Life

The Casual Gardener: Time world weaned itself off favourite weedkiller, glyphosate

The EU has licensed glyphosate for at least another five years but John Manley reckons the controversial herbicide's days are numbered

Many gardeners use glyphosate to control weeds

EARLIER this week EU countries voted to renew the chemical compound glyphosate's licence for five more years. The move came despite a petition signed by more than one million people calling for it to be banned.

The key component in RoundUp, glyphosate is the world's favourite weedkiller. It was introduced by agrochemical giant Monsanto, owners of the RoundUp brand, in 1974 but its patent expired in 2000, meaning it can be manufactured and sold under various brand names.

The majority of world's glyphosate is used in the agrifood industry but many gardeners employ it too – myself included. It's the one thing that compromises my organic credentials, though I would never use it around the vegetable patch or near fruit trees.

I use it very sparingly, primarily to control bindweed, and when the 500ml container that I've had for the past decade is empty, it won't be replaced.

Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, meaning it will kill most plants indiscriminately. It works by preventing the plant from making certain proteins that it needs for growth. It's used by public bodies such as Transport NI (formerly Roads Service) and local authorities to control weeds on paths and roadsides. A Freedom of Information request submitted to Roads Service in 2014 revealed that it spent more than £1 million a year on products that include glyphosate.

Critics claim widespread use of herbicides reduces biodiversity, by killing plants that are essential for many insects and other animals.

But some believe glyphosate also poses a threat to human health. Its use in public places is regulated, meaning it should only be applied by someone with a license who's been trained in health and safety.

Two years ago, the UN International Agency for Research on Cancer said glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic”. Some take this warning more seriously than others.

In the aftermath of the EU vote, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted that he had ordered a ban on the use of the herbicide in France "as soon as alternatives are found, and within three years at the latest".

Sri Lanka banned its use in 2015 despite protestations from the tea industry.

However, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) says glyphosate is unlikely to cause cancer in humans, while in March this year the European Chemicals Agency (ECA) concluded that it does not meet the criteria required to be classified a carcinogen.

The latter news was welcomed by DUP MEP Dianne Dodds, who is opposed to any restrictions on glyphosate and believes it should be licensed for a further 15 years.

In her statement welcoming the European Chemicals Agency's move, Mrs Dodds displayed neither euroscepticism or the scepticism for scientific evidence often associated with many of her DUP colleagues.

“This will give certainty to the [agrifood] industry and ensure that scientific evidence is the basis for making decisions on these matters, not public opinion,” she said.

Meanwhile in the US, Monsanto is being sued in the federal courts by a group of farmers, farm workers and gardeners who claim exposure to glyphosate led to them develop non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer.

They want Monsanto to cover their medical bills because it failed to warn them about the risk of cancer. The company refutes the allegation.

As mentioned above, I've already decided that it's hypocritical to continue using glyphosate while advocating it be banned. I'm merely erring on the side of caution and slowly weaning myself of it. Arguably, the best way I can dispose of my supply is to apply as designed, as a weedkiller. After that I'll be pulling out the bindweed by hand.

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