It supposedly conquered the South, but Kudzu grows mostly in our imagination. Writing for The Smithsonian, Bill Finch reports that the damage and its spread is vastly overstated.
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Now that scientists at last are attaching real numbers to the threat of kudzu, it’s becoming clear that most of what people think about kudzu is wrong. Its growth is not “sinister,” as Willie Morris, the influential editor of Harper’s Magazine, described in his many stories and memoirs about life in Yazoo City, Mississippi. The more I investigate, the more I recognize that kudzu’s place in the popular imagination reveals as much about the power of American mythmaking, and the distorted way we see the natural world, as it does about the vine’s threat to the countryside.
Whatever its faults, the seed company Monsanto does employ some very smart people, who have a keen understanding of plant genetics. Given that, I've long wondered why the company has been so blindsided by the fairly basic idea that weeds evolve. Did anyone really expect that, when faced with a pressure that threatened their existence, the weeds wouldn't adapt and become resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide?
Apparently, that's exactly what they expected, according to a story on NPR's website.
Daniel Charles interviewed several people who were employed by Monsanto at the time the company released Roundup-tolerant soybeans back in 1996. He found a single, coherent cause of this very strange oversight. Shorter version: Monsanto got so blinded by past performance and its own personal experience that, as an institution, it started to assume nothing would ever change.
First, the company had been selling Roundup for years without any problems. Second, and perhaps most important, the company's scientists had just spent more than a decade, and many millions of dollars, trying to create the Roundup-resistant plants that they desperately wanted — soybeans and cotton and corn. It had been incredibly difficult. When I interviewed former Monsanto scientists for my book on biotech crops, one of them called it the company's "Manhattan Project."
Personally, I find that first assumption particularly egregious. Weeds do best at building resistance to herbicides when the same herbicide is being liberally applied to the same land year after year after year. In order to assume that this behavior wouldn't be the outcome of combining Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, Monsanto would almost have to assume that those products wouldn't be terribly effective. Read the rest