03/06/2012 12:36 pm ET Updated May 06, 2012

Weed'em And Reap: Managing Weeds On America's Farmland

Farming is not easy, and farmers are not stupid. That is why our farmers have college degrees in fields such as agronomy, soil science, plant health management and environmental science. Unfortunately, recent media coverage suggests that some farmers are neglectful in how they grow their crops. As a matter of fact, CropLife America (CLA) believes that farmers are the ones that care the most about the treatment of their land and crops. America's farmers are not only growing our food, but if they don't have successful results and cannot afford to feed their own family, they will stop. Wouldn't you?

That is why farmer choice drives protection of their crops from insects, weeds and disease. They must have the ability to choose from many modern growing practices in the agriculture toolbox, as well as from the practices of their forebears. Pests and weeds are a serious problem on the farm. Crop plants must compete with 30,000 species of weeds and 10,000 species of plant-eating insects. Without crop protection tools, farmers can face up to a 100 percent crop failure. So what are some of the solutions? Growers have used a multi-faceted approach that allows for full environmental, agricultural and public benefit. By ensuring that public policy allows for farmers to have access to the best in modern growing practices, they can sustainably face crop pests.

Consider some various methods for weed control:

  • Hand weeding: Perhaps you hand-pull weeds in your personal garden, but you won't find that on most modern farms. Hand weeding is a physically demanding method of weed control, and it is costly and ineffective. In California, the short-handled hoe (8-24 inches in length) was a popular means to treat weeds by hand in the first half of the 20th century. Typically, the short handled hoe was used for 28 hours per carrot acre and 45 hours per celery acre. California eventually sought a ban on the short-handled hoe after it caused permanent back damage to the laborers who were working in a stooped position.
  • Tillage: Another method for weed control is through tillage. Tilling the soil effectively kills the weed seeds by submersing them in the soil and reducing their viability. Unfortunately, tillage also leads to soil erosion and increased fuel usage by tractors.
  • Herbicides: Another option for weed control is through the responsible use of herbicides. In comparison to other methods, herbicides allow for reducing or stopping tillage altogether, and leads to less water use, prevents soil erosion and reduces energy consumption due to fewer tractor trips. All herbicides undergo a regular review and re-review process with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the agency will review thousands of pages data to determine its safety.
  • Biotech Crops: Biotech crops are another option that farmers have to help grow better crops, free of pests, while using fewer resources. In Canada, the move to zero and minimum tillage, facilitated by growers' adoption of herbicide tolerant canola, sequesters nearly one million tons of carbon annually. Biotech crops engineered to be resistant to a specific herbicide allow the farmer to choose an integrated pest management approach in a targeted program to treat weeds and insects.

Unfortunately, weeds are also not stupid. History shows that plants have adapted for centuries to all manners of weed control practices, and developed resistance for survival. As a natural biological process, weeds can develop resistance to herbicides. While "superweeds" may be the current catchy moniker for these plants, there is nothing particularly super about these weeds. Resistance of a weed species to an herbicide has arisen multiple times in the past several decades. When resistance of a weed species to an herbicide occurs, the grower chooses the best management practice.

So how do farmers treat these weeds? Like many things in agriculture, it is not a simple issue, because farming is not simple. When they have access to all of the available tools, whether it is precision agriculture, controlled release fertilizers, seed treatments, organic pesticides, biotech crops, or synthetic pest control products, they can fully achieve sustainable agriculture on their farm. They can reduce their tillage, water consumption, and avoid encroaching upon additional land and wildlife habitats.

Farmers are using best management practices (BMPs) such as planting weed-free crop seed, scouting for weeds routinely, ensuring that all equipment is clean to minimize carrying weed seeds, and using a compliment of herbicides that are effective against the weeds.

Many voices are calling for something similar to a practice that is already taking place on America's farms: Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This technique allows farmers to reduce energy use, environmental risk and production costs while maintaining quality output and helping improve water, air and soil quality. IPM combines the strategic use of crop protection with other practices to keep pest populations low and minimize effects on natural resources. This includes: monitoring for pests, rotating between different crops and selecting pest-resistant varieties to help safeguard crops.

As an old proverb says, "criticizing another's garden doesn't keep the weeds out of your own." Growers can be smart in how they manage their fields, but they also need access to the solutions that help make their farms successful, otherwise they may need to leave it to the weeds.