The news that we will soon be banned from using glyphosate has caused a nationwide divide. With many health experts applauding the ban and others in professional sectors calling for a rethink, Lycetts — a crop insurance supplier — investigates the benefits and harm of outlawing glyphosate.
The popularity of glyphosate
Many people won’t have even heard of glyphosate herbicide, but it’s actually a massive part of various professional industries. According to research from the Soil Association, the use of glyphosate-based herbicide in UK farming has increased by 400% over the past 20 years. The Guardian has also reported that there has almost been enough of the herbicide sprayed since its creation that it would cover every cultivable acre of Earth.
The reason behind the ban comes from recent discoveries of glyphosate in food, such as bread, biscuits, cereals, crackers, and crisps. Due to the health implications, which we’ll discuss later, this has been treated seriously.
The EU decision to ban glyphosate
Despite going back and forth a few times, possibly due to the impact it would have on commerce, the European Parliament finally called for a ban of glyphosate in October 2017. For many years, scientists have warned people against glyphosate, however, it’s taken a two-year debate for the European Parliament to vote 355 to 204 in favour of its ban. Now, measures must be adopted to phase out the use of glyphosate across the entire EU by mid-December 2022. However, it’s worth remembering that this was a non-binding vote.
Members of the European Union and European Commission are now obligated to stop the use of glyphosate on farms, in public parks, and in households whenever other biological pest control systems are available.
A look at glyphosate in the past
Glyphosate has been around for decades. In 1974, the herbicide was introduced to the market by Monsanto — which labelled it ‘Roundup’ — and the Monsanto glyphosate roundup was soon snapped up by farmers across the world to help kill weeds and boost productivity. Due to it being commonly sold, glyphosate-based formulations are now also used in: agriculture, forestry, aquatic environments, streets, parks, and schools.
Cons of glyphosate
As we mentioned earlier, the disclosure that glyphosate had been found in foods on sale to the public kick-started the debate into the use of the herbicide. Fears have long been raised that the herbicide is a hormone disrupter that is linked to birth defects, the development of cancerous tumours and other developmental disorders. Some scientists have also argued that there is no safe lower level for human consumption.
The glyphosate EU ban and railways across the continent
Although contamination of food is the major point of concern when it comes to glyphosate, there are credible reasons to argue for its use, most notably regarding the rail industry. Weeds that are left unchecked can significantly restrict track visibility, track access for workers and possibly even render a line impassable in severe cases across Europe’s railways.
Finding other ways to rid tracks of dangerous weeds is not simple. Specialist operator Weedfree on Track has been combatting weed problems for over half a century. This is through a method of using a “weed killer train”, which sprays a glyphosate solution onto areas that have been identified by a high-tech camera as having weeds with a specific amount of chlorophyll content. Jonathan Caine, operations manager at Weedfree on Track, said: “We’ve carried out a number of trials to see how much more effective the train is than manual methods and have estimated that manually doing the same job, in the same time frame, can cost up to 40 times more.”
Although detecting an alternative to how we’d combat weeds using tools and techniques, do we at least have another substance ready that can take over from glyphosate? Jean-Pierre Deforet, a chemist at Belgian railway authority Infrabel, doesn’t think so. Speaking in a Growing Our Future article, he said: “If glyphosate were to be banned then we would have to find an alternative. There are currently no alternatives that are as effective, which would cause a huge problem for Belgium’s railways. The alternatives are to use mulch or to spray manually. But allowing people onto the tracks would cause another, bigger safety issue than spraying from the train.”
The ban and food costs
Surely, the public who could potentially eat contained food will be delighted with the news that such a dangerous substance will soon be banned. However, the outcome is not completely positive. Monsanto’s vice president, Scott Partridge, stated to The Guardian: “You would see increased costs for farming and decreased productivity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of topsoil, and loss of moisture. Farmers through Europe would be very upset that a very effective and safe tool had been taken out of their hands.”
Agreeing with Partridge is a Polish orchard farmer with experience of using glyphosate who commentated on Monsanto’s companion site Growing Our Future: “Production costs of fruit farming will definitely go up as we look to use more time and energy consuming methods of weed control. When production costs go up, prices in shops also go up and people should be aware of this.
The use of other herbicides would require a greater number of applications, which would result in more environmental pollution. For fruit farmers, there is no alternative to glyphosate because there are no other products that do what it does.”
Although opinions are divided, perhaps industry professionals need to now start thinking about how they will adapt the glyphosate EU ban in order to lessen the impact.