Debate about glyphosate a political one
BRITISH farm leader Guy Smith reckons he can recall the exact moment the debate over the health effects of controversial weed killer glyphosate in Europe “descended into nonsense”.
He was sharing a stage with a Greens Member of the European Parliament who was “very keen to make a big song and dance” about the fact that she had a sample of her urine and it contained 1–2 parts per billion of glyphosate.
“She thought that alone should cause distress with all the members of the European Parliament and they would ban it immediately,” said Mr Smith, who runs a mixed family farm in northeast Essex and is deputy president of the UK National Farmers Union lobby group.
“I couldn’t help but point out to her that she had 400 times as much arsenic in her urine than glyphosate – which is a known toxin because it is naturally occurring. I then couldn’t stop myself but point out that at that level of concentration she would have to pee 30,000 litres onto a single thistle to have a hope of killing it.
“The serious point here is trying to explain risk to consumers. It is extremely difficult and I think there is a good debate to be had about who should lead this argument (for protecting glyphosate) – whether it should be the farmers, whether it should be the scientists or whether it should be the companies. I think it has to be a balance of all three but where we … need to think more strategically about how we do this.”
Glyphosate has become a hot topic in industry circles in recent years amid claims and lawsuits questioning its effects on human health.
In 2015, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer published a report listing glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. In August, a judge in Brazil ordered the suspension of the use of glyphosate on crops over human safety concerns while a US jury awarded
$290 million to a Californian groundskeeper after ruling that exposure to the herbicide had contributed to his terminal cancer. Despite widespread opposition from some sectors of the community, Europe last year allowed for an extension of glyphosate for another five years.
In Australia, Gene Ethics said the US ruling in August posed “thorny questions for Australians” about the safety of glyphosate and called for it to be banned. Both the Greens and the Cancer Council of Australia recently called for an independent review into the use of glyphosate in the wake of an ABC Four Corners expose on the health effects associated with using Roundup – the world’s biggest selling weed killer, which has glyphosate as its main ingredient.
Bill Reeves, regulatory policy and scientific affairs manager at Bayer, which this year merged with Roundup manufacturer Monsanto, said while glyphosate was safe and effective it had become a “political molecule”.
“This is a molecule that is not only a symbol of Monsanto, it is a symbol of GMO, it is a symbol of modern agriculture,” Mr Reeves told the recent Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue in Germany.
“In the US it has become a way to drive concerns among consumers about GMOs. It is very hard to explain a GMO to a consumer in a way that gets them upset. But when I start telling you about chemistry … gotcha. It really is an attention-grabbing ploy.
“We are seeing that now with the litigation. There’s a lot of motivation to get people concerned about glyphosate who have never heard of it before.”
Mr Reeves, who previously worked with the Californian Environmental Protection Agency before taking a job with Monsanto, said the processes involving the manufacture of glyphosate products were highly scrutinised. For Roundup to become initially registered, more than 100 studies were carried out as part of a scientific package to prove its effectiveness and safety.
*James Wagstaff travelled to Europe as a guest of Bayer Crop Science.
Both the Greens and the Cancer Council of Australia recently called for an independent review into the use of glyphosate in the wake of an ABC Four Corners expose on the health effects associated with using Roundup.