That's Farming has been covering the saga with weed-killer glyphosate, as it unfolded over the last year or so. Glyphosate was first developed by Monsanto and is a core ingredient of its Roundup product range. Since the onset of GM crops its use worldwide has sky-rocketed and many generic brands of glyphosate herbicides are now also available. Uncertainty about its ability to enter watercourses and its presence in our food has led to divisions between those who want to keep using it because of our reliance on it as farmers, and those who would take a more precautionary view, regardless of the cost.
It's a tricky subject as most farms use Roundup or some other glyphosate product. Cattle, sheep and dairy farmers rely on it prior to reseeding and to keep fences clear of weeds. Tillage farmers have become very reliant on it, but where there are doubts about safety, it is important to be sure. When the European 15-year glyphosate licence came up for renewal this summer, many people were concerned as the World Health Organisation had said it was “probably carcinogenic to humans”. In the end an eighteen-month extension was granted and the European Chemicals Agency was tasked with reviewing the safety of glyphosate. It will conclude its deliberations in 2017.
This week That's Farming contacted a larger number of politicians and public interest groups to try and canvas views on glyphosate. The responses from politicians were not as varied as you might imagine. Of those who replied, many said they simply weren't familiar with the subject and could not comment on it. Independent TD Thomas Pringle said he would bring questions about glyphosate safety to the Dáil. A number of Fianna Fáil TDs responded with a short Party-approved statement to the effect that the matter is in European hands. It seems nobody wants to be caught out in the open, crossing the no-man's land between Europe's official line, which defends our current regulatory system, and the threat to that line, which is mounting evidence about the dangers to public health.
The Department of Agriculture presented a detailed statement to That's Farming. Regarding the practise of pre-harvest dessication, or burning off crops with herbicide to achieve a balanced ripening, it included the following clarification: “The Commission regulation considers that in certain situations pre-harvest uses to check or prevent undesired growth of weeds are in line with good agricultural practices while uses with the intention to control the time point of harvest or to optimise the threshing may not be considered within good agricultural practices.” So if you spray off a crop because you know there's a bad weather front coming in and you need to get it harvested, you are not in compliance with good practise, but if you spray it off because it is green with weeds you are fine. In other words, the spraying is not the problem, it's which excuse you use that matters.
The Department statement goes on: “In Ireland pre-harvest glyphosate application in cereals will be restricted to those situations where it is necessary for weed control purposes only. It should also be noted that the vast majority of producers of cereal crops destined for human consumption participate in quality assurance schemes and that these schemes do not allow the pre-harvest application of glyphosate on crops destined for human consumption. Pre-harvest application for desiccation purposes in oilseed crops will be allowed to continue since it is necessary for viable crop production and risk assessments indicate that there is no unacceptable risks for consumers.”
From this we can conclude that “the vast majority of producers” do not spray off crops before harvesting, as they are part of quality-assurance schemes, but some probably do, including those citing the need for weed control. It is not a very clear statement, or one that would allay the fears of those who think glyphosate could be harmful, but at least we know the official position.
Mairead McGuinness, MEP and Vice-President of the European Parliament told That's Farming: “I voted in favour of restricting the extension of the license for glyphosate from 15 years, as proposed by the European Commission, to 7 years - a position supported by the majority of MEPs in the Parliament. This vote to restrict the Commission's proposal was taken in the spirit of the precautionary principle. I also supported calls for research into alternative herbicides and management techniques and questioned the use of the product by non-professionals (domestic gardeners), its use in public places and its use as a pre-harvest desiccant.”
She went on to say that the World Health Organisation has placed glyphosate in the same carcinogenicity category as “ red meat and inhaling emissions from high-temperature frying, inhaling smoke from an indoor fire and shift work”. So on the one hand Ms McGuinness supported restricting glyphosate's licence term and wants to see alternatives developed, but on the other she does not think it very harmful. It is hard to see any consistency in this position, but to be fair, it is hard to know. Farmers all across Europe are so reliant on glyphosate at present that changing their systems would require serious effort and might indeed affect productivity.
The Irish Environmental Network were not confused on the matter of glyphosate. Their spokesperson Ian Carey told That's Farming:
“Our groups would have serious concerns about the extensive use of glyphosate in Irish farming. Essentially the concerns are around human health. Glyphosate is a herbicide which has been linked to potentially fatal blood cancers. Despite this we are seeing its overuse in Irish farms. People will be most familiar with the herbicide brand Roundup which has glyphosate as its active ingredient. This chemical is making its way into our food with reports from the UK showing it is detectable in one third of all bread.
“One of the worst practices is the use of glyphosate to ripen a harvest. This is called ‘pre-harvest desiccation’. This is a way of drying out the crop and forcing it to ripen all at the same time. Many view this as dangerous because it applies the herbicide just before it enters the food chain.
“Our groups would be in support of total ban of the use of glyphosate. Organic growers have proven that food production is possible without herbicides and pesticides.”
The source of doubts about glyphosate go back to March 2015, when 17 experts met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an affiliate of the World Health Organisation. There they presented a review of findings based on research into the carcinogenicity of various common chemicals, including glyphosate. The subsequent report contained the following explosive lines:
“Glyphosate has been detected in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption. Soil microbes degrade glyphosate to aminomethylphosphoric acid (AMPA). Blood AMPA detection after poisonings suggests intestinal microbial metabolism in humans. Glyphosate and glyphosate formulations induced DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro. One study reported increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage (micronuclei) in residents of several communities after spraying of glyphosate formulations. Bacterial mutagenesis tests were negative. Glyphosate, glyphosate formulations, and AMPA induced oxidative stress in rodents and in vitro. The Working Group classified glyphosate as 'probably carcinogenic to humans'.”
Since then the European Food Safety Authority and the national health authorities of the US, Australia and New Zealand have said they can see no danger to human health from glyphosate. So the jury is still out and we must wait until 2017 for an official European decision on its future. Meanwhile, we farmers can only do our best to minimise any risk by using the stuff only where necessary.