Sensationalist headlines about glyphosate have been plastered across media worldwide.
This followed the decision of a Brazilian court to suspend the registration of glyphosate until national health regulatory agency completes a toxicological re-evaluation – which could take a couple of years.
Within days of that ruling, the Californian Superior Court ruled that Monsanto was liable in a lawsuit filed by a man who alleged the company’s glyphosate-based products caused his cancer.
Glyphosate is one of the world’s most widely-used broad spectrum weedkillers. Commercial agriculture accounts for the bulk of global demand, with products based on glyphosate making up a quarter of global herbicide sales.
You’ll find it in most garden sheds across Australia under the brand name Roundup™.
There are many reasons for its popularity. Glyphosate has enabled farmers to introduce minimum tillage production systems which has protected soil structure, improved soil moisture retention and increased soil carbon storage.
It is one of the main reasons for increased yields of wheat, which have quadrupled in the last 50 years.
However, the use of glyphosate has long been challenged by environmental and health activists.
Much of the opposition has been based on a report claiming to find evidence that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. Published in 2015 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, this report has subsequently been thoroughly discredited by experts.
No other herbicide has been subjected to as many rigorous tests and investigations as glyphosate.
Yet, there is no scientific proof that glyphosate has harmed – let alone killed – anyone; and, after more than four decades, no regulatory authority in the world has ruled that it is carcinogenic.
There is scientific proof that it has kept millions of people alive, because we’ve been able to produce more food and fibre from finite resources of land and water. A recent study concluded that banning glyphosate would have significant effects on world wellbeing.
Researchers estimated there would be a global loss of US$6.76 billion in farm income; a net increase of 8.2 million kilograms in herbicide usage; additional carbon emissions equivalent to adding 11.77 million cars to the roads; and 234 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions resulting from land use changes to meet demand for increased croplands.
As well, it was estimated that global welfare would fall by US$7,408 million per year.
The US Agricultural Health Study is the world’s largest study of agricultural workers.
It has been tracking 89,000 farmers who use glyphosate and their spouses for 23 years. It has found “no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes evaluated”.
A wide array of impressive experts have expressed dismay at these recent decisions. Yet the alarmists persist.
There is no easy solution to this problem. It’ll take willingness on both sides to push past stereotypes in the hope that a stable relationship between consumers and those who grow their food is something worth striving for.
Instead of throwing fuel on the fires, we need to work on bridging that gap. We can start with taking a calm look at the science behind glyphosate and considering the whole picture, rather than responding with simplistic ill-informed knee-jerk reactions.