. "Certainly, as an industry, we believe there is a need for innovation to look for new modes of action and ones with favorable profiles with respect to safety, selectivity and sustainability. There are many things that we can continue to do with our products that holistically have a positive effect on their overall safety."
Though safety is always paramount to consider, it's important to realize the impact of pesticides is one of the most exhaustively studied areas. "We probably know more about the effects of pesticides than any other material that does get into the environment. With pharmaceuticals we probably know a little bit more about the individual responses, but overall pesticides have the best database from many, many studies."
Product developers face a dizzying array of demands from different stakeholders with often contradictory views, he says. Pleasing everyone is an immense challenge. But the primary focus is to ensure effective, safe products. "We have to continue to focus on genuine science risk. And we really need to look holistically and start to come together as to how the science translates into risk and how the societal values translate into risk. That debate needs to have a holistic, honest view, and as scientists we need to be involved."
Set to emerge: The climate change factor
From a big picture point of view, one issue yet to grab the spotlight but expected to become more prominent over the next several decades is the impact of climate change on weed pressures and, subsequently, weed management strategies.
Dr. Barry Smit of the University of Guelph, a Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Change, offered his perspective on the science basis for climate change and the implications for agriculture and weeds.
"We know a lot about climate change. In fact, the science of climate change is about as proven as it can be. We know about the changes in the gases – carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide. We know where they come from, and we know their affect on the atmosphere and the climate. And the predictions from the climate models are proving to be pretty good, particularly for an issue of this scale."
Smit noted it's important to separate climate change from global warming, though the two terms are often used synonymously. Warming theories are based on looking at average temperature over long time periods, while climate change has a broader perspective that includes year to year fluctuations in many factors with strong relevance for agriculture, such as drought severity.
"If you look at the vast literature on climate change and what it means for agriculture, a lot of the analysts conclude that Canada is going to be a beneficiary, because the temperature will be warmer. But there are also some risks."
Moisture scarcity is a key concern, he says. "For example, if you look at Southern Prairies, in the Palliser triangle area, which is already constrained by limited moisture, that area is likely to experience even more constraints on moisture. This will have implications for how agriculture is conducted and for what happens to weeds."
Bush, biofuels and the invasive risk puzzle
Another area with more immediate potential to have a jarring impact on agriculture and the world of weeds is the politically driven push to biofuels in the U.S. The Bush administration has heavily pushed biofuels and numerous pieces of legislation have been passed at both federal and state levels that mandate increasing amounts of biofuel crops be integrated into the energy portfolio.
Among many concerns surrounding these developments are those from an ecological perspective related to what impact it will have to introduce and / or dramatically increase the production of so-called biofuel crops such as switchgrass, Johnson grass and Arundo donax that are not well established or studied from a management perspective. This includes concern that the best biofuel crops could be potential invasive species.
Dr. Jacob Barney, a scientist at University of California at Davis, offered his observations on the issue. "The concern here is not simply weed management in the crops, but the question of will the crops themselves become weeds."
There's a clear research gap with potential biofuel crops and Barney is among the scientists aiming to strengthen the knowledge base. A key aspect is to understand the competitive ability of these crops in the context of different environmental tolerances. "This will give us a better idea of the invasive potential of these crops. We're hoping to tie all of this back to breeding programs and policy that will result in lower potential invasive plant species cultivars."
Keep gene transfer risk at an extreme low
A far more remote risk is the potential for the movement of genes, such as herbicide resistance genes, from crop cultivars into non-target species such as bacteria – through a process technically termed "horizontal gene transfer."
This is a risk considered extremely low but one that nonetheless requires careful monitoring, observed weed scientist Dr. Rob Gulden of the University of Manitoba.
"Horizontal gene transfer, at this point, it considered to be very, very low risk, from plants to bacteria. Some of the reasons are short persistence of plant DNA. Other reasons are there are many internal and external barriers that can prevent horizontal gene transfer and the movement of DNA among unrelated species."
Still, the precautionary principle applies, he says. "Monitoring is always prudent."
Lawns, pesticide bans and the General Motors connection
On the urban front, a clear trend is emerging toward a reduction in the use of traditional pesticides for cosmetic purposes.
Robin McLeod of the Coalition for a Healthy Calgary offered her perspective on the trend, including the coalition's recent success with an initiative to have the City of Calgary draft a bylaw to phase out pesticides used for cosmetic use without any countervailing health benefit. This draft bylaw is slated to be presented in October, 2009. Numerous municipalities across the country have passed similar bylaws and, on the provincial level, Quebec has implemented a lawn pesticide ban, Ontario is considering a similar ban and Alberta recently announced a sales ban of combined "weed and feed" products beginning January 2010.
"We feel the times are changing," says McLeod, citing numerous polls indicating that public sentiment has shifted greatly toward limiting the use of lawn pesticides. "We have over 140 municipalities or regions that have adopted bylaws, with a result that we have about 14 million Canadians, or 44 percent of people in Canada benefiting from enhanced protection."
There's no turning back the trend, and that presents opportunities for those who adapt, says McLeod. Today's headlines surrounding the financial crisis are an indication that those who fail to embrace change and adapt will be left behind. "We can stay the same and warn our kids to stay off the lawn, and end up going the way of General Motors, or we can do the change."
Related Links: Canadian Weed Science Society
Author: Brad Brinkworth
Sponsored by: Meristem