Comment: Weed killer debate has gone too far

Going back to the 1960s, arable farming was creaking under the strain of attempting to control weeds such as couch-grass, a perennial weed which infested land, making it almost impossible to cultivate. At the time, the only form of control was to endlessly rip up the soil in the hope of exhausting this pernicious weed.

Glyphosate has helped to protect crops. Picture: Ross parry

In the early 1970s a new herbicide – glyphosate by common name, but you may know it better as ‘Roundup’ – was made available to farmers. Overnight the threat of couch grass, and many other noxious weeds, became a thing of the past. This valuable product is now the most widely used and successful herbicide on the market, and applied on a global scale. It is manufactured by US-based manufacturer Monsanto.

Fast-forward to today. The ‘green’ lobby, consisting mainly of disparate environmental single-issue pressure groups and NGOs, have gained huge influence with the law-makers in the European Union. Glyphosate has been labelled as a dangerous and over-used agrochemical, with carcinogenic properties. Glyphosate has been subject to more scrutiny in terms of its risk to human health over the past 40 years than any other agrochemical, and all the tests agreed it posed no threat to human health.

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Surprisingly then, a recent World Health Organisation report concluded that the chemical “was probably carcinogenic” despite there being no credible evidence to support the negative claims. On a gramme-for-gramme basis the active ingredient is about as toxic as common salt. Despite the weight of scientific and corroborated evidence, the EU has so far refused to extend the licence for the product beyond the next 18 months.

Guy Smith, deputy president of the National Farmers’ Union, recently illustrated the insubstantial nature of the calls for glyphosate to be banned. Guy quoted the urine analysis submitted by the anti-campaigners to justify their argument. These tests revealed just 1 nano-gramme/millilitre of the chemical in samples. To put that into context, a nano-gram is one thousandth of a billionth of a gramme.

You would need to urinate 15,000 litres on to a thistle just to make it feel even slightly unwell. By comparison, the same analysis revealed 400ng/ml of arsenic – which doubles if you eat shellfish; 30ng/ml of cyanide, and 20ng/ml of mercury in human urine.

However, the real issue with glyphosate has absolutely nothing to do with human health concerns. Monsanto manufactures and still holds the licence for the chemical and so too licences around the world for the use of genetically-modified ‘Roundup resistant’ crops. In fact over 1bn hectares of such crops have been successfully grown in the past 15 years, and continue to be consumed with no discernible evidence of human health or environmental impact.

So the campaign against glyphosate is actually just a thinly-veiled attack on Monsanto, hoping to disrupt its dominance of GM crops by the back door.

The next time you visit your local garden centre for a Roundup bottle to kill the weeds in your garden, ask yourself: “Would it be more effective to just relieve myself on the way back from the pub?”

Have we forgotten the philosophical words of Paracelsus, who wrote: “Poison is in everything, and nothing is without poison – only the dosage makes it a poison or a remedy”.

Robin Limb is an independent agricultural consultant who previously worked for British Sugar.