The reputation of glyphosate, a broad-spectrum systemic herbicide, i.e. the world’s most widely used weedkiller, also used as a crop desiccant, took a hit in 2015, with the publication of a World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report, raising questions about its safety and the research practices of its manufacturer, the chemical giant Monsanto.

Will today’s debate on glyphosate authorisation, prompted by the IARC classification of the substance as “probably carcinogenic in humans“, trigger a transition to a better way of doing agriculture? A method that doesn’t rely on death, uniformity, and sterility via the constant application of pesticides like glyphosate, but relies instead on life, biodiversity, and the emergent natural processes it supports to ensure long term, rather than short term, fertility, and productivity?

What is glyphosate, how is it used, and why we don’t need it

Glyphosate is the active ingredient of the non-selective herbicide Roundup, used for perennial weed control. It was developed by the Monsanto Corp., in 1971 and was released commercially in 1974. Glyphosate use in the world rapidly increased with the introduction of genetically modified glyphosate-resistant soybeans in 1997 and corn in 1998. In 2000 it became the world’s most extensively used herbicide[1].

The safety – or non-safety – of glyphosate is not settled science. A number of agencies, including the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), have disagreed with the international cancer agency, playing down concerns of a cancer risk. While a case in federal court in San Francisco has challenged that EPA conclusion – which built on Monsanto alleged ghostwriting research – for more than a year now, following EFSA’s assessment of the chemical as non-carcinogenic to humans, the Greens-EFA group has been requesting that EFSA grant public access to the scientific studies used for their assessment, in order to verify that this was the outcome of a sound scientific process.

But while the scientific debate remains open, the question is far beyond glyphosate’s disputed carcinogenicity. As we said, glyphosate is marketed as a non-selective herbicide. It is used to kill weeds, especially annual weeds and grasses that compete with crops. But it was also first patented as an antibiotic so instead of specifically only killing plants it also kills bacteria, algae, and fungi. In addition, it is increasingly used as a desiccant and ripening agent: applied on the nearly-ripe crop, death begins in the plant, which reacts by speeding up ripening of any seeds which were developing. For crops like rapeseed this also means they are all uniformly ripe, making harvesting easier.

Firstly and specifically the use of herbicides as a ripening and desiccation agent for the crop itself must be discontinued; it is inevitable that elevated levels of pesticide residues end up in final food products if the crops are sprayed while seed or fruit is developing on the stem. According to the findings of the EFSA over 97% of foods in the EU contain pesticide residues which are “within legal limits”. Independently of how these “legal limits” are set, little is known about the long-term risks that a continuous and multiple exposure to pesticide residues presents to the health of humans and other animals.

Finally, evidence suggests[2] that weeds only affect the yields under certain conditions, and that a totally weed-free field is not needed, and indeed that many wild plants offer microhabitats for other beneficial species that protect the crops from pests by eating insect pests. Moreoverdifferent so-called “weed” species flowering over time ensure a season-long food source for pollinators, which in turn helps increase yield of crops in the entire agro-ecosystem.

A controversial authorisation process

The EU has a relatively strict system for the assessment of pesticides. EU approval of an active substance is only granted for a limited time period (up to 15 years) and must be renewed regularly. As regards glyphosate, it had been under evaluation since 2012, for a possible renewal of approval. The EU approval of an active substance leaves the decision on the authorisation of the final product (of which the active ingredient is part) to the Member States. Nonetheless, in case of an EU level rejection of the active substance, the Member States are obliged to implement the ban in their national legislations.

In October 2015, after the European Food Safety Authority concluded, in contrast to the IARC evaluation, that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”, the European Commission provisionally approved glyphosate until June 2016. In summer 2016, after a long campaign by hundreds of thousands of Europeans, the European Commission was unable to relicense the use of Glyphosate for 15 years, but instead had to settle for a short 18 month renewal.

Currently the extension is adopted for a limited period until the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) – responsible for managing the harmonised classification (CLH) process for hazardous chemical substances – has concluded its review as regards the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

In January 2017 the European Commission received a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) –a petition put together by EU citizens – “to propose to Member States a ban on glyphosate, to reform the pesticide approval procedure, and to set EU-wide mandatory reduction targets for pesticide use”.

Beyond the current public discussion

While the public discussion about the renewal of the approval of glyphosate has largely focused on its probable carcinogenicity, it has become increasingly clear that the issue goes far beyond the question of whether glyphosate causes cancer or not. Recent discussions at national and international level have raised concerns about our current agricultural model – depending upon and overusing chemicals designed to kill – and the need for a transition to sustainable food production, including sustainable protection and nutrition of crops.

The future of food and a healthy environment lies in working with nature and natural processes rather than against them, with an emphasis on reducing farmer dependency on increasingly costly inputs, and focusing on a living, healthy soil, and boosting the provision of ecosystem functions to protect, nurture, and provide nutrition for crop plants.

Adopting an agroecological paradigm would make herbicides obsolete because the whole agroecosystem of a farm would be designed to control the overrun of weeds. To prevent too much competition from weeds, there are a number of techniques that are already being used in various production systems – integrated use of mulching, shallow ploughing or scraping the surface to dislodge weeds with ephemeral and shallow roots, crop rotations to ensure reproductive cycles are broken, and not allowing weeds to set seed – which have been shown to be at least equally cost effective as glyphosate application, and do not have the negative consequences for biodiversity posed by long term pesticide use. This agroecological approach, already used very successfully in organic agriculture, has been termed the “many little hammers” method, as opposed to a chemical wrecking ball of pesticides.

A fundamental problem with the methodological approach taken for approval by EFSA means that significant findings are diluted by the many scientific studies that do not look at the larger picture. Focusing the discussion on the bad consequences of glyphosate means dealing only with the consequences and not with the causes of the problem.

The positive effects of abandoning glyphosate

Organic farmers have proved that producing without pesticides without large yield gaps is possible. A first step to reach organic production can be Integrated Pest Management (IPM). The effectiveness of IPM rely on biodiversity, e.g. through beneficial species of predators of pests in the soil and in the wider agro-ecosystem. But those species may either be directly affected by glyphosate application, or their food source or habitat is. By decreasing reliance on pesticides, and consequently by boosting biodiversity and natural processes in the soil and above ground in and around fields, we would simply make pesticides obsolete.

A reduced reliance on chemical inputs and preventing pest and weeds from becoming a problem means greater autonomy for farmers. Prices for inputs have been rising over last decades and contributing to rising production costs. At the same time, the prices at which farmers sell their food are becoming less and less remunerative, and in some sectors production costs outweigh income. The agroecological alternatives to herbicides and pesticides are not only more ecological and more effective in the long run, they can be more affordable for a sector where producers are paying more and more for input costs whilst prices for their produce are uncertain and often not remunerative.

By enhancing our biodiversity, we would also allow agriculture to play its part in combatting climate change. Bringing soils back to life with healthier, deeper topsoil and more humus will not only help to increase the capacity of this carbon reservoir, but will also allow our farm systems to be better adapted to the floods and droughts increasingly common with climate change.

What’s more, killing all weeds and wild flowers means less food all year round for bees and other wild pollinators, which means less effective pollination in the time window when insect pollinated crops come into bloom, which may lead to decreasing yields. Cross-pollination helps at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of our wild plants to thrive. Consequently, by restoring biodiversity we would also increase productivity.

What needs to be done instead

First of all, glyphosate should be banned wherever possible. Since 2016, France has taken a first step in the right direction, banning glyphosate from public green spaces while non-professional gardeners are no longer able to buy pesticides over the counter. The same happened in Wallonia, Belgium: from 1 June 2017 private consumers no longer have access to this product. This briefly shows that independently from the decision of the European Commission, European states and region can already move ahead.

Second, we need to enhance the effective exchange of knowledge and advice. This is essential to help inform farmers on how to implement those alternatives techniques and achieve a transition in agriculture, like getting the crop rotation right and employing methods from the toolkit of “many little hammers”. Many weed control techniques used before the widespread and systematic use of glyphosate and other pesticides would need to be re-learnt, and new innovations not reliant on chemicals would have to be shared. Thankfully the structures to do so already exist, and all Member States have the option to use the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to fund these extension services and Farm Advisory Services.

Third, the transition has to be funded. Rather than farmers bearing the financial risk of the costs of the transition in learning and applying chemical-alternative techniques, public funds should do this, as the goal of sustainable, biodiverse agriculture is very much in the public interest. Now the good news is that there is already a structure and programmes to cover the costs via the Rural Development pillar of the CAP.

Fourth is to embrace agroecology. It exists, it works, it is open-source. Why don’t we just jump on the bandwagon? The real alternative involves not only a change of product, but a paradigm shift, choosing abundance, diversity, and long-term fertility over uniformity and sterility – an approach already successfully applied through organic farming practices. Such a shift has just been recommended in the latest report of the International Panel of Experts on International Food Systems (IPES), under the coordination of former UN rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter.

When farmers adopt methods based on agroecology, there are multiple benefits for the environment, for farmers, and for crops, not least resilience to climate change, the biggest challenge farming faces. Not only research but also communities of practice sharing ideas and knowledge between farmers shows this. What’s more, these environmentally-friendly methods are economically sustainable and are sufficiently productive to provide enough food for all.

Just as at the time when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring back in 1962, this is not a conflict between science and ‘anti-science’ politics, but a conflict within science itself: between chemistry – and the corporate interests that control the infrastructure and understandably defend their business model – and ecology. Ultimately the choice is between fighting against nature or working with it to enrich our lives and our stomachs.



[1] Baylis, A.D., 2000. Why glyphosate is a global herbicide— strengths, weaknesses and prospects: Pesticide Management Science, v. 56, no. 4, p. 299–308.

[2] Andreasen, C. et al., 1996: Decline of the flora in the Danish Arable field. J. Appl. Ecol. 33, p. 619-626. Danish studies on wild plant species from 1970 to 1990 shows that weed growing in cultivated fields comprise approx. 200 wild plant species, but approx. 80% of them are so weak in the competition with the crops that they do not affect yield substantially in any well-run farms. Therefore it is the remaining 20% of weed species that are so competitive that they can affect the yield significantly.

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