Saturday 18 May 2019

Why I will continue to use glyphosate with complete confidence

I wonder how long this landscape will survive now that I am no longer there to spray with glyphosate.

A blog comment came in effectively saying “what do you think of glyphosate now”?

My reply in substance said “ What kind of world do we live in when forty years of safe cultural practice with such a fine record over billions of distinct applications to the soil is damned. Glyphosate safety, repeatedly confirmed by the highest scientific authorities has now been challenged on very weak unscientific evidence. 
Why should worldwide use of a product with multiple benefits to mankind be decided by the winning team of silky tongued lawyers able to use all kinds of diabolical ruses to persuade juries deprived of anyone who has pre-existing knowledge?”

I am in despair as to how to present my feelings to my readers. As to actual practice, I will continue to use glyphosate as long as I am able! At seventy seven I need a continuing supply for at least another ten years…..

Apart from my fear that Bayer (and other companies) might be bankrupted by hysterical legislation and glyphosate sourcing resort to expensive black markets, I fear in the short term at gardening level too many will take the attitude  “ there is no smoke without fire” and stop using this useful and safe gardening aid. Worse that over-zealous  authorities will jump on the bandwagon in ill informed proactivity. Already in Canada and several States of America  garden pesticides are unavailable to amateurs.
Nothing in recent court cases has brought any accurate new scientific factual information to the table.

I worry that my readers think I have lost the plot and that this old boy is too dyed in his ways after using glyphosate as an essential part of his gardening and land management for the last forty years! Not so. If any credible evidence comes forward that glyphosate is dangerous I would say so

In a sense the fact that glyphosate is perhaps one of safest agrochemicals ever invented is part of the problem. Any manufacturer who claims total safety leaves itself open to contradiction. In truth no chemical exists that has never harmed anything or anyone (And lets face it, glyphosate is very toxic to plants).
It might make more marketing sense if Monsanto promoted its product as needing more safety precautions. It would be less open to completely plausible individual cases of sickness or death that are inevitable even when there is no causality. Indeed a product that has many millions of users is bound to accumulate thousands of accusations

On the smoke without fire theory some readers might wonder why millions of people reject glyphosate. On the other hand many million more after serious consideration don’t  - and for many farmers and growers it is an essential part of their livelihood  bringing healthy cheap food to our tables.
There is a body of people who believe that all pesticides are the work of the devil and are ever ready to accumulate evidence against them. It can be very convincing when presented as emotional propaganda. It might be misrepresented facts, dubious research or downright lies and misinformation. We live in a world where huge bodies of people passionately believe things that are plain wrong. Our personal lists of mass folly might differ. Mine includes homeopaths and anti-vaxers. If I confided my other prejudices I might lose my readers.

I have a secret theory that all pesticides have a limited life. They just accumulate baggage and are doomed. It is amazing that glyphosate used more than any other pesticide has survived near on half a century. To me that is testimony to its safety but I fear that it will join the long list of honourable and in some cases not so honourable garden chemicals no longer available.

Let me address the problem of American hyperactive punitive legislation another way. There are millions of users of glyphosate. Sadly there are hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of us that share the most horrible diseases. It is pure arithmetic that many sick people will use glyphosate when there is no causality. Emotional presentation of individual cases will always sway juries.

Can it be that there really are people to whom glyphosate is toxic? In a world of billions, all with subtle biological differences it would be quite surprising if there were not rare cases. I would make this comment about any substance, chemical, food, medicine, cosmetic, sun screen, soap, detergent or pesticide in the public domain. Of course if as with peanuts such ‘allergies’ are not uncommon we should be told. I know of no evidence of this with glyphosate but there might be.

Let me go further. Is there any possibility that this chemical that on any measure of safety is similar to water or in the case of its wetters and spreaders the same sting in the eye as soap can actually kill anyone? (soap of course might). 
Yes it surely can if you consider the placebo effect.  And what follows might equally apply to any of the materials listed above.
This is not a silly whim. Science universally accepts the placebo effect where a person’s expectations substantially effects what actually happens.
Most of us feel better - and sometimes are - when we have been to the doctor even if we are given no more than assurance. In some trials people have been told their treatment was a placebo and they still got better. (Yes I know time is a great healer).
Less recognised by the public - but well understood scientifically - is the nocebo effect which is perhaps much more powerful. If you believe something will harm you it very well might. There is very convincing evidence for this phenomenon.
Suppose an employed gardener on instructions repeatedly uses glyphosate but believes it to be harmful and resents having to use it you can be sure it will do him no good. A witch doctor’s pins work very well.
Of course such argument would be laughed out of court. We do not live in a joined up world and you could never prove this had actually happened in individual cases. No doubt anyone with a real mental aversion to glyphosate might feel ill every time he sprays and such belief might wrongly sway juries.

Considering people’s fears about glyphosate
When I read the popular press report on any scientific research about almost anything at all they invariably draw the wrong conclusion and present their own often sensational speculation as having been demonstrated by the actual scientists. Worse the scientists themselves (and their publicity seeking employers) sometimes jump to the same bandwagon - especially those who start from a biased position.

1. Glyphosate has been found in the urine of just about all europeans.
Thousands of all manner of industrial, domestic and natural chemicals are excreted by everyone. The sensitivity of analysis is quite magical these days and can measure parts per billion. Such is way-way below levels of any possible biological harm. It does demonstrate that our kidneys are doing their job. It in no way demonstrates that such minute quantities do any harm. 
Some of you might  imagine my own urine is pure glyphosate.

2. Monsanto do terrible things
They don’t get much good publicity and I consider below some specific activities. Dislike of their methods is no reason to deprive the world of their remarkable product. Out of patent, anyone can make it (thank goodness - it might enable its survival)

3. Glyphosate kills earth worms
Surely in the laboratory they do not like to be daubed with soapy materials at near neat concentrations but there is no evidence that these lab concentrations much much higher than would ever be created  by the most enthusiastic farmer do in the soil any harm whatsoever. I associate no till soil, usually facilitated  by glyphosate, with remarkably high worm populations. 
As readers will know a particular attribute of glyphosate is that it breaks down in the soil and does not build up at all.

4. The world health organisation declared glyphosate ‘might be toxic’
What a remarkably ridiculous concept only delivered under intense political lobbying.Anything might be toxic. Thousands of materials in our every day environment are carcinogenic (and are recognised as such) and we closely encounter hundreds every day. Sausages and bacon sarnies anyone?   

5. Growing roundup-ready crops is questionable
Some scientists think crops sprayed overhead with glyphosate might be less nutritious - and this may be so. I do not know if this is ever truly significant but is nothing to do with whether it is safe in your garden.

6. Roundup-ready crops tie growers into buying expensive seed
What has disapproval of Monsanto have to do with using glyphosate in your local park?

7. Roundup-ready crops have been bred by ‘genetic engineering’ 
Most of us are past the concept of frankenstein foods but debate about interfering with heredity goes on. It’s no reason to reject glyphosate.

8. Use of glyphosate depletes the countryside of wild flowers and insects
It is the very nature of farming to eliminate  weeds to enable growers to produce healthy high yielding crops. Glyphosate is second to none in achieving this purpose and does so much better than soil damaging cultivations and in the round much better, cheaply and more safely than alternative chemicals or such daftness like acid or flames.
Unfortunately one man’s weeds are another’s wild flowers. Most agricultural weeds are not wild life friendly but some are, beautify the fields and host insects. Many fine native plants are rare.

There is a real issue here about farming in general. There is a need for land management that sets land aside for wild flowers, hedges and trees. I would go further and mandate seeding and planting of (not exclusively native) fine plants of the world. Properly used glyphosate is a tool to help achieve this aim

Of course glyphosate can be used to destroy rich ecologies. Don’t blame the tool, blame the operator. Not the plough, not the chainsaw, not the drain, not the weedkiller.

Why the loss of glyphosate would be a world disaster
Substantial increase of carbon dioxide emissions
Although many organic growers and ordinary gardeners  achieve minimum cultivation without using chemicals, for most worldwide farmers, growers, land managers, fruit growers and almost anyone raising land based commodities it is almost essential. Roundup enables minimum cultivations. Excess cultivation oxidises away organic matter and returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The costs of world food production would rise considerably

Yields of many crops would fall

There would be more use of dangerous energy intensive polluting machinery and alternative and less safe chemicals

Final comments
You will rightly inform me that not all the issues I consider today are relevant to impending court cases destined to either the collapse of glyphosate production or at the very least greatly increase its cost. Indirectly however, misinformed public opinion greatly increases the atmosphere in which court cases are settled.

In denying homeopathy earlier it is not lost on me that its purported successes must be placebo!

More thoughts about the world impact if glyphosate ceased to be used
I find little authoritative assessment of the global cost if glyphosate became unavailable. It’s scale is so vast and in agriculture and land management it’s uses so diverse that I am incapable of doing other than offering my own opinions based on my own limited experience and I hope intelligent deductions. There is a real need for this information to understand implications of cavalierly casting glyphosate away 
As I have suggested above, glyphosate is a major facilitator of minimum or zero soil cultivation techniques and reduced cultivation is now embedded in almost all conventional growing.
This is relevant to soil disturbance causing oxidisation of organic matter and apart from reduced soil fertility, millions of tons of carbon dioxide being dumped into the atmosphere. Further, every time a soil is loosened by inevitably increased cultivations it is much more susceptible to erosion. Soil erosion has been pin pointed as one of the great disasters of global warming and is accelerating as rainfall and stormy weather increase.

I have posted before about implications of losing glyphosate to the amateur and local authority markets. How much worse if farmers cannot use it.

Better than brambles and nettles


  1. Interesting comment and I'm glad you've made it. I've been using glyphosate in small quantities round the garden recently and could hardly not be reminded of the latest ruling on its 'culpability' in human illness. As with so many other issues these days, the hype is politically driven and woe betide the person who expresses a view contradicting those who have jumped on the political bandwagon. There are no winners in this sort of toxic (no pun intended!) debate. I just wish there was more objective thinking and a real desire to get to the truth of a matter. But partisan political interests will no doubt continue to prevail, along with the bad science that is used to validate them.

  2. Just another thought on your post, Roger - might it be more accurate to describe glyphosate as a herbicide rather than a pesticide?

    1. Yes of course. But it was not a mistake. When I mentioned pesticides in relation to Canada and US it was what I meant - herbicides, fungicides, and pest killers. The regs for these materials class them generally as pesticides!

    2. On further reflection Carol and Josephine I have this morning changed one of my references from pesticides to agrochemicals. Pesticides is the correct collective term under the regulations for all such as insecticides, fungicides, herbicides et al but many readers might be confused

  3. Well done Roger, an absolutely brilliant defence which I will use to try and convince locals not to push our local council to ban it.
    Like Carol I have queried the terminology but it seems common to call them all pesticides now. Maybe some regard weeds as pests?

  4. I'm inclined to agree with you, but it would be interesting to know if you managed to find much information on the evidence from the recent court case, as I wasn't able to find out very much when I searched for it. One article I read said that people suffering from non Hodgkin lymphoma have been found to have a common link in terms of exposure to glyphosate (and possibly bacon sandwiches), BUT people who worked in professions with exposure to glyphosate do not have a higher rate of non Hodgkin lymphoma. Unfortunately the article didn't give the source of the research, and so I can't check it.
    It's difficult to understand why so many people are so highly concerned about glyphosate, despite both the lack of evidence and their low risk of exposure, but don't seem to have any concerns about the flame retardants that are in their beds, sofas, curtains and carpets!

  5. I quite agree with you and SarahStu....should we stop eating bacon sandwiches or maybe a glass of wine?

    1. What you did find is very interesting and significant Sarah. More evidence of the irrationality of selected juries.
      In my post I deliberately resisted looking at the individual cases - not sure about my position sounding off about legal cases!

  6. I have used glyphosate on a few occasions. I do know a number of people, including horticultural professionals, who are passionately opposed to its use. There are also conservationists who say it is essential to controlling invasive plants. I guess I feel I don't have a compelling reason to use this product with any frequency, so I don't. You raise a number of strong arguments, but I would question the use of glyphosate on genetically engineered crops ("Roundup Ready"). It's a major threat to the continuation of the Monarch Butterfly migration (because of the elimination of Milkweeds), and there's reason to believe that it is not an effective long-term method of weed control. A number of weeds have evolved with a resistance to glyphosate, requiring the application of newer, stronger herbicides.

    1. Than you for your thoughtful comments Jason.
      Development of resistance to chemicals is a scourge of our world and is particularly significant in medicine such as antibiotic resistance. Many insecticides and fungicides have been completely lost to gardeners and farmers as a result of ceasing to be effective.
      In general resistance is slower to develop in herbicides but as you point out it is starting to do so - especially when selection pressure is particularly intensive as in Roundup Ready farm crops.
      I have no idea of the potential for future effectiveness of glyphosate. I would estimate several decades. That is if malign forces do not put manufacturers out of business first.

  7. I think the argument that large scale use of glyphosate depletes the countryside of wildflowers and their dependent fauna carries considerable weight. You seem to agree inasmuch as you advocate setting aside land for wildflowers, recognizing that farming is largely incompatible with wildlife, which needs to be accommodated elsewhere. In such a scenario, highway verges, parks, gardens and open spaces become hugely important as refuges for wildlife but cannot make up the loss of habitat from the removal of farmland from that role. It would surely make sense to rewild a lot of marginal farmland especially to reduce the areas being depleted of wildflowers just as effectively by sheep as ever they would be by glyphosate.

    1. Thanks Jim . We seem in some broad agreement but differ in some details
      1. Depletion of weeds (of which some are wild flowers) reflects the efficiency of glyphosate to do the job it's designed for - better than other inferior and in some cases more damaging methods
      2.Use of sheep is fine in some situations but rough land, perhaps overgrown with brambles or even Japanese knotweed needs clearing before new trees for example can be planted
      3.Restoring land is much more than encouraging wild flowers and I advocate plants of the world to help achieve this aim and combat changing climate

  8. I have always had a fear of using weed killer in my garden, however I'm not a natural gardener and I have a few invasive weeds in my garden ( Japanese Knotweed, Horsetail and Bindweed) and have come to realise there is no other way of dealing with these weeds. This is my first year treating them with chemicals so wish me luck lol! The border where I have the most problem with horsetail I have just planted lots of shrubs and evergreens, I'm hoping the competition drives them out. But seeing as my neighbours garden is over run with them I'm not holding out much hope.🙁

  9. You need to pop those weeds in my search box unknown and find out how to handle them.
    Your shrubs will NOT make them go away!
    Best of luck!

  10. I've had a look how you treated Bindweed and horsetail, I don't get a lot of Bindweed as it's coming up over a neighbour's fence, the horsetail isn't overrunning my garden yet, and because I live in a council property they come and spray the Japanese knotweed, luckily I only have one stalk of knotweed in my back garden far away from the house

  11. I'm very grateful that I discovered your blog about glyphosate as it originally brought to my attention the effectiveness of selectively using it in the garden. Our garden has a lot of wildlife as it slopes down onto a boggy area which backs onto ancient woodland and a stream over the boundary wall. I was at a loss as to how to improve the wet area and spent 30 years attempting all sorts of heavy work projects, including digging out a natural pond. But it was too difficult to maintain with buttercups, nettles etc. everywhere and just always looked a mess and the pond didn't work, just seeping out into the surrounding land. My discovery of glyphosate revolutionised that and I have been able to selectively kill the plants I don't want and add lots of new bog plants that attract more wildlife and look good too. It's a revelation to see the garden looking so much better, though it's still a work in progress and will always be hard work. I shall continue to carefully use glyphosate to keep the weeds under control. Thank you Roger!

    1. Thank you for this Carol. What a great illustration of how glyphosate enables a kinder transition to a lovely wild life area.

  12. Just out of interest Roger could you tell me what brand are you buying, as it doesn't sound like a commercial, already diluted weed killer?

    1. Don't understand your question - I would NEVER use an already diluted product. I am not that rich! In fact commercial ready diluted does not exist
      The last time I bought in it was as Hoedown - but I take whatever 360g/litre product my supplier sends me


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