The herbicide Glyphosate has always been controversial and it is a key source of debate between agribusiness and the environmental lobby. However, the latest set of headlines have the potential to utterly transform food production in Europe. Glyphosate is a broad spectrum systemic herbicide used to kill weeds, especially annual broadleaf weeds and grasses and has been on the market since 1974 when Monsanto began selling it under the name of ‘Roundup’. It essentially works by blocking proteins essential to plant growth so that unwanted weeds are killed off. It is used in more than 160 countries, is the most widely used herbicide in world agriculture (2nd most used in gardens) and is used not only on farms but in gardens, on golf courses and by local government.
However, in March 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency – declared that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ in terms of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Their declaration was based on epidemiological studies, animal studies, and in vitro studies. The analysis has recently resulted in four EU states (Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands) voting against the extension of the EU wide glyphosate license, which would grant Monsanto another 15 years of commercial use for Roundup in Europe. The current license comes to an end in June of this year and needs ratification from member states. The Netherlands wants the relicensing to be put on hold until a separate evaluation of glyphosate’s toxicity takes place next year, although it is likely another vote will take place before then due to pressure from other EU members, including the UK government.
The precautionary principle remains king in Europe (in my view quite sensibly) but what is definite is that the uncertainty that delaying the decision brings cannot be good for farmers. The world is already full of uncertainty for farmers and this case will only make matters worse. There is always another side to a story and in this post I want to highlight the plight of farmers alongside consumers. The post does not engage with organic methods of production and I know that many organic advocates will welcome the movement against roundup with open arms. Instead, it aims to look at the implications a roundup ban might have on the way farmers produce our food as well as the social implications.
What is most bizarre in the whole glyphosate debate is the cacophony of disagreement between the various health and scientific agencies. For example, the WHO’s position is set in direct contrast to that of the European Food Safety Authority who declared in their Renewal Assessment report that ‘glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential’. Who are we supposed to believe? The WHO or EFSA? The debate has become as political as it is scientific and therefore it is as much the realm of social scientists as it is natural scientists. Glyphosate has become a political animal extraordinaire. The key issue is that we are, in the words of Dr Devra Davis, ‘flying blind when it comes to understanding the risks of glyphosate‘. Much of the science is out of date and a far more comprehensive approach to assessing the risks is required.
Studies of people with high exposures to glyphosate, including farmers, pesticide applicators and manufacturers, have found high rates of blood and lymphatic system cancers, cancers of the lip, stomach, lung, brain, and prostate, as well as melanoma and other skin cancers in these people (Davis, 2016). Recent research has also shown that glyphosate is far more persistent in soil and water than previously believed. There are clearly health and environmental risks and consumers need to be aware of the dangers. As a conservationist I also recognise the dangers it presents to farmland biodiversity. However, as with all of these things one has to take a broad view and it is my belief that farmers are just as much as part of the agro-ecological system as the birds, plants and insects. The sustainability test, taking in to account environmental, economic and social factors needs to be set in play for every topic and debate – glyphosate included. The environmental effects of the chemical need to be balanced against the social and economic effects on the farmer and the viability of the farm moving forward.
One must question what life would be like for conventional farmers without roundup? Clearly, there are numerous ways that farmers can manage weeds without herbicides. I know I said I wasn’t going to mention organic farming but it is a case in point in which weeds are accepted to a certain extent and limited through cultural control methods such as longer rotations, aiding soil health and using cover crops. It is perfectly possible to grow and harvest healthy crops without herbicides. However, as with anything, agriculture is about compromise and one of the reasons (and there are many) that many farmers do not opt for undertaking organic conversion is that, even with a few weeds, crop yields plummet without the use of herbicides and other pesticides to control disease and insect pests. One study has predicted global crop yields could drop by 20-40% without the use of pesticides. By removing the herbicide from the farmer’s toolkit two things take place:
- Income reduces due to a reduction in yields.
- Costs increase due to a rise in labour requirements.
(It is true that variable costs would actually significantly decrease due to the complete removal of an expensive herbicide bill).
Nonetheless, labour requirements are a significant variable to take in to account. If society wants to remove the risk of using the herbicide the farmer must be compensated in some way to pay for the extra labour required (as in the case of the organic conversion and maintenance payments in the UK). A much greater amount of time is also required, time that could be spent with family or friends off farm, something that is important for farmers just like everyone else and is often overlooked.
It may seem that I am coming to the defence of the multinationals here and supporting the chemical lobby in the face of risks to human health and the natural environment. It may seem that the words above go completely against my conservationist, small scale and localism views. However, it is not the intention to provide a one sided view at all and in my head is the individual small farmer, who risks suffering if the decision on reoundup renewal moving forward ignores the socio-economic implictions. What I am trying to do is to get us all to reflect on both sides of the coin. Each and every decision a farmer makes can have massive environmental and social implications. It is a highly responsible job which gives immense public benefits (or costs depending on the management). Nonetheless, many of us seem to have moved away from our farming communities so much that we fail to see their side of the story. By all means, we need to assess the risks and if it is the right thing to do for society then glyphosate should be banned. However, by no means should we ignore the implications this will have for our farmers in terms of personal and business finance, social consequences and for society as a whole in terms of food security. Farmers should not be left to pick up the pieces.
This blog post does not advocate a position either way and hasn’t (I’ll admit) really answered the question posed in the title. A future without glyphosate would probably be good for consumers (although the food security debate should be considered) and it may or may not be good for farmers. There are benefits in terms of potential agro-ecological health and workplace health as well as reductions in variable costs. However, there are also financial risks in terms of lower yields equalling lower profits and higher costs in terms of labour and management time. The debate has a long way to go and there are benefits and drawbacks for both positions. I hope this blog post can however widen the debate and make it more nuanced. There is immense diversity in opinion amongst farmers and several farmers would encourage the EU Commission to NOT renew the glyphosate license so that farming moves down the line of cultural control. A glyphosate ban would certainly usher in a new dawn for agriculture in terms of weed control. The question is, are farmers ready for this change, is it the right change and is now the right time (if there is a right time) for society to dictate the way farming moves forward?