The global war on glyphosate has arrived in Australia.
Our media has been closely following media coverage of the recent court cases in the United States, in which plaintiffs have received multi-million dollar awards in their lawsuits against the maker of the world’s most widely-used crop-protection product—and in defiance of what the science actually tells us about the safety of this agricultural tool.
Much is at stake. If these attacks on glyphosate continue and access to this effective tool is taken away, the cost of food will rise, and our environment will suffer.
As a farmer who has used glyphosate for nearly four decades in the Wimmera region of the state of Victoria, I know all about this product from long experience. (I wrote about it last year.)
I’m confident that glyphosate poses no threat to human health—and I’m supported on this by regulatory agencies around the world, from the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to the European Food Safety Authority to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Australians, Europeans, and Americans may disagree about the best sport (which is AFL), the best beer (which is Crown Lager), and the best hemisphere (the southern one). On the question of glyphosate, however, our scientists speak with one voice: This herbicide is safe.
In August, the U.S. EPA went even further with a special announcement: “The EPA will no longer approve product labels claiming glyphosate is known to cause cancer—a false claim that does not meet the labeling requirements” of U.S. law. (See also this excellent editorial on the matter.)
This was a powerful reminder that the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in the favor of glyphosate’s safety. The only major objection has come from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an advisory body that has called glyphosate “probably” carcinogenic.
Yet this is suspect. The IARC has warned about the cancer-causing effects of caffeine and working at night—conclusions that no serious person has accepted. Its glyphosate analysis in particular has faced substantial criticism. Forbes magazine even called it “Glyphosate-gate,” playing off the American habit of adding “-gate” to every scandal.
I don’t work in the labs with the scientists and regulators who study glyphosate, but I do work in the fields with this herbicide. If farmers like me were to lose access to this crop-protection product, two things would happen.
First, we’d have a lot more weeds to deal with, which would rob resources from fewer crops—and the price of food for everyone, including people who struggle to feed their families, would rise.
Second, we’d most likely have to revert to the past’s full cultivation practices that are less effective in managing weeds, diminish our work to produce more with less rainfall and ultimately increase our carbon footprint: In the end, we’d burn more fuel (creating new greenhouse gases) and till the land (leading to increased soil erosion).
It gets worse. Banning glyphosate would deliver a blow to regulatory frameworks based on factual analysis. The crop-protection deniers, in fact, look a lot like the climate deniers: They are an outspoken minority that rejects what the science really tells us about the world we live in.
Just a few weeks ago, the television newsmagazine 60 Minutes Australia featured a segment called “The Spray,” hosted by Liam Bartlett. He claimed that “a new storm is emerging” over glyphosate—and said that the controversial lawsuits from the United States are now migrating to Australia.
The show made a fetish of a single question: Would you drink glyphosate? Bartlett implied that if farmers and others aren’t willing to drink a glass of the stuff, then obviously they know, deep down inside, that it’s unhealthy—and that regulators should jump in with a total ban.
What nonsense! We all use lots of safe products that we wouldn’t drink, from the soap we use to wash our hands to the petrol we pump into our vehicles.
Nobody should drink glyphosate. It’s not made for that. It’s made for the control of weeds, from gardens in suburban backyards to farms like mine—and it’s totally safe, when put to its proper purpose.
Farming in a modern society will always have some level of scrutiny attached to it and at any time in Australia or overseas, farmers are continually faced with the potential for political or social-imposed intervention in farming choices.
I find myself frustrated when I hear how people do not accept the science on chemical usage and the lack of understanding around the strong regulatory system that underpins the registration process of medicines and chemicals.
In this case, the crop-protection deniers are selling us fantasy – not science. If they succeed, their bad ideas will hurt us all.