In a nutshell, the glyphosate debate revolves around safety. On farm, is it safe to use for the sprayer operator? It is usually considered to be, and one has heard it said that it is less toxic than many everyday household cleaners. The debate does not, nevertheless, end there.
A more difficult question to answer is, is it safe to consume minute quantities of glyphosate residues in our foods every day? Do we yet know what long-term exposure to decades of ingestion means for our health? Since the massive ramping up of glyphosate use with the advent of Roundup Ready crops, it is in widespread use within our food supply-chains. This is a major concern for some.
And what are the broader environmental safety concerns? Glyphosate has partly allowed an over-reliance on mono-culture farming systems to happen. For example, one can mention Argentina’s cropping and the ploughing of the Pampas for soybean; a concern for Ireland if it wants to portray a clean, green image that includes using sustainably-sourced soybean meal?
Closer to home, a question I hear raised by some farmers, is what is the impact of glyphosate on the soil biome’s health? The health of our planets soils [as it also incorporates climate change mitigation] will become the number one issue on our planet [it is about food security] over the next few years. The use of pesticides and fertilizers will be increasingly scrutinized from a soil biome health perspective and high on the list will be the impact of glyphosate. Is it safe to apply vast quantities to glyphosate to our soils, albeit it is the weed that is targeted? Do we have much idea?
Limits of Science
When saying ‘trust the science’, we must appreciate the limitations of our science. Do we fully understand the multiple consequences that may occur? Can we even scientifically test for all of them? No, we cannot so we must avoid the arrogant use of “you must trust the science”. Farmers have experience of its on-the-farm application but how many are qualified to comment on the wider safety issues? We are good at saying the food we produce is safe, but we should remember that in saying so we are placing our own reputation in the hands of those who supply our inputs. And we should also ask ourselves just how many times over the decades have we ended up trying to put scientific genies back in their bottles? Glyphosate may yet prove to be another such genie.
To move on from safety per se. What about the efficacy of glyphosate? It may not be an immediate issue in Ireland as glyphosate resistance is a still largely a RR crop production problem but, as with other ‘solutions’, resistance will become more widespread. It is after all about survival of the fittest, and that functions equally well for the organisms that our farming tries to eradicate. Essentially, whether we like it or not, Mother Nature will ‘phase out’ glyphosate. It is a question of when we lose glyphosate, not if, and we need to start developing farming systems that work without it, period.
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One hears tillage farmers who operate low-tillage, low-carbon-emission-focused systems that losing glyphosate will mean a return to the plough and consequential carbon losses. They say that it is an essential tool in sustainable tillage farming for weed control per se and for removing rotational leys and cover crops. You cannot, however, use the term ‘sustainable’ in a situation with a finite end; an end that will be ushered in by eventual herbicide resistance. Some are developing organic min-till systems without glyphosate, but it is difficult. To do so on a wider basis will incur costs that have to be met by the market [as with organic] or via a reformed and enlightened CAP. It is an example of where a new CAP must be tailored to help farmers through transitionary ‘learning’ periods.
In difficult, wet climates, glyphosate has been adopted as a pre-harvest desiccant to help dry the crop and aid harvesting. Its loss will create difficulties and extra cost. In a country where so much crop drying is done off-farm by third parties, it will be a significant additional cost for a tillage sector that rarely turns a profit. Should, therefore, a glyphosate ban be accompanied by grant aid to enhance on-farm drying and cereal storage capacity? And one should add that such investments would also enable tillage farmers to gain more control over their routes to market and permit them to develop the niche, highly-traceable, value-added products that will allow them to compensate for their internationally-uncompetitive production scale.
Within grassland management, glyphosate has become a go-to tool to remove old swards. Is it, however, now time to look beyond regular reseeding as a part of grassland management? One is aware that some pasture farmers are rethinking what is widely recognized as conventional. Pastures may have to become more robust and longer lived, deeper rooted and defoliated less harshly. They will become much more species diverse and far less reliant on artificial sources of nitrogen. It will be more about the health of the soil biome and carbon sequestration. It is a bigger story than for here, but the loss of glyphosate may focus the mind on the need for change just that much quicker.
Glyphosate use is only one issue that must be addressed through radical policy change. Farming and food production is heading into a period of turmoil; there are too many major issues beginning to impact simultaneously on an industry that remains charged with providing our food security. For those farming within the EU, it is about the CAP and one fears that it is too cumbersome to provide effective support to farming system change. We must recognize the detail of what must change, and we need new transitionary support systems that will encourage and aid that change. Moving away from a dependence on glyphosate is one such change and creating a sound policy approach to doing so would be a timely place to start developing new, future-proofed farming and food policies.