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).”

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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.”

Other stories in this Special Report:

UN report released March 20, 2015UN body declares glyphosate probable human carcinogen

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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