Glyphosate licence renewal - responses

The process of renewing the licence for glyphosate in the EU has been lengthy. It has taken 18 months of battling between the agrichemical industry, who wanted a full 15 year licence renewal, and concerned individuals, NGOs and environmental organisations who wanted the substance banned. In November 2017, the EU finally agreed to grant a 5 year licence.

This compromise managed to annoy both farmers and environmentalists. The former were angry because they wanted a guaranteed long term use of the chemical; the latter felt betrayed by their EU parliamentary representatives. Over 1 million individuals had signed a petition against the relicensing - and had demanded a review of the regulatory process.

Garden Organic strongly supported a ban, and the request for a regulatory review. Over three thousand GO members signed the petition, and we will continue to campaign against the use of toxic chemicals in growing. However, we thought it would be interesting to look at the response of those who battled in favour of glyphosate, and we provide the real answers to their claims that the chemical is indispensable.

“We are pleased that science has eventually prevailed” Crop Association

Which science? The EU regulatory body has been very circumspect in sharing its researches. Their assessment of the chemical was originally done behind closed doors, until environmentalists demanded greater transparency. In response, inspection of documents and research papers was eventually allowed, but access was heavily restricted. Research papers, many of them provided by the industry which sells glyphosate products, weren’t circulated. They could only be read in a locked room. No copies were allowed to be made. And some were withheld.

Compare this to the IARC (the arm of the WHO) who openly engaged a committee of 17 international scientists who scrutinised over 1000 independent, peer reviewed studies. It was this that led them to believe that glyphosate – on its own, as well as in formulations such as Roundup – was probably carcinogenic.

“However, the fact remains that there is absolutely no regulatory reason why it should not have been reauthorised for 15 years, as was originally proposed.” NFU

On the face of it, the NFU is correct, if – and this is a big if – the regulatory process is fit for purpose. But many argue that it isn’t, including the UK government’s chief scientific advisor, Prof Ian Boyd. “The effects of dosing whole landscapes with chemicals have been largely ignored by regulatory systems. This can and should be changed.”

Regulators look at single chemicals like glyphosate, they don’t look at the chemical formulations which contain glyphosate – like Roundup - that are normally used in pesticides. Often this mix is 1000 times more toxic.

Regulators also don’t look at the effect of a sequence of chemicals. Farmers, for instance, will treat a crop up to 20 times in its growing life, using pesticides, herbicides, growth promoters and growth limiters. Glyphosate is often used just before grain is harvested, to aid desiccation (this means 30% of bread in the UK contains it). Little to no research is done on the effect of this sequential mix of chemicals – either to wildlife or to humans.

And finally, regulators don’t survey the effects of long term use of a chemical. Unlike drug companies who have to regularly monitor side effects of drugs long after they have come on the market, agrochemical companies have no legal requirement to monitor post application effects. We have been ingesting food grown with an increasing amount of chemicals for over 50 years now. Without muddling causation and correlation, the world has also seen an exponential growth in long term illnesses such as cancer. Soils have been depleted and there are worrying declines in wildlife.

Glyphosate reduces the need to use other herbicides, it helps to protect soil.” NFU

Research has shown the opposite. Using glyphosate formulations seriously affects the minute life systems in the soil. It can kill beneficial organisms, such as the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which help the plant roots take up nutrients, and the bacteria that suppress specific soil diseases. Glyphosate has been reported to bind to the soil minerals (manganese, iron, etc.) blocking their availability to the plants.

Because of this, farmers are obliged to use fungicides and additional herbicides on their crops, resulting in a much higher ecological impact.

If glyphosate was banned, "Farmers would have had to fall back on mechanical weed control. That would mean 25 per cent increase in greenhouse gas emissions and a significant impact on farm bird life - including skylarks, partridge, lapwing. For a zero improvement in public health and safety, we would have been worsening food security, soil quality, biodiversity and climate change." MEP Anthea McIntyre

Food security, soil quality, biodiversity and climate change – big claims.

But where is the evidence that chemical farming has improved food security? We know that the world produces more than enough food, it is waste and politics that prevents an equal distribution. Indeed a 2017 UN report on the right to food explicitly reveals that intensive agriculture based on pesticide use has not contributed to reduce world hunger, but rather it has helped to increase the consumption of food and food waste in developed countries.

Soil quality is dangerously poor – the current Minister of State, Michael Gove, has stated that with just 40 years of soil health left in this country we need to address this issue. We know that chemical herbicides interfere with the biological processes of nature. Weeds become resistant, the soil get eroded and infertile, the crop susceptible to pathogens and diseases, and farmers feel obliged to use more pesticides to combat the new pests, and end up trapped in a “pesticide treadmill”.

Biodiversity by all reports has drastically declined. Loss of habitat as well as chemical interventions have affected our skylarks, partridges and lapwing – as well as bees, butterflies and aquatic life. Crucial soil life, such as earthworms and microbiomes, which plants are dependent on, are equally vulnerable. When chemical substances, such as glyphosate herbicides, are used on open fields they will directly affect other non-target species in the area and the surroundings, inevitably affecting biodiversity.

Climate change involves many complicating factors and there is no doubt that agriculture adds to it. Chemical fertiliser application is the single largest source of direct nitrous oxide (N2O) from agricultural soils. (N2O is a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more damaging than CO2 in terms of its global warming potential, and accounts for over 50% of direct emissions from agriculture in the UK.) As we have seen, using glyphosate damages the soil life which provides the nutrients to a crop. Hence the need for more fertiliser, which leads to an increase in N2O. Also, the amount of fossil fuel required to produce inorganic fertiliser creates a huge carbon footprint - more than 50% of the fossil fuel energy used within agriculture globally. Research has shown that less fossil energy is used, per hectare, within organic systems than non-organic systems.

McIntyre also claims banning glyphosate would not enhance public safety. She forgets that the EU has already advised its limited use in public places, parks and playgrounds to avoid endangering our children, elderly and vulnerable.

Notes

References to various reviews, research and papers include:

  1. EU regulators withholding information. Corporate Europe Report
  2. IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) Report on Glyphosateas a probable carcinogen
  3. The Ecologist, Roundup toxicity on soil fungus
  4. PAN (UK) Alternative methods of weed control without using glyphosate
  5. United Nations, 2017. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food
  6. The Organic Research Centre – Climate Change