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Increasing weed threat now greater than any point in human history – study

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Crops are now more vulnerable to weeds than at any point in human history, according to a new study which suggests they pose an unprecedented threat to food security.

Researchers found that on plots where herbicides have never been used, yield losses to weeds have been consistently increasing since the 1960s.

They used data from the world’s longest-running experiment, the Rothamsted Broadbalk wheat trial in Hertfordshire.

According to the study, less than a third of the harvest was lost to weeds in the first ten years of the dataset, but between 2005-2014, this had risen to more than half.

This is due to weeds doing better than crops in a warming climate, coupled with a shift towards shorter crop varieties that get shaded out by the taller weeds,  the team from Rothamsted Research say.

They add that just like the crops, many weed species have also benefited over this period from increased use of nitrogen fertilisers.

Our results demonstrate that weeds now represent a greater inherent threat to crop production than before the advent of herbicides

The research further suggests more than half a century of consistent chemical spraying has also led to the rise of herbicide-resistant weeds.

This threatens the ability to protect the gains in crop productivity achieved since the 1960s.

Lead author Dr Jonathan Storkey, said: “Reducing yield losses from weeds is increasingly challenging because of the evolution of herbicide resistance and we can no longer rely on herbicides alone to counter the increasing threat from weeds.

“If we compare yield lost to weeds in the first ten years of the dataset, weeds ‘robbed’ on average 32% of the yield compared to 54% in the last ten years of data.

“Our results demonstrate that weeds now represent a greater inherent threat to crop production than before the advent of herbicides, and integrated, sustainable solutions to weed management are urgently needed to protect the high yield potential of modern crop varieties.”

The data also indicated that weeds reduced wheat yields proportionally more on plots with higher rates of nitrogen fertiliser.

Wheat field / PA Archive

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