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Tomorrow’s world

Superweeds that science can’t kill

Palmer amaranth, the “king” of superweeds. Jim West/Zuma Press Wire/Shutterstock

We are “losing the war” against superweeds, says Claire Brown in The New York Times. Nearly 265 weed species in 71 countries have developed resistance to chemical treatments. Palmer amaranth, the “king” of superweeds, is spreading across American farms: it can withstand common weedkillers and is mutating faster than agrochemical companies can develop new products. Unchecked, it could reduce soybean yields by nearly 80% and corn yields by 90%, costing the US and Canadian economies more than $40bn a year.

Farmers hope for a “miraculous new herbicide before it’s too late”. But even if their prayers are answered, a “greater threat looms”. Evidence suggests Palmer amaranth has evolved to “metabolise herbicides”, breaking them down before they inflict damage. This would ensure immunity to future weedkillers. In the long term these superweeds will “drive up food prices”. Animal feed is made from corn and soy, so, as these grow more expensive, meat will too. “Farmers will take the worst of it, no question,” says Lee Van Wychen from the Weed Science Society of America. “But we all will pay the price.”

Afghans fear for their digital lives 

A US soldier collecting biometric information from an Afghan villager in 2012. Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Images

There’s a growing dread that the West has “not only screwed up the physical withdrawal from Afghanistan, but also the digital one”, says Patrick Beuth in Der Spiegel. It’s a “horror scenario” for many Afghans and a warning to all of us about our digital footprints. The Taliban has got its hands on the biometric databases the US used to confirm the identity of local collaborators, according to some reports.

No wonder thousands of Afghans are frantically deleting LinkedIn profiles, messages, photos and even music from their phones. Yet a smartphone that’s wiped by resetting is itself “suspect”. Some well-prepared, well-resourced journalists, politicians, military workers and women’s right’s activists will have prepared “throwaway phones, cover IDs and ‘operations security’ measures” that could save their lives. But thousands of others lack “digital emergency exits”.

That’s because the developers of this technology don’t consider insurgent groups such as the Taliban suddenly seizing the reins of a country. Perhaps the “drastic example” of Afghanistan will demonstrate to western politicians the danger of “data collection mania” in many states and large corporations. The fear isn’t necessarily of today’s governments – “it’s about those nobody sees coming”. Once data has fallen into the wrong hands, “it’s too late”.