Until recently I’ve believed glyphosate to be a safe weedkiller. That was because it was approved by DEFRA in the UK along with all regulatory agencies world wide.
Gardeners have seen many chemical pest controls, fungicides and weedkillers disappear from their armoury over the years. Some of these, such as Derris, on the basis of what appears to a non-scientist like me to be very flimsy evidence.
Some because the manufacturers just couldn’t justify the costs of proving the safety of their product, Ammonium Sulphamate being a notable example.
And some because new evidence has come to light showing that the product wasn’t safe after all.
Home use of Glyphosate
At the moment, the overwhelming consensus is that the occasional use of glyphosate as a weedkiller by home gardeners presents no measurable threat to health. That may change in time but that is the position as I write.
Of course, that also assumes the gardener uses the product carefully. Following the safety instructions, not breathing in the spray, mixing as per the instructions and wearing relevant protective clothing such as gloves and washing hands properly after use.
Farming Use of Glyphosate
This is where the picture changes. Frankly the more I read, the more worrying the picture becomes.
Monsanto are a massive company and they’re in to GM plants as well as chemicals. The concept is simple and elegant. You alter the crop plant at the genetic level so it is unaffected by the weedkiller and then you can spray the field whilst the crop is growing and remove any weed competition.
There’s a lot to be said both for and against GM crops – not least the way they tie in small farmers in the developing world, but I’ll stick to the subject which is glyphosate except to say that 18 million farmers in 27 countries grow GM crops on 175 million hectares!
Then there is the concept of cleaning land between cropping. Harvest one crop and then clean off any weeds before planting the next. This is a frequent use, twice or more each year.
Finally, and I find this shocking, spraying grain crops prior to harvest. The idea is to dessicate the grain which reduces the amount of energy used in drying the grain so it stores well.
The farmers use, as you would expect, gallons of the stuff (annually around 840,000 tons world wide) and so the workers are exposed to far larger quantities than the gardener. You can put a drop of bleach in a gallon of water and drink it safely (so I’ve read but don’t suggest you do it) – drink a cup of bleach and you will probably die.
In the GM soya bean raising areas of Argentina, they spray fields with aircraft and inevitably ‘civilians’ get caught in the drifting spray. Cancer cases are up ten fold and birth defects reported to have increased to 1500 times normal levels.
The other worrying thing is that use for desiccating grain and on GM crops means that we’re inevitably eating glyphosate. What the long term effects will be isn’t clear but glyphosate targets an enzyme that is found in gut bacteria which are vital to our health.
What happens next?
I suspect we’ll see glyphosate banned in the future the way things we are going. The crackers thing is that might ban it for gardeners but still allow it for farming use as has happened with other chemicals. One thing is for sure, Monsanto will not easily let go a of a $5 billion property.