The glyphosate debate

The visual and environmental scourge of the scorched earth roadside

Glyphosate has been much in the news of late and the calls to ban it are increasing in this country. I am no scientist so any opinions we have here are based on experience and observation. Because we ran a plant nursery for about three decades, our experience with sprays is greater than the average home gardener. You don’t think all those brilliant looking plants you buy from the garden centre are grown organically, do you?

Because of my lack of scientific background, I was pleased to find a post on the credible and independent Sciblogs site, written by scientist, Dr Grant Jacobs. If you have any interest in the use of glyphosate, I would urge you to read it in full here.

If you are not going to read it in full, the key points I have taken from it are:

  • The original probable (not definitive) link between glyphosate and cancer was made by IARC in 2015 (IARC being the International Agency for Research into Cancer which comes under the World Health Organisation). IARC’s role is to flag areas for further investigation and identify hazards, not to make definitive rulings. Even the term ‘probable link’ is an oversimplification of IARC’s findings.
  • The role of risk assessment on those potential hazards falls to regulatory bodies – the Environmental Protection Agency is a key body in NZ. And while IARC made the initial finding, subsequent investigations by scientists in such regulatory bodies around the world have not raised red flags. It appears that all such investigations have cleared it as safe when used according to instructions and with usual safety precautions. The difference between hazard and proven risk is important.
  • Any blanket ban on such a product comes down to a political decision and that is what we are seeing happening in Europe. A political decision is not necessarily based on science. It can often be based more in public opinion and political polling.
  • The court case in USA which triggered the recent round of debate (the school caretaker who contracted cancer) is based on a judge and jury trial in a courtroom and as such it is subject to the vagaries of a court system where the jury may or may not understand the science and where the directions given by the judge have a huge influence. This will all be tested further in the appeals process but a court case does not constitute rigorous scientific enquiry and risk assessment. While the case is certainly interesting, it is not proof of anything at this stage.

Jacobs also clarifies why we need to be talking ‘glyphosate’, not using the original brand name of Round Up. Indeed Round Up for Lawns contains no glyphosate at all. It is the chemical that is under scrutiny, not the branding. Round Up is a Monsanto product and while there are many concerns about Monsanto across a whole range of issues, the safety or otherwise of glyphosate should not be confused with a battle against Monsanto business ethics (or perceived lack thereof). Let us keep the arguments separate.

I was listening to a discussion on Radio NZ about all this and the host went on and on about the safety of glyphosate. “Is it safe? Can you guarantee it is safe?” he kept asking. Wrong question. How safe is it if used properly? Is the risk within acceptable limits? These might be better questions. Our lives are filled with hazards that we choose to manage. In the 44 years that glyphosate has been in use, it has proven itself to be safer than many other chemical sprays that are, or were, also used. Remember Paraquat? I don’t think there is any dispute that glyphosate is hugely safer than Paraquat but is it safe enough to continue using?

I worry about the nature of public debate that may see political decisions to ban what has so far been a relatively safe agrichemical, while leaving far more dangerous options on the market. Unless we have a change of heart, mind and practice on how we manage weeds and pasture, we run the risk of banning one option, only to have people substitute with another spray that could be way worse. We are a country that accepts a pretty high level of use of chemicals, toxins and sprays. While some are now controlled and you need to be an approved handler to buy them, the home gardener can still buy a fair number of products across the counter that are no longer available to their counterparts in the European Community.

The issue of the possible threat to human health underpins all this debate with IARC, cancer and banning glyphosate. It is separate to the issue of the impact on ecological systems. That is a whole different area to be considered. There are theories that environmental damage may be more to do with the surfactant (the sticking agent) rather than the glyphosate. We have also raised our eyebrows at the quick knockdown glyphosate products – the convenient aerosol or pump sprays that the home gardener can use to kill a plant more or less instantly. But again, that is a separate issue to fundamental matter of the claimed threat to human health.

It is complicated, not black and white. By all means, go organic and shun the use of non-organic sprays in your own garden. But maybe don’t cast glyphosate as the greatest villain of all the sprays and single it out for blanket bans while leaving the others on the market. I think that is called throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Time will tell if we will face a future without glyphosate and that bears some thinking about for home gardeners, farmers and most landowners as well as the public sector which maintains the parks, reserves, road verges and playing fields. Our attitudes to weeds, to invasive plants, to long grass and to presentation standards which are widely held as desirable will have to change too. On the bright side, the scourge of the scorched earth roadside may disappear which would be hugely beneficial both environmentally and aesthetically, in my opinion at least.

23 thoughts on “The glyphosate debate

  1. Carol Hickey

    Thanks for your thoughtful, well-balanced views, Abbie. Very easy to get hysterical about the use of chemicals.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you. I worry that people might think I am endorsing it (which I am not). I just worry about emotion over-ruling science and banning one chemical only to see another – potentially worse – option replace it.

  2. tonytomeo

    Thank you SO much for saying so! The hysteria on this issue is ridiculous! Most of it is generated by those with no experience in such matters, and not much more education. At a time in history when we are so defensive of unskilled (and I mean ‘seriously’ unskilled) labor coming in from Central America, I am more concerned with unqualified people applying hazardous chemicals. I had to work with people who could not fill out use reports because they could not spell. They could not even read warning labels! Regardless of how safe a chemical is, it could be dangerous if misused just because of the illiteracy of the applicator!

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Mark has never gotten over the shock of his cousin coming in one day with pink legs (from the dye added to glyphosate) and being totally unconcerned over it. I have no doubt that there is way too much glyphosate used and way too careless an attitude to its use. But considering how much has been splashed freely around over 44 years, it has taken a long time for contraindications to be raised. And yes, too much emotional reaction with not enough knowledge. Which is not to say it is safe and fine to continue using it – just that an outright ban may possibly lead to worse outcomes. When we had the nursery, Mark never expected any staff to spray. He loathed doing a spray round with a passion but always did it himself, usually at weekends when we had no staff on site. It just seemed safer, even back then. And he had regular blood tests to monitor organophosphates levels in his blood stream – seeing people switch to some of those more dangerous sprays would be alarming.

      1. tonytomeo

        That is how I did it too; I mean that, at the farm, I did the spraying myself. It was easier to monitor it that way. The problem was when I was working for a landscape company, and ‘everything’ was just sprayed so carelessly.
        Gads! That just reminded me of back in the December of 1990, when the retail nursery in town that I was working at opened a Christmas tree lot. We had a spray booth for spraying fire retardant onto Christmas trees. Someone who cold not read accidentally sprayed a batch of trees with diesel fuel instead of fire retardant! There was a bonfire right outside where all this diesel fuel was being sprayed as a fine mist! People were coming in to pick up the expensive Christmas trees that they had already payed for (and left there for a quick application of fire retardant) to find their trees dripping with diesel!

      2. tonytomeo

        Illiteracy among those applying pesticides in the landscape industry is part of the reason that I am under-employed now. I could not be associated with that.

      3. Abbie Jury Post author

        We all have our limits and a point where our integrity says “I will not cross this line”. Some of us set that line earlier than others.

  3. James

    Thank you for a reasoned post. My concern about glyphosate is its widespread use in agriculture, for example, on fields of glyphosate-resistant corn genetically bred to resist its killing effects while allowing weeds and wildflowers to be killed, and its use to quicken ripening and harvesting of corn. I also find its use on roadsides to be at least aesthetically, and likely environmentally, objectionable. The way in which glyphosate is used should be an important matter of concern in making any decisions about its so-called “safety.” Small users in gardens, who apply the chemical with good judgment and restraint, may be completely safe.

  4. Wild about Weeds

    Thank you Abbie

    Very helpful to pull out the facts re who’s making these decisions. Similar thing is happening re 1080 here.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I steer clear of the 1080 debate! Cowardly, I know but the debate is so polarised in every way. The glyphosate is closer to home so I feel the need to get my head around the pros and cons and try and promote reasoned debate. So far so good….

  5. JohnK

    Thanks for a well-balanced article. But (sorry) I’d like to sort of take issue (sort of) with you on a couple of points. “Glyphosate” and “Roundup” are not synonymous. Yes, there is the endless campaign against Monsanto but Roundup is not the original brand name of Glyphosate. Roundup is Glyphosate plus. And there is much argument about what the “plus” actually is and lots of suggestions that what goes into that plus is more harmful than the Glyhposate itself.

    Then you refer to the add-ins in sprays for the domestic gardener shortening the kill-time (again the “plus” in Roundup.) Generally, these extras only kill the top growth quickly so the gardener sees rapid results. “Ah,” says the gardener, “I’ll tidy up the dead plant by pulling the dead growth off it!”. But the Glyphosate is still in that top growth – it still takes 2-3 weeks to work its way down into the roots to kill the whole plant. So the plant regrows from the root and the gardener sighs and sprays again. And again.

    I confess to using Glyphosate sparingly. So sparingly that I still have three-quarters of a 500ml bottle of concentrate I bought about ten years ago (indefinite shelf life when concentrated of course). It has its place when needs must. But it’s good to make people think about chemicals – as your article does – rather than preach at them all the time.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      There is a limit to how much time I wish to devote to researching glyphosate but from earlier work, I think it is saflufenacil which is added to give the quick knockdown. I wrote it up here once – I would guess that the regulatory agencies monitor chemical mixes and not just take the base ingredient as must have been originally tested. At least, I hope they do! I remember (as the billpayer not the user) when glyphosate was still under patent to Monsanto and hugely expensive. When the patent expired, it became cheap as chips and widely available and therein may lie the problem of its over-use these days.

      1. Abbie Jury Post author

        I do not have a death wish so I don’t go near the 1080 debate! In fact I decided that I don’t need to have an opinion on every controversial issue.

  6. Jim Stephens

    My concern is 1)that it’s very effectiveness has largely wiped out farmland wildflowers and the insects dependent on them 2)that it is increasingly being applied directly to crops just before harvest, potatoes, corn and wheat for example. I don’t want It in my food.
    It is indispensable in low tillage farming where the alternative is soil destruction rather than more toxic chemicals, as I understand it. I’m sure Monsanto are happy to keep the debate in the carcinogenicity area, for them it’s the firmest ground.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I absolutely agree with you. Though somebody did refer me to a Snopes investigation that found its use as a dessicant is not as widespread as people think in the USA. But I still don’t want it in my food and Mark no longer uses it in the vegetable garden and hasn’t done for some years. I would not like to think it is in the flour that I buy, either. Given that everything seems to cause cancer (even alcohol in very small quantities, according to a report out this week), I think that when used correctly and in small quantities, it would seem that the risk is not so high. The damage wrought to the environment and eco systems is another story altogether, as you say.

  7. Kate

    Hear hear Abbie!!! Long live science! The world has gone nuts! Since when do we ignore facts in sake of popular opinion and uninformed narrow mindedness??? It’s SCARY! What do people want? I laugh when people think that salt and vinegar make good weed killers…. they are terrible for the soil and more toxic than glyphosate! They will kill you before glyphosate will. It’s laughable.

    The soap and shampoo we use every day all over our bodies has a higher toxicity than glyphosate. But because it is a herbicide it must be bad right?

    Another great article ..

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