The common practice of spraying off crops in tillage farming with herbicides is well known in farming circles, what isn’t well known is the potential health risks that it may be causing.
There is lot of fear and uncertainty about the safety of glyphosate , the main ingredient for weed killer, Round-up and the most commonly used broad-spectrum herbicide in spraying off crops. The world Health Organisation (WHO) thinks it is “probably” carcinogenic. The practice is widely used with GM crops who have been bred to resist the chemical while the weeds die. GM crops are not widely grown in Europe as there are restrictions on them, but many are imported as animal feed. Soya, maize and corn that have been repeatedly sprayed with glyphosate all make their way into our food chain. We consume them in tiny quantities with our eggs, meat and dairy products.
In the late 90s it was discovered that spraying with Round-up prior to harvesting had numerous advantages. Glyphosate kills off the weeds, even perennials, and the death of cropping plants hastens seed ripening, bringing the whole crop into sync. Moisture is reduced and an evenly ripe harvest is now possible, even if the sun refuses to shine. It is no surprise then that pre-harvest spraying, or dessication as it is known, has become a common practise in Ireland, the UK and across Europe.
The question-marks over glyphosate safety now become more important. If a crop is sprayed last thing before harvesting, what levels of the chemical will be present when it is converted into food products? In this respect, again there is broad no agreement. Glyphosate is known to persist and has been found to be present in the urine of most Europeans. A study published in 2015 found that it was present in the breast milk of mothers in Germany. This study was refuted by the pesticides industry who quickly commissioned their own research finding: “No residues of glyphosate were found to be present above the limit of detection in any samples.” Then you wonder what the detection limit they set actually was. The EFSA defines maximum residue levels for the EU as “the highest concentration of an active substance that is legally tolerated in food or feed when pesticides are applied correctly.”
Ireland has a blessed mild and temperate climate, but you never know how the summer will go. When August rolls around and it's time to harvest the barley or wheat, we rise early and hope for sunshine. Some years our wishes are granted. Without a strong week or two of fine warm weather at this point, the crop will ripen only in patches. Headlands, tramlines, weed-infested areas and north-facing slopes where fields dip, will all fall behind. If these areas contain too many green grains the crop's overall moisture content will be too high. It costs money to dry grain, someone must pay for it and it's usually the farmer.
A 2011 Teagasc Crop Report recommended pre-harvest dessication for “all varieties of wheat, oats, barley, peas, oilseed rape and linseed”. It stipulated that treated straw should not be used as a mulch for vegetables, “particularly strawberries”. It also reminded growers that oat porridge manufacturers Flahavan's had requested that suppliers of their oats not to indulge the practise. So it seems Flahavans had their doubts about the safety of pre-harvest dessication before any other food safety authority in Europe.
The issue of pre-harvest dessication was discussed when the 15-year EU licence for glyphosate came up for renewal earlier this year, sparking a debate on the herbicide's safety. The European Commission eventually granted an 18-month extension on certain conditions, one of which is to “minimise the pre-harvest use of glyphosate.” German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks summed up her concerns, saying: "Many member states want to first see the question of cancer risks settled before glyphosate can continue to be used on our fields.”
The question is, how to bridge our current reliance on glyphosate with an adequate replacement. A glyphosate taskforce, set up to protect the interests of the pesticides industry, says glyphosate is “a key tool for the control of weeds and the protection of crop yields. An informed debate cannot be achieved through scare-mongering or the promotion of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims.”
Nevertheless, the opposition is not going away. A European appeals court ruling last week gave permission for Greenpeace to access studies used in the original licensing of glyphosate. This documentation was always kept secret. Chemical companies claim that the documents contain sensitive intellectual property whose publication might harm their competitiveness, an argument the European Courts have now twice rejected.
We will have more coverage on this story in the coming days.
What do you think? Leave a comment below and let us know your thoughts. Or better yet take our poll.