Special Report: Glyphosate research: who should we trust?

It’s not easy for Stephen Duke to contain his enthusiasm for glyphosate.

Duke, a U.S. Department of Agriculture weed scientist, described glyphosate in a 2010 paper as a ”virtually ideal herbicide,” a “precious” herbicide resource and the “world’s greatest herbicide.”

To back up his impassioned comments, Duke said glyphosate kills nearly every weed on the planet. What’s more, its benign chemistry is actually safer than common household items.

“It’s less toxic for acute toxicity than table salt or aspirin,” Duke said from his office at the University of Mississippi. “Technically, you’d have to eat more glyphosate than you would salt or aspirin (to reach a lethal dose).”

Francois Tardif, a University of Guelph weed scientist, is slightly less zealous in his glyphosate ardour. Farmers would find ways to kill weeds and food production would carry on if the herbicide were not around, he argued, but replacing such a simple and highly effective technology would be expensive.

“I’m sure if I pulled all the chemists and all the herbicide companies (together) and said, ‘come up with something better than Roundup and price wasn’t an issue,’ they’d probably come up with something eventually…. The thing is, it would cost farmers $120 an acre.”

Chuck Benbrook, program leader of a sustainable agriculture program at Washington State University and an organic advocate, said glyphosate is a remarkable chemical, even though he has grave concerns about its overuse.

“In terms of effectiveness, environmental properties and toxicity, it’s the best herbicide ever discovered, hands down.”

However, a small but increasingly vocal band of scientists and activists would like to see glyphosate banned, despite testimonials from hundreds of prominent scientists and mountains of evidence demonstrating its safety. They are convinced it jeopardizes human, plant and soil health.

A website called Common Dreams: Building Progressive Communities, illustrates the antipathy toward what some call “the world’s greatest herbicide.” Common Dreams recently published an article with this introductory paragraph:

“The active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide may be the ‘most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment,’ being responsible for a litany of health disorders and diseases including Parkinson’s, cancer and autism.”

Trish Jordan, a Monsanto Canada spokesperson, said there’s no doubt that environmental and agricultural activists are ratcheting up the rhetoric around glyphosate.

“With the proliferation in internet and social media sites … it’s definitely easier for people to make allegations about glyphosate … and biotech in general,” she said from her Winnipeg office.

“(So) is there more noise? Definitely there is more noise (around glyphosate). That’s because there is a concerted, well orchestrated and very well-funded program against agricultural biotechnology.”

More than 300 groups actively campaign against biotech around the world, Jordan said. Roundup spins around in that public relations vortex because it’s a key component of genetically modified, herbicide tolerant crop technology.

“They (the groups) are spending about $2.4 billion a year on the anti-GMO advocacy campaigns,” she said. “Glyphosate gets thrown into that pot.”

Benbrook rarely agrees with Monsanto, but he said it’s difficult to separate the raucous debate over GM technology from the merits of Roundup. The two technologies are “inextricably linked,” he said.

“In the absence of GE crops, there wouldn’t be any issues with Roundup…. I am not aware of any new science that raises substantial new concerns about the safety or impact of glyphosate that isn’t fundamentally brought about by the explosion in use.”

Tardif said the hostility towards glyphosate is an example of the tallest poppy syndrome, Australian lingo for someone or something that stands out.

“When glyphosate was one percent of the market, one percent of herbicide use, no one really cared about it. Now it’s dominant, and everybody goes after it,” he said.

“When Apple was eight percent of the computer market, there weren’t many Apple haters.”

  • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

    If only someone would debate these anti-GMO organic activists so the public could decide once and for all who is right.

  • Dayton

    Mischa, haven’t you heard? The public is speaking otherwise the “Organic” movement would have never gotten off the ground. Non GMO labeling falls right in the hand of “Organic” enthusiasts. But you already know that Mischa.

    • http://www.isitorganic.ca/ Mischa Popoff

      I thought organic meant that a crop was not grown with synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. Being anti-GMO is only a very recent development for the organic industry. I have yet to see any evidence that consumers are concerned about biotechnology.

      • Bill

        This is the main point of anti-GMO activists – “Monsanto is bad! It’s Monsatan! Because they made Agent Orange in the 60′s!”

        or

        “Bt makes my gut leaky even though Bt can’t bind to the amino acids in the human body!”

        or

        “I don’t understand technology, farmers should have to plant their crops with a horse drawn plow, anything that is good for farmers is bad for everyone else especially technology”

  • Bill

    Mischa, a lot of GMO scientists have offered to debate anti-GMO activists but more often than not they are turned down because they can’t dictate how the conversation goes 100% of the time and might have to answer some questions that have answers they don’t like. Kevin Folta recently offered Dr. Huber, (who apparently has found a dangerous new virus from GMO/glyphosate use) the ability to test this new virus in the lab and find out what it is, what causes it, how dangerous it is etc. but Dr. Huber danced around the offer and made excuses, he won’t allow it to be researched by other scientists and has been apparently working with it for 7 years with no other scientists seeing it, that’s a bit shady IMO