Confirmation last week by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that glyphosate is not carcinogenic is welcome, but such declarations are not likely to have an effect on legal judgments.
That glyphosate is known to be non-carcinogenic doesn’t matter to juries. Health Canada said in 2017 that the herbicide does not pose a risk to humans through spraying, through diet or to the environment and reiterated its findings in 2019 after a review.
But it doesn’t matter.
What does matter are two things: in 2015 the United Nations’ International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization’s research arm, concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” (The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the WHO subsequently determined that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through diet.”)
And Bayer, now the makers of the herbicide Roundup, which contains glyphosate, has lost three straight lawsuits with plaintiffs awarded a total of $190 million (after judgments were reduced).
Science is losing.
Farmers are understandably frustrated. They might reasonably argue that pre-harvest application of glyphosate controls weeds and acts as a desiccant, accelerating the dry-down of plants, allowing for a quicker harvest in the face of increasingly uncertain weather.
But glyphosate is registered as a herbicide, not a desiccant.
And despite residues in food that are well below maximum residue limits (MRL) established by the international Codex system, crops containing trace elements of glyphosate are running into problems. Taiwan, for example, last year announced it had found residues in oats between 0.1 parts per million (p.p.m.) and 1.8 p.p.m., violating its zero-tolerance policy for glyphosate in oats. The Codex MRL for glyphosate in oats is 30 p.p.m.
Last year’s public trust research survey,conducted by the Canadian Centre for Food Integrity, showed that 91 percent of Canadians are concerned about pesticides in crop production.
In 2015, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tested for glyphosate residues and subsequently reported that Canada’s food system is safe.
Yet food company Kellogg’s has decided to phase out the “use of glyphosate as a pre-harvest drying agent in its major wheat and oat supply chains by 2025.”
Kellogg’s management has got to be watching the glyphosate cases in the U.S. and wondering whether someone will launch a lawsuit over trace residues in its Froot Loops if a regular customer were to be stricken by cancer. If the recent court judgments are any indication, the case is already lost.
This leaves producers with a dilemma. Glyphosate as a desiccant might cost around $5 per acre. The main alternative, diquat, could cost $15 to $20 per acre. The difference could be producers’ margin of profit in a given year.
But if the current legal and political climate prevails, pre-harvest spraying of glyphosate may be lost, not just for wheat and oats, but for other crops as well.
It is likely that more companies will demand zero glyphosate residue.
Farmers can help by not using glyphosate as a desiccant, or at least, not spraying until an entire field is below 30 percent moisture in plants. At that stage, glyphosate, which permeates the plant tissue, is not absorbed. It is not enough to spray when the average moisture on a field is 30 percent. That is particularly important for canola, which is known to mature inconsistently across fields.
Producers would also do well to invest in crop insurance as protection against the increasingly uncertain fall weather.
Phasing out a pre-harvest application of glyphosate, or at least, reducing its use, will be difficult. But the alternative would be much worse.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.