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Green & Peasant Land

Is Glyphosate safe?

Is Glyphosate safe?

Last November, Thailand resolved to ban glyphosate because its government was not convinced that the weedkiller is safe. Certain countries are certain it’s a carcinogen and pollutant, others are not too sure, while USDA (the US Department of Agriculture) insists it’s completely harmless. But USDA can hardly be classed as disinterested because the herbicide is a fantastic money-spinner for its manufacturer, the US chemical giant Monsanto, owned by Bayer, and brings in billions of dollars a year to the US economy. It is the most widely used weedkiller and crop desiccant in the world, sold under a number of proprietary names – Roundup in Britain – and is routinely sprayed on genetically modified crops to kill every green thing in the field except the crop. Its use eliminates the need to control weeds by any other means, such as hoeing or rotational cropping. Almost all the crops of soy beans in both north and south America are sprayed with glyphosate first to kill weeds and then to desiccate the stems and leaves to make it easier to harvest the beans.

But Bayer was not about to allow the Thai public health authorities to kill off one of their highly lucrative markets. By doing nothing they would be tacitly admitting there might be some danger to health. The US Under-Secretary in USDA, under pressure himself from Bayer, applied heavy pressure – some would say blackmail – to the Thais to reverse their proposed ban, even though the country’s health authorities advised a ban was necessary to protect the public. The Americans made it clear that a ban would ‘severely impact’ imports into Thailand of American soybeans, wheat and other agricultural products. In other words, if Thailand banned glyphosate it would be unable to import American crops which are laced with residues of glyphosate.

There is growing concern around the world that glyphosate is a dangerous chemical whose residues are being found in almost every part of the globe due to its routine use on staple crops that make up a large part of the diet of every person in the world. There is hardly any soya, wheat, palm oil, maize or sugar cane, grown in westernised nations that has not been sprayed with glyphosate. It is noteworthy that Russia has banned its use, not just for political reasons. Bayer is fighting hard against growing evidence that the product is far from ‘completely safe for human consumption’. There are tens of thousands of lawsuits pending against the company claiming that glyphosate causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. And if it should be shown to be a harmful substance, America has too much invested in this weedkiller and the GM seed Monsanto has patented to be sown in combination with it, for the financial, agricultural and public health repercussions to be anything other than catastrophic for the US economy and society.

That USDA is prepared to act as Bayer’s enforcer in suppressing other countries’ opposition to glyphosate hardly inspires confidence in its integrity or the honesty of its assertion that it is safe. But American agriculture is so far down the road of dependence on glyphosate and GM seed that it would be ruined by a ban.

By Philip Walling

Having been a farmer and practised as a barrister, I am now a writer with two books published so far: Counting Sheep (2014) and Till the Cows Come Home (2018).

I am interested in everything to do with the countryside, rural history, humanity and the way we live now.

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