Getting Into the Weeds

By Keith Kloor | July 16, 2013 1:02 am

Well, this is fun. Carl Zimmer has a piece on the biology of weeds in the New York Times. One of my go-to sources in this field tweeted his reaction:

I say this is fun because Tom Laskawy of Grist has also just written about what he calls “superweeds.” Laskawy’s piece relies heavily on Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group. As you might expect, he views the issue of herbicide resistant weeds through a particular lens.

Zimmer’s NYT article, in addition to providing excellent context on an age-0ld agricultural problem, surveys the latest research findings on proliferating weeds. And he elicits expert perspective from numerous reputable scientists.

Read both the Grist and NYT pieces back to back. Same topic, two very different approaches. One is obviously skewed to a pre-formed narrative. The other is notable for its dispassionate tone and lucid explanatory reportage.

UPDATE: Andrew Kniss has a short post on the merits of Zimmer’s article. Kniss points out what is often lost in the discussion on weeds (though not in Zimmer’s piece):

they [weeds] will evolve to ANY selection pressure we apply repeatedly. If you mow your lawn, you’ll select for low-growing weeds. If you till the soil annually in the early spring, you’ll select for weeds that emerge later in the year. And yes, if you apply the same herbicides over time, you’ll select for weeds resistant to herbicides. It’s evolution, and it is rather common in weed science.

  • Tom

    Us scientists have a severe (man-)crush on Carl Zimmer. If he’s writing about your science, you’re doing something right.

  • Loren Eaton

    Am I the only one who finds it humorous that the folks who complain the most about superweeds are those who wouldn’t spray any herbicide even if their life depended on it? Some years ago, Prince Charles objected to herbicide resistant crops because they would ‘kill the soil’ (paraphrasing). Just a few months ago, someone proposed that we genetically engineer milkweed so that it would survive and help the Monarchs. Many people of this ilk seem to think we should co-exist with weeds (and fungus and bacteria and viruses), yields be damned. I don’t really understand their gripe…unless it is just an opening to go after GMO and modern ag.

  • Andrew Kniss

    It was very interesting to see these 2 pieces published on the same day. Zimmer and Laskawy take such different approaches. It seems to me that Laskawy isn’t really that interested in the actual topic, but simply uses phrases like “superweed” and “agent orange corn” to try and make the article into something someone will read. Nobody uses the phrase “agent orange corn” if the goal is to actually inform the reader. Zimmer, on the other hand, takes the time to actually learn about the topic, and then tells his readers why this topic is interesting. He relates it to evolution. He actually discusses the *science* of weeds. And Zimmer is confident that the science is interesting enough to stand on its own to keep readers’ attention. He’s a good writer, and is covering an interesting topic, so he understands there is no need to sensationalize. A good lesson for writers here.

  • mem_somerville

    It was a relief to see Carl’s coverage. I think it’s the first time I saw someone correctly characterize resistance for what it is–and that’s not because of transgenes transferring among plants. Many blame the GMOness, when it’s not that at all.

    I’ve long thought that was one of the underlying beliefs on this issue, which some anti-GMO activists know very well, but play fast-and-loose with the language to dodge the fact that it is not from pollen transfer across the species that’s given the glyphosate resistance. They let people think that’s what’s happened.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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