Friday 1 July 2016

Why banning glyphosate to amateurs would be ill advised

Worsbrough cemetery’s bluebells regenerated when coarse vegetation was killed with glyphosate
This article was written before Black Thursday and in the UK danger of a proposed ban on glyphosate has receded. But for how long?

I have used glyphosate for nye on forty years and know it to be a very safe chemical. It is perhaps the safest pesticide ever invented and this view is supported by a weight of scientific opinion and the experience of worldwide use of millions of tons - or perhaps now a billion - in feeding the world, growing commodities and maintaining safe hard landscapes such as rail track and aircraft runways. You cannot holiday anywhere in the world without seeing it in action easing the workload of local populations. To me its invention was a gift to mankind.

I think without glyphosate Cathi’s drive might be a little bit weedy

Recently our rulers considered banning glyphosate to amateurs. It was a close run thing before common sense prevailed. It is still a possibility that it might be banned to amateurs and indeed anyone other than farmers in their fields. I intend today to explain why in my opinion banning glyphosate to amateurs would be foolish in the extreme. 
In a future post I will extend my argument to the value of glyphosate in world food and commodity production and protecting the environment. Without it there would be more soil erosion, greater carbon dioxide addition to the atmosphere and as a result of the use of consequent heavy cultivation machinery more diesel pollution. 
In another post I intend to discuss how we have come to this sorry state where glyphosate has collected so much baggage that some think it should be stolen.

Six reasons why gardeners should be allowed to use glyphosate

I accept that many gardeners do not want to use herbicides and that one can garden perfectly well without them. Indeed the misuse of glyphosate by the ill informed can ruin a garden! For me its withdrawal would be a disaster. I would still garden but it would be severely restricted. My contribution today argues that many gardens would be diminished without glyphosate and to ban it as public policy would lead to many unthought through expensive, detrimental and dangerous consequences.

This peaceful scene in Worsbrough cemetery was once covered with six foot brambles

Efficient perennial weed control
New gardens and allotments are frequently overgrown with weeds such as couch, ground elder and mares tail. So too are old churchyards and numerous byways and public places. Without glyphosate it takes much effort and skill to eliminate perennial weed. Many just give up and areas remain overgrown. This includes disturbed natural landscapes where there are strong stands of unwanted vegetation such as Japanese knotweed.

Some gardeners never succeed in eliminating perennial weed  and its removal remains as an ever continuing chore. Endless hours are invested in pulling out weeds when time would be better spent enriching the garden.

Good gardeners are constantly frustrated when perennial weed comes in from dirty neighbours across fence lines and through hedges. This might seem trivial but can be a nightmare and costly to the old or infirm. It is easily prevented by a quick spray along such boundaries. Mechanical weed control often requires energy and strength and without glyphosate many gardens would become overgrown.

Without spraying how would I control weeds in my gravel gardens and other mulched places? It would not be my style to underlay plastic which anyway is not good for wildlife

It's good for the soil
I include here preservation of soil organic matter, microorganisms and worms. For many gardeners the alternative to glyphosate is digging out weeds and soil cultivation. Regular cultivation oxidises soil organic matter away to release carbon dioxide and water. The worst scenario of all is when the ignorant garden public - and lets face it most people are not gardeners and at best only have a passing interest - cut out large weeds, precious soil still attached, and dump it into the wheelie bin. Weed control becomes a one way journey of ever diminishing soil fertility.
Contrast this with a garden overgrown with perennial weed which is eliminated by spraying with glyphosate. All the organic and nutrient content of the weed is cycled directly into the soil. No back breaking work destroying soil structure and removing its substance. No dirty bonfires burning un-compostable roots and rhizomes.

Growing healthy plants
It may seem strange that a herbicide that is designed to kill vegetation, when properly used helps grow healthy plants. Many of the benefits come from low till soil management made easy. There are too many advantages of no dig to cover today but things like a plants’ water relations, soil structure, high natural organic matter, root depth, mycorrhiza and nutrient uptake. 
Although minimum cultivation is by no means the only way that one can grow healthy plants that are less susceptible or more resistant to pest and disease its benefits to plant health are very significant.
Where the benefits of minimum cultivation is particularly pertinent to amateurs is to prevent their propensity to dig over borders and frequently stir soil. The most obvious damage is chopping and killing plant roots. In actual fact this is not obvious to the ignorant and when their plants are sick or die as a result of damage by digging it is regarded as providence.

Loosened soil by unnecessary cultivation is liable to be damaged when walked on when wet. Apart from wet weather keeping the gardener imbibing sugar in front of the television, loss of soil structure and weeds taking over is a further turn of the screw. Those of us who use glyphosate have greater access to our gardens - and are healthier for the exercise!

Mechanical soil cultivation is a bit of a blunder-bus. Where chemical weed control in the garden is done by a good gardener, desirable plants self seed and thousands of bulbs are able to naturalise.

Cost to the environment and the public purse
The consequential disposal costs of the inevitable increase of discarded vegetation to municipal composting and worse, going to environmentally damaging landfill will not be insignificant. Much municipal composting is contracted out to cowboys, transport costs are high and often doubtful product needs to be disposed of.
It is ironic that more organic matter going into municipal compost will recycle lawn weedkillers and general pollutants direct into gardeners’ potting composts.

Costs of weed control on roads, pavements, municipal hard surfaces and parkland will all be increased. Worse, failure to control unwanted vegetation will lead to things unsightly, dangerous slippery surfaces, root damage to hard surfaces and dangerous obstruction of vision on roads.

Alternative chemical controls are worse

Although horticultural chemicals available to amateur gardeners are very safe none are safer than glyphosate. Their use will increase. Apart from the fact that popular ‘contact weed killers’ are next to useless against perennial weeds, most weed killers have severe defects when inappropriately used.
For example  application of sodium chlorate is a crude caricature of responsible weed control when you not only poison your own garden but also those of your neighbours.

Although granular diquat retail formulations are safe to amateurs, professional liquid concentrates are registered poisons. People die every year when such chemical is ingested.

If you think some chemical controls are bad think of the horrors of weed burners! No good against perennials, they are a fire hazard, energy intensive, inefficient and polluting.

Accidents and deaths due to machinery

Many gardeners who do not control their vegetation by herbicide application use strimmers instead. Others tidy their gardens by rotavation. All manner of heavy and sharp tools are used to extract and cut unwanted vegetation. Most weekends emergency wards treat accidents, some very serious, caused by tools and machinery. Without glyphosate there will be more.
I am not aware of anyone attending Accident and Emergency ever suffering from glyphosate poisoning, glyphosate allergic reaction or glyphosate burn. Remarkable in a country of millions! Such conditions due to glyphosate hardly exist. On the other hand there are annually thousands of accidents with domestic chemicals.

In contrast to glyphosate; illness, sore eyes and  poisoning due to natural plant toxins are frequent. 
There will be even more if there is no glyphosate to control poisonous weeds.

Already gardeners are asking me how to get glyphosate to squirrel away!

You should have seen the horseradish, nettles, brambles and mares tail that preceded this

The 1950s school yard, now garden to Bolton Percy Parish Room would look very different

Under the trees there was five foot high ground elder

I maintain Seaton Ross village plot in two hours a month - thanks to glyphosate

My earliest post making the case for glyphosate
Buying glyphosate
Change in regulations relating to professional product


  1. Very well argued Roger, I can only agree.

  2. The ones to control are the hormone based weedkillers like clopyralid which is available to amateur gardeners.

    1. Yes those who have doubts about herbicides should hold their fire for irresponsible use of these chemicals and selling manure where the herbicide treated grass that has passed through the animal or straw used for bedding ends up killing your tomatoes.
      I don't really want to encourage today a general debate on chemicals, just specifically Roundup and amateurs, err I mean glyphosate.
      I know you have posted extensively about herbicide contaminated compost. Feel free to provide a link!

    2. I've just published a post on my blogtoday

    3. And an excellent post it is Sue. I have just made a comment - and said nothing about glyphosate.
      Its about time some folk and legislators stopped obsessing about false fears about glyphosate and looked to where the real problems lie

  3. Interesting and well thought out post. I am unsure where I stand, though I have on a few occasions used this herbicide. I think a lot of the hostility to this product comes from its mass application when combined with genetically modified crops like corn. This has been disastrous for our Monarch butterfly migration, which depends on the milkweed that used to be found in and around farm fields of the Midwest. However, Roundup does not hurt the Monarchs directly, it is the manner of its use in agriculture.

    1. You have hit the nail on the head Jason! It is more what we do with tools, chemicals and machinery than the materials themselves.
      Ironically the problem with glyphosate is that it is so good at what it is designed to do - kill weeds. Farmers have to learn how to preserve nature alongside their fields

  4. Here in Canada, if you do not have a spraying license, you can only buy a diluted version of glyphosate, which is just about useless.

    1. I wonder how easy the spraying certificate is to get Alain and whether then you can buy full strength commercial product.
      Our legislation is so vague it is not really clear that if you have a spraying certificate (as I do) that you can use commercial product in your garden
      Amateurs can buy concentrate at garden centres. It is weak enough to make sales highly profitable but is strong enough that when diluted it makes a strong enough solution to be effective.

  5. Great points Roger! Hope they never ban it, couldn't imagine domestic gardening without it (or more like the convenience only it can give).

  6. Hi Roger

    Shocked and disappointed to see your attitude promoting use of Glyphosate. I find your reasoning fallacious, not because use of such a chemical doesn't make certain gardening tasks easier, in a short term view; but because you make no reference to the health consequences which are more and more being recognised and reported. In fact, your comment: “I have used glyphosate for nye on forty years and know it to be a very safe chemical” is misguided and wrong. The fact you have used it so long is no clear indication of its safeness. How do you you know who has disease, allergies, intestinal problems, cancers etc because of its widespread use? And there’s the rub, in this situation – because it is very difficult to prove causality between use of such a chemical and the damage it may cause – many things slip through the net as ‘safe’ only to be revealed, even years later, to be toxic.

    It's quite challenging, but there's an informative talk by a Dr Seniff on the damage caused to the shikimate pathway through use of glyphosate. I'm much more persuaded by her reasoning and evidence against use of glyphosate than any gardener who feels they can win the debate by point scoring with the re-emergence of bluebells after application of glyphosate to control weeds.

    You curiously ask how you would control weeds in your gravel garden without spraying. I created a gravel garden – like you, I dislike weed suppressant membrane, but I took delight in walking the garden and hand weeding – a chance to enjoy the space and play a part, with nature, in progressing the design. That way, I allowed self seeders to remain where I wanted and removed plants that, I prefered, not to be there. Spraying would have destroyed the naturalness and health of the design. You say that plastic would have been bad for wildlife, yet spraying you assume is not? While above my own scientific pay grade, it seems that use of glyphosate seriously impacts the bacteria that form a vital part of our own digestive system and, as a result, our general health. The importance of healthy and diverse gut bacteria is an area of great scientific research these days with the growing understanding of how it has a direct impact on our morbidity and mortality.

    The point of not using glyphosate is not that it doesn't effectively kill many plants, but that it may well kill people, animals and throw out the natural balance unacceptably. It may even tie into the decimation of the bee population. Until it is, hopefully, put beyond the choice of individuals by law, it is down to people to find their own responsible ways of interacting with nature. I've long found it perverse that so many people who profess to love to garden, seem to have a lack of 'natural' intelligence ie an intuitive sense of working with nature for the benefit of nature. So often, laziness and hubris is behind decisions to do something a particular way, even in the face of growing evidence that 'that way' can lead to serious problems for others.

    (continued below finishes post)


  7. (continued from above)

    Just like the person who wants to drive at a dangerous speed in a car, if it's only their life put at risk, it is their choice. When they are endangering other lives too – the children in their car, the other drivers, the pedestrians on the street - all in their quest to do what they selfishly desire to do, it is wrong. We live at a time when plastic is so damaging the seas that small fish and other organisms are mistakenly eating the plastic and dieing prematurely. It doesn't take much to see the damage to the food chain that leads directly to the compromised consumption of humans. We still pump chemicals into rivers and into the sea in an attempt to get rid of a problem of our own making. If we have problems created by man - japanese knotweed and a host of other badly thought through introductions - we need a solution that will not do more harm than good to try to correct out mistake. Till that happens, we should make the best of a bad job but not cause even more damage in the process. I like to think of the australian aborigines who would expertly harvest from the seemingly barren world they inhabited. Unlike the western way, they didn’t wrench up food crops without leaving or replanting enough of the plant to regrow and replenish. They had come to understand that if we just take today without giving thought to the future, there will be nothing for the future. It is a both a simple and enormous consideration – the smallest of positive efforts we make now can deliver a better future. If we ignorantly turn our back on the looming dangers in a quest for selfish convenience, future generations pay the price.

    I know many people take an entrenched position on such matters and poo poo those of us who prefer caution over cavalier when it comes to the natural world. But if people who profess to love gardening care more about the convenience of weed killing than the wider health and environmental consequences of what they are doing, what hope is there that we can make the world a better place for future generations?

    Aside from what I've said, just want to wish you all the best the popularity of your blog.


    1. Thanks Chris for your heartfelt contribution.
      You have not given any evidence that the world is about to fall apart or even that there is any real problem at all with glyphosate
      As a caveat to that any chemical whatsoever that we meet in our life - including water - has baggage. It would be an amazing surprise that anything used worldwide in vast quantities as is glyphosate had no issues at all.
      You imply we should follow the precautionary principle as to the possible unknown and unrecorded dangers. In my view after forty years of extensive worldwide safe use it has passed such a test and nothing serious has emerged.
      I will pick up two of your points

      Effect on gut bacteria
      Glyphosate is - or was - a registered biocide. I assume dettol, dental mouthwash and all those things people use to clean their kitchen surfaces are too. Why no furore about these when indeed they might actually be a problem - excessive hygiene is postulated to be a cause of the modern allergy epidemic

      As you say the subtle balances of gut bacteria are now much researched and findings are very important. Unfortunately also this area is a godsend to charlatans and snake oil salesmen that offer us dubious products and in some cases dangerous medical procedures.
      There is a real issue of over prescription of antibiotics (and of course irresponsible use in agriculture) because of resistance and now it is apparent significant effects on our gut bacteria.
      As I mentioned modern instruments measure infinitesimally small amounts chemicals way below any levels of their activity. I have not yet read reports of it being found in the human gut but I am sure it will be - to go with the thousands of other chemicals. The junk food you have just eaten makes huge and almost immediate difference to your gut bacteria. I can’t imagine a few parts per billion or even a million glyphosate will have any effect and certainly not one in comparison with medical antibacterials and antibiotics taken orally into your body.

      Personal experience
      I agree forty years of safe personal experience is a cheap shot and is completely anecdotal. On the other hand I have had an intense interest throughout my career on pesticide issues and have followed debate and research about agricultural chemicals. Every chemical ever used has had its detractors and sometimes justified. Natural organic and deadly nicotine has been quietly and gradually withdrawn, well at least to amateurs. Funny you can buy this nasty chemical in neat little packs to ingest into you body by smoking!
      I do feel I have a right to put the case for glyphosate. I do not regard the content of my post to be just debating issues but real considerations of the consequences of banning this valued substance.
      As mentioned in my post I will in future write about glyphosate in agriculture and in another review many of the kind of issues you have raised today. I don’t suppose I will persuade you Chris but the beauty of horticulture is that you can garden in your own way.

  8. Having very recently taken over a small very overgrown East Riding of Yorkshire allotment, and duly laid down all the carpet i can lay my hands to. Where do i purchase glyphosate from would like to try some Hoedown or even tumbleweed but can't find it. Doyou purchase it on-line? i am in Beverley don't mind travelling to find some

    1. tumbleweed is amateur product and is an arm and a leg job
      It is easiest for the amateur to get professional product by just going brazenly on the net - and even then some professional suppliers just divert you to their amateur section
      Make sure you buy the 360gm per litre product
      East Riding Horticulture at Newton on Derwent might sell you it but again they might just put up the shutters and say they can't sell to amateurs


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