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Farmers prepare for herbicide shortage

Crowded ports and storm damage are making crop chemicals hard to get

by Matt Blois
November 3, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 41


A photo of a soybean field with pigweed that is resistant to the herbicide glyphosate.
Credit: USDA
A shortage of glyphosate could make it harder for US farmers to control weeds next spring.

Farmers in the US are preparing for a shortage of herbicides next year, including glyphosate, the most commonly used herbicide in the US.

Jeff Bunting, who leads the crop protection division at the agricultural retailer Growmark, says his company has been struggling to get enough glyphosate for months. In late August, Hurricane Ida damaged a Bayer facility in Louisiana that makes glyphosate. That facility is now back to full capacity, but Bunting says other problems still plague the industry.

“It might be the cardboard box, or it might be the plastic jug,” he says. “It might even be that little piece of aluminum foil that’s on those jugs that could be in tight supply. That’s why they can’t make it.”

Bill Johnson, an agriculture researcher at Purdue University, warns that glufosinate, another popular herbicide, is facing similar issues and could also be in short supply. Many imported products are being held up by shipping delays.

In Indiana, Josh Cox, a seventh-generation farmer who grows corn, soybeans, and wheat, says he has been able to secure only half the glyphosate he wants for next year, despite ordering months earlier than he usually does. In addition, the scarcity is pushing up prices, and Cox isn’t sure he’ll be able to afford additional glyphosate if it becomes available.

Johnson says he’s encouraging farmers to develop weed control plans that don’t rely so heavily on herbicides. That could include tilling the soil to physically remove weeds or planting cover crops that outcompete them.

Farmers could also use older herbicides, but that would be more challenging. Many farmers grow genetically modified plants—known as Roundup Ready crops—that can tolerate Bayer’s glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup. That allows them to easily spray the powerful herbicide over an entire field, killing weeds without damaging crops. Applying older herbicides is more technical, Johnson says.

In addition, unlike glyphosate, older herbicides usually target specific types of plants. That means farmers need to identify the weeds in their fields and pick the right chemical to kill them, which Johnson calls a dying art.

“We have lost our ability, for the most part, to identify weeds,” he says. “The whole Roundup Ready technology system made things so simple that it really dumbed down our ability to use some of the older herbicides.”

Kansas State University agricultural researcher Sarah Lancaster says farmers will also need to make the most of the herbicides they can secure. She says targeting weeds when they’re small and easier to control can help farmers avoid a second application.

“Farmers will be able to secure enough product to have something for every acre,” she says. “The concern is, if we have to come back and retreat those acres, we’re going to have very, very limited options.”

A recent survey from Purdue found that most farmers expect agricultural input prices to rise significantly over the next year. However, Cox, the farmer, says some good may come out of the situation. Over the past three decades, many weeds have evolved robust resistance to glyphosate. Cox says the shortage could force farmers to prepare for a future where glyphosate is much less effective.

“It’s not a bad thing to reduce our dependence on herbicides,” he says. “Sometimes necessity drives invention.”


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