Glyphosate is a pervasive herbicide that is the most widely-sold weed killer in the world. However, it has recently come to the public’s attention due to professional concerns that the ingredient is dangerous to human health.
Following the announcement that the European Parliament has called for it to be phased out over the next five years, crop insurance providers, Lycetts, investigates the arguments for and against the banning of glyphosate.
Glyphosate was developed and put on sale in 1974 by the agricultural company Monsanto — although it went by the name ‘Roundup’ originally. Due to it being commonly sold, glyphosate-based formulations are now used in everything from agriculture, farming, forestry and aquatic environments to public settings such as parks, streets and schools.
The European Parliament’s Decision
For many years, scientists have warned people against glyphosate, which means many are delighted about the possibility of a ban. Following a two-year debate, the European Parliament voted by 355 to 204 in favour of a resolution that has urged the European Commission to adopt measures 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.
Within this demand for prohibiting glyphosate, it was decided that member states of both the European Commission and the European Union must ban the use of glyphosate around public parks, on farms and within households whenever other biological pest control systems are available.
How Often is Glyphosate Used?
Many people will ask whether this ban is necessary. However, it appears that the substance might be more prevalent than you may believe. According to research from the Soil Association, the use of glyphosate 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.
In fact, the level at which we use glyphosate has resulted in the toxic ingredient being found in bread, biscuits, cereals, crackers, and crisps.
Disadvantages of Glyphosate
As we mentioned earlier, anxieties over the potential harm glyphosate could be doing to humans is not a novel notion. 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 argued that there is no safe lower level for human consumption.
Banning Glyphosate and Food Costs
With any prohibition, there will always be ramifications, and it’s been argued by some professional in the food sector that banning glyphosate could cause a rise in food costs. A Polish orchard farmer with first-hand experience of using the herbicide, explained to Monsanto’s companion site Growing Our Future: “The public should know that withdrawing glyphosate from the market will have a very negative impact on fruit farming. Production costs 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.”
He went on to say: “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.”
This view is mirrored by Monsanto’s vice president, Scott Partridge, who believes that the move could cause “uproar in the agricultural community”. He 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.”
Banning Glyphosate and Europe’s Railways
Aside from food and costs, what happens when you ban a very capable weed killer across an entire country? With regard to transportation, the prohibition could cause headaches. 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.
As a result of the ban, practices and methods will have to change. Specialist operator Weedfree on Track has been combatting these problems for over half a century through a method which sees a “weed killer train” accurately spraying a glyphosate solution only onto areas which have been identified by a high-tech camera as having weeds with a specific amount of chlorophyll content.
Operations manager at Weedfree on Track, Jonathan Caine, said: “We’ve carried out a number of trials to see how much more effective the train is than manual methods. We’ve estimated manually do the same job, in the same time frame, can cost up to 40 times more. Weedfree on Track is dedicated to trying to reduce the use of pesticides, but whether you’re hand-cutting, using steam, acetic acid or a bio-chemical, the alternatives simply aren’t as effective when used correctly.”
But can’t we just use a substitute to carry out the same job as glyphosate? Jean-Pierre Deforet, a chemist at Belgian railway authority Infrabel, doesn’t see this as an easy task. He pointed out in a Growing Our Future article: “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.”
Regardless of personal opinion, it seems that the days for glyphosate may well be numbered.