Crop Comments: Trendy cereal grain has black-sheep weed cousin

The Veterans Administration Medical Service is very concerned about the physical (as well as mental) well being of former Armed Forces personnel. As a member of this distinguished group, I qualify for many medical benefits. One such benefit is the counseling service of a licensed dietician. The VA believes that a healthy diet helps veterans avoid becoming inpatients at their hospitals. In a tele-health visit this past February (before COVID-19 made such medical regimen part of the “new normal”), I met with such a dietician: she at the VA Hospital in Albany — myself at the VA clinic in Bainbridge, NY. I explained my diet to her, mentioning that every other day my breakfast consists of a blend of oatmeal and grits… both organic (she liked that).

Next, I mentioned that I add a prepared commercial cereal, with the word “nuts” in its title. This cold cereal lacks nuts, rather consists of processed small grains. I already disliked the fact that these non-nutty small grain sources had most likely been dried down with an herbicide with the active ingredient glyphosate. The subject of glyphosate residue in our food generates more arguments than discussions. But one uncontested fact is that barley dried down with this herbicide will rarely sprout, and thus not malt successfully. Barley kernels that do not malt make brew-masters unhappy — particularly German brew-masters — who have almost completely black-balled glyphosate-dried small grains from the Vaterland. So my “nutty” cereal had one strike called against it by glyphosate. When the dietician asked me to examine the nutty cereal’s label for added salt and sugar; that deed resulted in strikes two and three. So I decided to replace the “nutty” cereal by adding quinoa [pronounced “keen-wah”] to my morning fare.

Quinoa belongs to family Amaranthaceae, genus Chenopodium, and species quinoa. Quinoa cultivation started in India, since the crop can be grown in barren lands and areas where precipitation is often meager. In South America, at altitude, the soil is thin and rainfall scarce – and yet quinoa not only grows, but thrives on the high plains. Chief growing areas for the world’s quinoa crop are in Peru and Bolivia. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) plant species is grown for its tiny edible seeds. As a member of the Amaranthaceae family, increasingly fashionable (trendy) quinoa is not a true cereal. Its seeds are high in protein and fiber, and its young leaves are also nutritious and can be eaten as a vegetable similar to spinach.

The amaranth family boasts a wide-ranging spectrum, including the broadleaf redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus). If pigweed ends up in haylage or balage, such occurrence poses no diet or health threat to ruminants consuming this diverse forage package. Problems arise when another version of pigweed called Palmer’s amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri) becomes the target of chemical warfare for its presence in annual crops like corn, soybeans, and peanuts. Chemical attacks on A. palmeri are just about as smart as kicking a sleeping grizzly bear. Here’s why.                                                                                                                                                                                                              A. palmeri possesses two very significant beneficial botanical traits. First is this weed’s dioecious nature. Monoecious plants have both male and female flowers on the same specimen, while dioecious plants produce male and female flowers on different specimens. Dioecious plants display greater genetic diversity compared to monoecious plants, logically about twice as much. The greater a species’ natural biodiversity, the greater the chance of finding individuals that have natural immunity to chemicals like glyphosate. Let’s assume that in a population of 1,000 A. palmeris one single male survives and then mates with a surviving female to produce viable seed. Then the vast majority of the next generation will be glyphosate-tolerant (GT). This new generation of GT plants passes on their genes, amplifying their natural herbicide resistance in each succeeding generation. University of Georgia data shows that a single A. Palmeri female can spread more than 10 seeds on every square foot of an acre. Now accept the fact that those GT A. palmeris no longer have to compete with their glyphosate-susceptible cousins — they’re all dead.

  1. palmeri’s second major attribute is its C-4 trait. Let’s briefly review C-4. In their “body-building” processes, most plants create compounds using three-carbon units. But crops like millet, sorghum and corn perform their carbon-structuring functions using four-carbon modules. Botanists collectively group these plants as C-4s. The C-4 trait is a real advantage, particularly in areas where too much heat combines with too little water. In order for a plant to gather carbon atoms from the air, it opens it stoma (microscopic leaf pores). C-4 group members use their stoma to limit water loss and retain acquired carbon much more efficiently than C-3s. To that distinctive C-4 club we must add the amaranths, including, unfortunately, Palmer’s.

As Palmer’s amaranth’s glyphosate tolerance became more widespread, herbicide scientists brought another chemical arrow out of the quiver, namely dicamba. Rapidly, scientists genetically engineered field crops to tolerate this 60-year-old herbicide. However, unlike glyphosate, dicamba has a strong tendency to volatilize and drift during warm, humid, summer nights common in the south. A couple weeks ago much of the Northeast experienced some of those southern after-dark conditions where temperatures only dipped down into the mid-seventies. Such conditions often cause newly sprayed dicamba to volatilize from the contacted plant surfaces, becoming airborne … drifting wherever breezes waft it. All too often, the dicamba mists landed on neighbors’ crops that had not been genetically modified to survive dicamba applications. Understandably, neighbor relations soured rapidly. Dicamba’s manufacturers blamed the chemical mishap on applicator error. Through it all A. palmeri has now mutated resistance to a second herbicide. Nature always bats last.

Quinoa, spinach, regular pigweed, Palmer’s amaranth… one big happy dioecious, C-4, Amaranthaceae family. I had my quinoa concoction for breakfast yesterday… so I’ll have it again tomorrow.

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