The public conversation around glyphosate is all flowing in one direction. A cluster of environmental campaigners, organic food activists and crusading scientists are dominating the discussion around the controversial herbicide.
Over the last few weeks, groups like the Organic Consumers Association and Beyond Pesticides have blitzed the North American media with news releases and social media activity to convince the public that glyphosate is a grave risk to human health.
In their statements, they claim that human exposure to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, causes autism, cancer, Crohn’s disease, depression, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and a list of other ailments.
To defend their comments, they point to scientific studies and legal decisions that support their side of the story.
Meanwhile, North American farm groups and growers who use glyphosate say little or nothing in defence of the herbicide. The silence is surprising, seeing how glyphosate is a critical tool for weed control and that dozens of regulatory bodies around the world, including the European Food Safety Authority and Health Canada, have concluded that the herbicide is not a health risk.
The absence of public support from farm groups means ag industry groups such as Crop Life Canada are left to do much of the work defending the safety and benefits of modern agriculture.
“That’s why I’m suggesting that farmers take a crack at it, as well. Because I think that’s who people want to hear from,” said Owen Roberts, director of research communications at Ontario’s University of Guelph.
“I encourage all farmers to make communications, social media in particular, a part of their farm management strategy.”
The effort may be needed because groups like the Organic Consumers Association are pushing strong messages in their opposition to Roundup. In mid-May, the organization referred to a study out of Italy and claimed that glyphosate is a health threat, even at minuscule concentrations.
“The U.S. EPA has … (been) claiming that exposure to the chemical at low levels is harmless,” said Ronnie Cummins of the OCA. “This new pilot study confirms what many responsible scientists have been saying all along: there is no such thing as ‘safe’ levels when it comes to glyphosate, especially when it comes to children.”
Many toxicologists disagree with the assessment that glyphosate is a human health risk, including John Giesy of the University of Saskatchewan.
Nonetheless, the campaign against the herbicide is affecting market perceptions and Canadian farmers.
Breweries are refusing to buy malt barley if it’s been sprayed with glyphosate before harvest, oat millers are telling growers not to apply the herbicide, pre-harvest, and Italian pasta makers are refusing to buy Canadian durum partly because of concerns over glyphosate residues.
Roberts isn’t convinced that average citizens are worried about glyphosate in their food, but it’s obvious that farmers need to enhance their public engagement.
“I’m not sure the public has embraced the so-called dangers (of glyphosate) that activists are talking about,” he said, adding folks who dislike modern agriculture use the herbicide as a weapon against the industry.
“To me, they are more anti-technology people than they are anti-glyphosate people…. It (Roundup) may represent some of things that people are going to be angry about.”
He said farmers might counter some of the negative perceptions by developing relationships with consumers through Twitter and Facebook.
Once trust is established, they could refer their social media followers to another group, such as the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, for more information on herbicides and other farming technologies.
The key, though, is a change in thinking.
Producers who talk to the public about farming shouldn’t worry that they’re “grandstanding” or worry about what other farmers will think, Roberts said.
That’s because communication is just part of the new reality of agriculture.