Angry Italian Women Replaced by Herbicides


Le Mondine of the 1950s                                                                      Riso Amaro “Bitter Rice”

In Italian rice fields in the 1950s prior to the development of herbicides, weeding was done by hand. In May, the rice fields had to be weeded to prevent the young rice from being choked by other vegetation. Hundreds of women known as le mondine, or weeders, arrived from all parts of Italy to perform the delicate task of rooting out the weeds while leaving the young rice plants in place. Le mondine have become a nostalgic memory, immortalized by the famous film Riso Amaro or ‘Bitter Rice.’ It was a hard life for le mondine. They had to work bent double, up to their knees in water under a blazing sun. As the women weeded, they sang. One of the songs, Bella Ciao, was adopted by the Italian Communist Party to express the social injustice of the system. In the 1960s, most of the women left the rice fields when jobs opened up in cities, such as Milan, Genoa, and Turin. Today, herbicides are used in Italian rice fields.

“Italy is the largest rice producer in Europe, with about 235,000 ha in 2012. The main rice cultivation area is concentrated in the north-western regions of Piedmont and Lombardy where the continuous paddy rice system is widespread. Weed management is one of the key aspects of rice cultivation because pedo-climatic conditions are favourable to weeds that are generally competitive, there is a rich and persistant seed bank, and the weed flora is often dominated by difficult-to-control species… Consequently, farmers need to apply complex chemical and agronomic strategies to guarantee good weed control. Herbicide use is intense, with an average treatment frequency index higher than 2.5.”

Authors: Scarabel, L, et al.
Affiliations: National Research Council, Italy.
Title: Resistance evolution and sustainability of the rice cropping system: the Italian case study.
Source: Global Herbicide Resistance Challenge: Program and Abstracts. February 18-22, 2013. Pg. 105.

An Ancient Practice on an Ancient Crop: Hand Weeding Lentils



The lentil is a bushy annual plant grown for its edible seeds. Lentils have been part of the human diet since Neolithic times, being one of the first crops domesticated in the Near East. Lentils are an essential source of inexpensive protein in many parts of the world. Health magazine has selected lentils as one of the five healthiest foods. The ancient practice of hand weeding lentils is no longer practical.

“Lentil is among few legume species adapted well to dry conditions in traditional rainfed cereal based farming system in Turkey. Due to extensive government support for the production of lentils in order to reduce large areas left annually to fallow, its acreage and production have sharply increased over the last two decades. Currently, lentil is grown on 517,000 ha land in dry areas and its production reached 380,000 t. However, long term national yield increased only marginally in consequence of unfavorable cultural practices, especially weed control.

Lentils because of their small stature do not grow tall and do not build up a protective canopy to prevent establishment of weeds. Therefore, lentils are poor competitors and good weed control is essential for successful production… Yield losses due to weeds in lentil of 40-80% have been reported.

Hand weeding is practiced in traditional production areas, but is impractical in the extensive production areas. Hand weeding is labor-intensive and therefore an expensive operation when done by hired labour and, if delayed, the operation does not prevent adverse effect of the weeds on crop yield. The use of appropriate herbicides can eliminate this early weed competition and prevent yield losses. It is therefore necessary that effective herbicides should be used to reduce unwanted competition.

In conclusion, two years of trials showed that herbicide applications considerably increased lentil yields compared with the unweeded control under Erzurum’s dry conditions.”

Authors: Elkoca, E., et al.
Affiliation: Department of Plant Pathology, Ataturk University, Turkey.
Title: Effects of chemical and agronomical weed control treatments on weed density, yield and yield parameters of lentil.
Source: Asian Journal of Plant Sciences. 2004. 3[2]:187-192.

Herbicide Use by African Rice Farmers is Spreading Rapidly Due to Benefits

Hand Weeding Rice in Africa

Hand Weeding Rice in Africa

In Ghana, recent farmer surveys show that herbicide use by rice farmers is high. The adoption of herbicides is not due to programs being promoted by international organizations. Rather, the high adoption is simply due to farmers learning about the benefits of herbicides from other farmers.

“There was strikingly high use of herbicide in rice plots, with 84 percent of rice area treated with herbicide across all rice ecologies. Fifty-eight percent of rice area was treated with herbicide before planting, and 69 percent of the area was treated with herbicide after planting.

The yield of plots with herbicide is significantly higher than that of plots without herbicide for all rice ecologies…. For irrigated plots with fertilizer and certified seed, there was a 3.1 ton/hectare difference between plots with and without herbicide.

A simple comparison of weeding costs suggests that farmers using herbicide spend 666 cedi/hectare total in purchasing herbicide (8 liters at 8 cedi/liter) and an additional 86 person-days for manual weeding, while farmers not using herbicide spend 1,477 cedi/hectare for manual weeding for 211 person-days on average. It is apparent from this calculation that it is cheaper to purchase herbicide than to hire or use family labor for weeding.

The diffusion of herbicide seems to be wide, and farmers are learning about it from other farmers. About half of farmers reported that they knew about herbicide and its benefits from advice by or observing other farmers’ plots. …This suggests that if a technology is beneficial, it can spread quickly among farmers.”

Authors: Ragasa, C., et al.
Affiliation: International Food Policy Research Institute.
Title: Patterns of Adoption of Improved Rice Technologies in Ghana.
Source: IFPRI. July, 2013. Working Paper #35. Available at:

African Farmers Need More Time to Manage Crops: Herbicides Provide the Solution

Woman in labor

African Farmer Weeding

African farmers are constrained in the amount of time that they have available to improve their farming operations due to the inordinate amount of time required to hand weed their fields. About 50% of their time is taken up with hand weeding. Other opportunities ( such as planting a cash crop) are neglected. The use of herbicides to kill weeds in African crop fields would significantly free up time for farmers to improve their farms.

“The use of herbicides as a weed control strategy under under conservation agriculture (CA) in Zimbabwe was tested in two consecutive cropping season in 2009-10 and 2010-11… The use of herbicides in conservation agriculture systems can be recommended in most farming circumstances; it controls weed species that are difficult to manage, reduces the weeding time for farmers and is seen as a viable option even for smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe.

The results show that it is economical to use herbicides under CA because farmers save at least US$388 worth of time to be used on other off-or on-farm activities.

The time savings by using herbicides under CA can only be a benefit if farmers use this additional time meaningfully for other tasks. Farmers who choose to use herbicides are likely to have more time to commit to other farm operations such as growing vegetables in their gardens for sale, value addition to their farm products and some may also sell their labour off-farm to improve their income. The use of herbicides under CA systems reduces the labour constraints during the peak labour demand periods of the season… With improved weed management through use of herbicides, smallholder farmers can increase their yields and recover the costs of herbicides use.” 

Authors: Tarirai Muoni, et al.
Affiliation: University of Zimbabwe
Title: Weed control in conservation agriculture systems of Zimbabwe: identifying economical best strategies.
Source: Crop Protection. 2013. 53:23-28.

Organic Cotton Profits on Women’s Back Breaking Work

Women Handweeding Cotton

Women Handweeding Cotton

Organic cotton is highly profitable. However, growing cotton without  herbicides for controlling weeds means that more labor is needed in back breaking hand weeding. A recent analysis of organic cotton production reports that the bulk of this labor falls on women’s backs.

“The aim of this article is to describe the economic performance and perceived social and environmental impacts of organic cotton in southern Kyrgyzstan… Due to lower input costs as well as organic and fair trade price premiums, the average gross margin from organic cotton was 27% higher… The major disadvantage of organic farming is the high manual labor input required. In the study area, where manual farm work is mainly women’s work and male labor migration is widespread, women are most affected by this negative aspect of organic farming.

The vast majority of female respondents from organic farms (farm managers or wives) perceived higher workloads. It was generally agreed that organic farming requires more manual work, is more labor intensive, and that women in particular must bear the negative effects because (a) manual work is typically done by women, and (b) the work-related outmigration of men has left more work to women in general. Indeed, the biggest negative impact perceived by respondents in regards to organic farming—an increased workload—appeared to affect women the most.”

Author: Bachmann, F.
Affiliation: Centre for Development and Environment CDE, University of Bern, Switzerland.
Title: Potential and limitations of organic and fair trade cotton for improving livelihoods of smallholders: evidence from Central Asia.
Source: Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 2011. 27(2):138-147.

To Maintain High Profits, California Organic Growers Gain Exemption from Worker Protection Rule

Hand Weeding in California

Hand Weeding Organic Crops in California

In 2005, the State of California banned the practice of hand weeding crop fields in order to protect farm workers from lifelong back pain. Because they don’t use herbicides, California organic vegetable growers employ farm workers to pull weeds by hand and claimed that hand weeding was absolutely essential to maintain high profits on organic produce. As a result of their lobbying, the California organic vegetable companies were exempted from the worker protection rule.

“The physically demanding nature of organic farming sparked a recent battle that pitted organic farmers against farmworkers. The UFW had long drawn attention to musculoskeletal problems suffered by people who work stooped over in the fields. In the 1970s the union led a successful campaign to ban the short-handled hoe, arguing that the tool caused back injuries. When union founder Cesar Chavez died, friends at the funeral placed one of the hoes on his casket. But growers soon found a way around the ban by requiring workers to weed by hand. Moises Olivera, a migrant worker who’s hopped from job to job throughout the Central Valley, explained to me how it feels…

“You go along on your knees,” he said. “There is a constant, numbing pain. By the end of a year people develop a lot of problems with their bones.”

In 2004 farmworker groups lobbied the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict hand-weeding. Organic farmers led the backlash against the proposal. While they have devised many creative tactics for banishing weeds without pesticides—singeing them with torches, slicing them with disks, allowing them to flourish before planting and then mowing them down—every organic farmer I talked to insisted there’s only one way to completely rid your crop of pesky plants: sitting, kneeling or bending, plucking them out one by one.

It’s tremendously costly. Yet farmers say there’s little alternative; long-handed hoes, which would allow workers to stand upright, can destroy some of the delicate specialty crops, such as baby leaf lettuce, that many organic farmers cultivate. At a minimum they would force farmers to space their plants farther apart, cutting into profits by yielding a smaller harvest on the same area of land…

The farmers ultimately triumphed, and OSHA exempted organic farms from the new rules, which went into effect last year. For labor advocates like Martha Guzman, who had sought to reach a compromise, it was a slap in the face…”

Author: Mello, F.
Affiliation: Reporter, The Nation.
Title: Hard Labor
Source: The Nation. September 11th, 2006.

Organic Growers Can Use Synthetic Herbicides When Planting a New Vineyard

Weedy Vineyard

Weedy Vineyard

Planting a new vineyard in a weedy field is a bad idea. Weeds would compete with the small vines for moisture, space, nutrients and light which would set back their growth. Thus, in establishing a new vineyard, growers need to clear the weeds out. Most growers use synthetic chemical herbicides when planting a new vineyard due to the high cost of hand weeding and negative effects of tillage. Using herbicides is an option for organic growers since the small vines do not produce grapes for several years which corresponds to the waiting time to be certified as organic.

“…weed management is the most expensive and technically challenging practice for organic grape production, and many organic farmers rely on mechanical and hand cultivation for weed control. Although these methods are highly effective, they are also labor intensive, more expensive, and their sustainability is questionable from a labor and environmental perspective.

Another option would be to use conventional production techniques that use synthetic herbicides during the establishment phase, and once established, transition the vineyard to achieve organic certification.”

Authors: Olmstead, M., et al.
Affiliations: Department of Horticultural Sciences, University of Florida.
Title: Weed control in a newly established organic vineyard.
Source: Hort Technology. December 2012. 22(6):757-765.

Herbicide Use on Cotton Farms Could Greatly Increase Income of Farm Families in Africa

African Cotton Herbicide Experiment

African Cotton Herbicide Experiment

The income of family farms growing cotton in Africa is low largely due to the small size of farms- about one hectare. A major reason that farm size is small is because fields are weeded by hand and there usually is not enough family labor to weed more than one hectare. With use of herbicides, the need for labor is reduced dramatically and individual cotton farms would be able to significantly increase their acreage and incomes.

“Under rainfed agricultural production, common throughout most of Africa, labor bottlenecks at planting and weeding times often critically constrain farm output. During the four to six week period following the first rains, farmers must prepare their soil, plant and conduct the critical first weeding.

Under these circumstances, early season labor constraints, particularly during the first weeding, set an upper bound on the cropped area a family can manage using only household labor. For the average farm household in central Zambia, with five family members, peak-season labor bottlenecks limit the area they can cultivate under conventional hand hoe tillage to about 1 hectare.

In Zambia, herbicide application, instead of weeding with a hand hoe, cuts peak season labor requirements in half.

When combined with dry season land preparation, this reduction in peak season labor requirements enables farm households to crop 2.7 hectares of land under hand hoe cultivation using only household labor. As a result, hand hoe farmers can increase their income from these three crops to 2.9 million Kwacha ($620) per year, triple what they can earn under conventional hand hoe agriculture…

This suggests that cotton company inclusion and financing of one round of herbicides in their cotton packs could potentially raise cotton production and household income considerably.”

Authors: Steven Haggblade and Christina Plerhoples
Affiliations: Department of Agricultural Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University
Title: Productivity impact of conservation farming on smallholder cotton farmers in Zambia
Source: Food Security Research Project. Working Paper 47. July 2010. Available at: 

Hand-Weeding Labor Shortages Result in Organic Crop Loss

Agriculture is facing a severe shortage of workers. Many fruit crops are even going unharvested because of a lack of pickers. Organic growers require more labor for tasks such as weeding since herbicides cannot be used. A recent experience by an organic grower in Washington illustrates the risk of going without herbicides in these times of labor shortages…

“Jon Warling, a labor contractor in Othello, said demand for workers is high and that an organic corn grower near Connell is discing under his corn because he can’t find enough workers for weeding.”

Author: D. Wheat
Headline: Labor committee hears litany of woe.
Publication: July 20, 2012.

Herbicides Eliminated Inhumane Drudgery of Weeding Rice

For centuries, rice fields in Japan were weeded by millions of people who spent their summers in the hot, humid, muddy fields working in a stooped position that could cause permanent back pain and damage. Herbicides freed people from this drudgery…

“For a long time before 1949, all weeding in rice fields had to be done by man-power. It was so severe and cruel labor for farmers. Modernized weeding, that is with the use of herbicides, has saved them from these physical and mental pains.”

“Herbicide has brought a great benefit to rice cultivation… in liberation from the inhumane physical and mental pains of farmers during serious weeding labor in hot, humid and muddy paddy fields. …for the ‘perfect’ hand weeding we need 506 hours/hectare, which can be calculated as the work of 1.89 million people every day for 60 days in summer all over Japan. It is not practical in the present status in this country.”

Author: Shooichi Matsunaka
Affiliation: Former President of the International Weed Science Society
Title: Historical review of rice herbicides in Japan
Publication: Weed Biology and Management. 2001. 1:10-14.