Glyphosate has made headlines once more, after the European Parliament announced plans to phase out the use of the weed killer over the next half decade. Join Lycetts, a provider of farm insurance, as they analyse the views of those both in favour and against the move to ban the herbicide:
Some background information about glyphosate
Many weed killers use glyphosate as its active ingredient, while the herbicide is also used across the globe today. In fact, it has grown to become the world’s most widely sold weed killer since it was developed and commercialised in 1974 in a formulation that was marketed as Roundup by the agricultural company Monsanto.
Formulations containing glyphosate are also now used in agriculture, farming, forestry and aquatic industries, not to mention public areas like parks, streets and schools.
When used, glyphosate is absorbed through foliage. This process aims to inhibit the plant’s ability to synthesize proteins.
The high use of glyphosate explained
Research by the Soil Association claims that there has been a 400 per cent increase in the use of glyphosate across the UK’s farming industry in the past two decades alone. 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.
What’s more, everything from breakfast cereals and crackers to crisps, biscuits and bread have been found to contain glyphosate residues due to its high use.
The call made by the European Parliament
Following two years of debating, the European Parliament voted by 355 to 204 in favour of a resolution to urge the European Commission to bring in measures to phase out the use of glyphosate across the entire European Union by mid-December 2022.
This non-binding vote also included a demand for both member states of the European Commission and the European Union to ban the use of glyphosate immediately from public parks, on farms and within households if there are other biological pest control systems available.
Research supporting the ban
There have been many reports about how glyphosate has detrimental effects on human health. In fact, fears have been raised that the herbicide is a hormone disrupter that is linked to birth defects, the development of cancerous tumours and other developmental disorders for numerous years.
These concerns have seen scientists argue that a safe lower level for human consumption should not exist when it comes to glyphosate.
Concerns about a glyphosate ban on food costs
Monsanto’s vice president Scott Partridge is one person who does not agree with the call to ban glyphosate, stating that the move could cause “uproar in the agricultural community”.
“You would see increased costs for farming and decreased productivity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of topsoil, loss of moisture,” he pointed out to The Guardian. “There would be some significant reaction by farmers through Europe. They would be very upset that a very effective and safe tool had been taken out of their hands.”
A Polish orchard farmer also echoed the prediction that a glyphosate ban could cause increased food costs. Going by the name Krzystof and with first-hand experience using the weed killer, he 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.
“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.”
Concerns about a glyphosate ban on Europe’s railway network
Those who work across Europe’s railway network experience many headaches when it comes to overgrown weeds. 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.
Specialist operator Weedfree on Track has been using a method deemed a “weed killer train” to try and combat such an issue for the past half a century. The system accurately sprays 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.
Jean-Pierre Deforet, one of the Belgian railway authority Infrabel’s chemists, acknowledged: “The weed detection system allows for only the minimal amount to be used, and then it only sprays the weeds when required. This allows us to use far less chemicals. If glyphosate were to be banned then we would have to find an alternative. There are currently no alternatives that are as effective. This would cause a huge problem for Belgium’s railways.
“The alternatives for us 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.”
Could Brexit change things for the UK?
The future certainly doesn’t look bright for glyphosate following the vote made by the European Parliament. However, it is also worth bearing in mind that Brexit could give supporters of the herbicide some hope.
Defra Minister George Eustice has stated in an NFU meeting already that the UK government is actively seeking to develop its own approach to pesticide regulation once the nation has exited from the EU. This is set to be a science-based approach to pesticide authorisation decisions, with the government being advised partially through its work with technical groups located across Europe, the USA and Australia.