Destructive weed threatens U.S. corn fields

A U.S. government program designed to convert farmland to wildlife habitat has triggered the spread of a fast-growing weed that threatens to strangle crops in America’s rural heartland.

The weed is hard to kill and, if left unchecked, destroys as much as 91 percent of corn on infested land, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). It is spreading across Iowa, which accounts for nearly a fifth of U.S. corn production and in 2016 exported more than $1 billion of corn and soy.

The federal Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to remove land from production to improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and protect endangered species.

The destructive weed – Palmer amaranth – has spread through seed sold to farmers in the conservation program, according to Iowa’s top weeds scientist, Bob Hartzler, and the conservation group Pheasants Forever.

“We are very confident that some of these seed mixes were contaminated,” Hartzler said.

Hartzler, an Iowa State University agronomy professor, said one seller was Allendan Seed Company, the state’s largest producer of local grass and wildflower seeds for conservation land.

In written responses to questions from Reuters, Allendan said it was “possible that pigweed seed … was present in some mixes.”

Palmer amaranth is a type of pigweed. Allendan did not confirm it had found the seed in any of its supplies. It said outside labs that the firm hires to test seed quality had been unable to distinguish Palmer amaranath from other pigweeds.

The company said it started using a new DNA test in February to check its seed for Palmer amaranth.

Many farmers joined the conservation program in the past year as prices for their crops tanked amid a global grains glut. The weed can be killed, but the cost of clearing it would be another hit to the cash-strapped farming community in the United States, the world’s top corn supplier.

The program is managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA), units of the USDA. NRCS officials have acknowledged that contaminated seed mixes for conservation land have spread Palmer amaranth.

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Sasha Perkins

Administrative Assistant and Journalist at the Pluto Daily since 2012.