Peak weed-killer?

The price of Monsanto's premium herbicide is rising, along with everything else on the farm. Can industrial agriculture afford itself?

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 8, 2008 9:40PM (EDT)

Maybe it's a good thing grain prices are breaking records. Without the extra income, farmers might not be able to afford either the fertilizer necessary to feed their crops, or the herbicides required to keep weeds out. (I refer here to non-organic farmers -- we're talking strictly industrial monoculture...)

The relentless ascent of synthetic fertilizer prices have been mentioned here numerous times. But lately, the farming press has been sounding the alarm on a new danger -- price hikes for glyphosate -- a.k.a. Monsanto's RoundUp -- are also heading sky-high.

Monsanto invented glyphosate in the 1970s, but the world's number one weed killer went off patent in 2000, and Chinese producers quickly jumped into the business. Today, Monsanto still manufactures 60 percent of the world's supply of glyphosate, with China accounting for the rest.

The influx of generic glyphosate first sent prices spiraling down earlier this century, but in the past year, the pattern has flipped. The reasons are familiar:

From the Memphis Commercial Appeal

Monsanto and others say the run-up is the result of quickly a changing world standard of living. As people in developing nations increase the amount of protein in their diets, and the amount of fossil fuels needed to produce it, the price of fertilizer and many other agricultural inputs will rise.

In some world markets, including Brazil and Argentina, Roundup is selling for more than it does in the U.S., creating a lucrative market for Monsanto and its 30-some other competitors, which are mostly in China.

"China is going after the highest revenue price they can get on the product," said Kevin Eblen, resident of Monsanto's Delta and Pine Land division.

But demand, whether propelled by biofuels, changing diets, isn't the only reason for the price rise. So is scarcity of a key ingredient: phosphorus.

Perhaps you, like How the World Works, were more familiar with phosphorus' role as one of founding pillars, along with potassium and nitrogen, of the holy triumvirate of synthetic fertilizer. But in a bizarre twist of chemical fate, phosphorus is also a critical ingredient in glyphosate. Imagine that: The same chemical necessary to make some plants grow is also required to kill off other plants. Chemistry is cool that way.

What's not cool is that rock phosphate, the source of nearly all industrially-used phosphorus, is a non-renewable resource, and some scientists think reserves will run out within the next 40 to 50 years. The implications for so-called RoundUp Monsanto-style agriculture, in which crops genetically modified to be immune to the weed killer require massive inputs of synthetic fertilizer and applications of glyphosate to properly prosper, are troubling. If we depend on the increased yields from GM crops to feed the upwardly mobile tastes of the world's burgeoning population, but those crops become more and more expensive to produce, we're going to be in serious trouble somewhere down the line. And don't even get us started on the emergence of glyphosate-resistant giant ragweed.

It doesn't end there -- another reason for the current glyphosate shortage is that transforming rock phosphate into the "elemental phosphorus" that in turn is processed into the phosphorus trichloride required for glyphosate production is highly energy-and-pollution intensive. China has lately embarked on a campaign to close glyphosate factories for environmental reasons -- it's exactly the kind of a business an upwardly mobile country wants to get out of, not into.

According to testimony by a Monsanto employee at a government hearing a few years ago in Soda Springs, Idaho, where Monsanto was seeking a cap on electricity costs in order, so the company claimed, to preserve the commercial viability of one of its two glyphosate production plants in the U.S. -- electricity costs make up 30-45 percent of production costs.

To recap: synthetic fertilizer and industrial herbicide prices are rising because of growing demand, resource scarcity, and energy costs. That backyard organic garden, presumably recycling every nutrient possible, is sounding less and less like an elite affectation, every single day.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Biotechnology Globalization How The World Works Monsanto