I spent the Easter weekend digging bindweed out of a relative’s garden. After a hot, back-breaking morning, I had cleared 20 square metres. One teaspoon of the weedkiller glyphosate would have done a better job for just six pence.
Glyphosate was first formulated as Roundup and sold by Monsanto in 1976. It soon became the world’s ‘favourite herbicide’, because it kills the entire plant, right down to the roots. Instead of herbicides, organic farmers plough to clear weeds. Large-scale ‘regenerative’ farming, now advocated by multinationals like Mars, PepsiCo and McDonald’s as a way to restore soils and reduce the carbon losses associated with ploughing, almost always depends on annual use of glyphosate.
At university in 1980, I was told that glyphosate was completely safe. We now know that it is carcinogenic, has devastating effects on our waterways, soil ecology, and the biome of bees, and is persistent enough to be found in 80 per cent of U.S. urine samples. It is even in the rain.
Clearly, the process used to assess glyphosate’s safety was inadequate – and clearly, unregulated market forces acting on something so cheap, yet so powerful, will lead to overuse. But should a chemical that has the potential to produce food cheaply, and with less carbon losses, be banned?
We desperately need an honest, well-informed conversation, and a more nuanced way of balancing planetary risks against societal benefits. Using glyphosate once every 50 years to control weeds and help establish trees, or to remove bindweed without hours of work and disturbing the soil, might be justifiable. It can even be argued that it is less bad than ploughing to clear ground for new crops.
But glyphosate is also routinely used as a desiccant, sprayed onto wheat destined to be eaten – marginally easing harvest and boosting a farmer’s profits, in an act of thoughtless eco-thuggery. The annual use of glyphosate before sowing maize, when fields will have to be ploughed anyway, also shows that the vast power of the chemical and its consequences are out of all proportion to its tiny financial cost.
As I left, my relative asked what I thought of clearing the rest of the bindweed with some glyphosate that he had in the back of his shed. I said that I wasn’t the Pope, but perhaps we do need a system for trading indulgences; an environmental tax that reflects the cost of a farmer’s decision to inflict this chemical on the rest of us and our planet.