Is there an inexorable drive to ban glyphosate? Is it inevitable?
There is certainly a drive by some opponents to eliminate the world’s most commonly used herbicide, but whether it’s unstoppable is to be determined.
Weed scientist Hugh Beckie, formerly of Agriculture Canada and now director of Australia’s herbicide resistance initiative at the University of Western Australia, thinks that country has a 50-50 chance of losing glyphosate to regulatory oversight.
It’s banned or limited in use in many municipal jurisdictions throughout the world.
Yet every country that has studied glyphosate, including the United States and Canada, has affirmed that glyphosate is safe to use as instructed.
However, three lawsuits that have gone to trial have determined that glyphosate contributed to cancer, resulting in awards of more than $2.4 billion (some have been reduced). It’s those decisions by lay juries (along with some 18,000 other pending suits worldwide, including a class-action suit planned in Saskatchewan) — and not scientific studies — that are catching the public’s attention.
The lawyers are winning.
The next big test for glyphosate will likely come in December 2022, when approval for glyphosate’s use in the European Union runs out.
The anti-glyphosate movement gained momentum in 2015, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a research arm of the World Health Organization, labelled glyphosate “probably carcinogenic to humans.” It is classified in Group 2A, along with coffee and the effects of working night shifts.
But a subsequent joint assessment by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to be carcinogenic.”
Last January, Health Canada revisited glyphosate and reiterated its conclusion of two years earlier that the chemical is safe.
It’s hard to fathom what the anti-glyphosate movement hopes to achieve when its replacement chemicals, such as paraquat and diquat, are much more toxic.
You can see where this is headed.
The Canadian Centre for Food Integrity published a study late last year that found that 91 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they are concerned about the use of pesticides in crop production. And 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that “food grown organically is more healthful than conventionally grown food.”
Yet there is no scientific proof of that.
The public’s thinking is slowly being skewed toward that of the Green Party, which wants a movement to smaller organic farms, resulting in fewer agricultural exports.
Banning glyphosate would significantly increase the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere through the increased tillage necessary to control weeds. (It’s thought about 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon in organic materials are sequestered in the world’s soils.) It would increase the use of fossil fuels on farms due to the need for more tillage, it would lower the profitability of farming, so there would be fewer food producers, and it would increase the price of food, hurting lower income people.
Ultimately, the limiting factor on glyphosate may not come from governments or consumers, but from weeds developing herbicide resistance. It’s a growing concern and glyphosate is often mixed with other chemicals to enhance weed control on fields.
Research is underway to determine ways to reduce reliance on glyphosate to address plant resistance and public trust.
Bayer, for example, is spending $5.6 billion over 10 years to find alternatives.
Farmers may yet move away from heavy use of glyphosate, but if that happens, it should be based on science and real-world experience, not alarmist lawsuits and stylish consumerism.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.