Part of the European Union’s report on the non-hazardous nature of glyphosate-based herbicides is actually a “carbon copy” of a report published by American giant Monsanto according to the European press.
Ever heard of glyphosate? The chances are you keep a handy supply of it in your garden shed.
It’s everywhere. Literally.
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in some of the most commonly used herbicides in the World.
It is an organophosphorous compound, used to kill weeds, particularly those pesky annual broadleaf weeds and invasive grass species that compete with food crops.
A Readily-Available Powerful Herbicide
Monsanto marketed the chemical in 1974 under the trade name Roundup.
In 2007, glyphosate was the most used herbicide by the agricultural sector and the second-most used in homes and gardens, government and industry, and commerce in the United States.
Absorbed through foliage, and roots, glyphosate kills plants by disrupting the synthesis of an enzyme essential to their production of amino acids – the building blocks of life.
Glyphosate was hailed as one of the least toxic pesticides to animal (LD50 > 5 g kg-1 in rats).
Accordingly, it is used for weed control throughout the World in urban and recreational areas, as well as industrial and arable lands.
City streets and sidewalks get regularly sprayed with it – every crevice in the pavement where weeds would otherwise grow. Glyphosate also keeps railroad tracks free of vegetation growth, and gets rid of unwanted algae without harming fish or aquatic life.
Glyphosate is not volatile, so atmospheric contamination is minimal, if used appropriately. It binds tightly to soil constituents, and has a limited environmental half-life due to microbial degradation.
Drawbacks and Adaptations
As the chemical is only effective on actively-growing plants, glyphosate is used as a post-emergence herbicide.
Since glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) are non-selective, increasing numbers of crops have been genetically engineered to be tolerant of glyphosate.
Roundup Ready Soybeans were the first Roundup Ready crop developed by Monsanto. They were first approved commercially in 1994.
However, glyphosate may be retained and transported in soils, which can have consequences on subsequent harvests. For example, excess residue levels in beans resulting from incorrect application can render the crop unfit for sale.
By 2016, the global emergence of glyphosate-resistant weeds contributed to a 100-fold increase in application frequency and volume of GHBs being used, compared to the late 1970s.
Is Glyphosate Harmful to your Health?
There are several answers to this question:
- The WHO International Cancer Research Center (Circ) answer, which estimated in May 2015 that glyphosate – this component of the famous Roundup – was a “probable human carcinogen“.
- The answer of Monsanto, the American firm producing the Roundup, which claims the opposite.
- And that of the European Union which concluded in a 2015 report that it was “unlikely that glyphosate is genotoxic (i.e. that it damages DNA) or that it is a carcinogen that constitutes a threat to humans”.
A Quick Copy-and-Paste
According to a survey by La Libre Belgique and RMC, however, the EU has largely inspired its own report from Monsanto’s.
“A hundred pages” of the European Union report would have been copied-and-pasted from the findings published by Monsanto in 2012. It concerned a study carried out in Paraguay early 2010, connecting glyphosate exposure to birth defects, but it was deemed unreliable by Monsanto.
Ongoing Authorisation at Stake
The stakes are absolutely enormous. Particularly since Monsanto’s last commercially relevant United States patent expired in 2000.
And by now, 89% of corn, 94% of soybeans, and 89% of cotton produced are genetically modified to be glyphosate-resistant in the U.S.
Glyphosate crop weed management offers significant environmental and other benefits over the herbicides and technology that it replaces.
Wherever glyphosate-resistant crops were adopted, a reduction of the need for tillage ensued, equivalent to the removal of 4 million family cars from the road in terms of carbon balance. Tillage is an environmentally harmful practice that causes loss of top soil, and results in pollution from increased fossil fuel use.
The vote on re-licencing of glyphosate in the European Union stalled in March 2016, with France, Sweden, and the Netherlands opposing the renewal. A vote to re-authorise on a temporary basis also failed in June 2016. However, the license was extended at the last-minute for another 18 months and is currently being re-evaluated.
Member countries of the European Union rely on this safety report to decide whether or not to renew the authorisation of glyphosate for another decade.
They will legislate on this issue in three weeks.
A Matter of Urgency
Initially, glyphosate was approved for use in the 1970s.
As of 2010, it was available in 130 countries.
Nevertheless, the evolution of glyphosate resistance in ‘superweed‘ species is now proving a costly problem.
Up to 24% of glyphosate applied to hard surfaces is expected to leach into the water table. And there may be cascading effects on non-target organisms.
These processes are especially detrimental in northern ecosystems, as those regions are characterised by long biologically inactive winters and short growing seasons.
In April 2014, the Netherlands legislated the prohibition of glyphosate sale to individuals for domestic use. Commercial sales in the Netherlands remained unaffected.
In May 2015, Sri Lanka banned the use and import of glyphosate with immediate effect. At the same time, Bermuda temporarily blocked all new importation of GBHs, while awaiting the outcome of the research. And, later that year, after 20 years of aerial spraying, Colombia announced it would stop using glyphosate in the destruction of illegal plantations of coca – the raw ingredient for cocaine – when farmers complained the fumigation destroyed entire fields of coffee.
From 1 January 2016, French Minister of Ecology requested garden centres halt the over-the-counter retail sale of Roundup. However, it was non-binding and sales remain legal until 2022.
On Thursday, the anti-pesticides NGO Future Generations published the results of an investigation into the presence of this herbicide in common food products.
Over 30 samples of breakfast cereals, legumes and pastas showed more than half traces of glyphosate.
The NGO concluded it was a matter of “urgency for the European Union to give up the use of this molecule”.