Thursday, April 5, 2012

Rounding up the evidence, and perhaps organic growers should stop poisoning their workers

The days of trying to solve all garden problems with a quick chemical blast are, thank goodness, long since gone. However there are still occasions when something in a bottle can make a huge amount of difference. Which is why I wrote a 'Talking Point' in Gardens Illustrated magazine on the use of RoundupTM a while ago. Only one letter of objection to the magazine so far. Whew!
Here I'd like to revisit the issue, and pull a few skeletons out of the cupboard. To recap – Roundup is an enormous help in weed control in a new garden, especially one in a climate which favours the growth of a limited number of aggressive weedy species, and in dealing with invasive aliens, like Japanese knotweed. Conservation organisations have long recognized its value in vegetation management, and without it the battle against invasive species would be, quite honestly, hopeless.

We live in a world saturated with toxins. Overwhelmingly natural ones, but a poison is a poison is a poison. Plants, including the veg we eat, produce a formidable array of toxins to dissuade animals from eating them. Certain preparation techniques enhances the impact – a cup of coffee apparently contains more carcinogens than an annual average intake of pesticide residues (

On the subject of bad stuff, I think we need a bit more honesty about the chemicals used by organic producers. I have heard it said that the most frequent source of chemical injury suffered by US farmworkers (many illegal migrants from Latin America) is sulphur, used as a fungicide by organic growers. I couldn't find a recent reference but here is one for a 2001 study which gives some indication of the problem a few years ago: (, and oil and sulphur (both ok by US organic standards) are the most widely used (Roundup is no.8). Regulation of dangerous chemicals used by organic producers is much lower than for conventional. Statistics on use are less well kept too.

How do we find sound information on garden and agricultural chemicals? It is actually quite difficult. Scientific papers are hard to follow without specialist knowledge and often do not give any kind of clear result. The use of technical language can also be misinterpreted; the word 'acute' for example means something quite different to its everyday use. There is ample scope for those with an entrenched, ideological, position to misinterprete the language of these scientific papers. On the subject of Roundup/Glyphosate, I do try to keep up with research, and i have not seen anything seriously untoward about it; and it has been quite intensively studied.

The one place not to look for objective information is anything published by the organic movement or environmentalist campaigning groups. It is obvious that the former have a vested interest in scaring us; this is business after all and they want to increase their market share (currently declining here in the UK); and it is a sad fact for those of who care about environmental issues that many campaigning organizations have a history of putting the campaign first and objectivity and accuracy last – the myth of the 'terminator GM gene' being a good example. At the end of the day, regulation is science-led; newspaper and campaign group literature very often isn't. 
As a final shot, here's a very good, and balanced, non-rhetorical sceptical piece on organic farming from Scientific American.

This is what I originally wrote for Gardens Illustrated:
Weed control in the garden can take up a huge amount of time, particularly in mild climates when creeping buttercup and many grasses can grow 365 days of the year. Correctly used, Roundup ™ is a very effective tool for dealing with weeds, especially when creating new areas for planting, when total clearance of existing vegetation is vital, and for large gardens with a persistent weed problem. The beauty of Roundup, perhaps the most successful crop protection chemical ever, is its excellent safety record. It is absorbed very quickly by the soil, inactivating it - bacteria then biodegrade it. This means that it can be used to control weeds amongst the plants you want to keep. The only proviso is that it may last longer in the ground on very sandy soils, and like any herbicide, should not be used where there is a risk that spray could blow into water. 


ProfessorRoush said...

Hear, hear! The WEE (Wild-Eyed Environmentalists as I refer to them in my blog), distort the record every bit as much as the industrial chemical industry.

Kathy Fitzgerald said...

As usual, I bristled at your "assault" on organic farming methodologies, but calmed down upon reading Christie Wilcox's piece in Scientific American: she's absolutely right, a factory farm is a factory farm, regardless of whether or not it holds a piece of paper from a government agency--and we all know how rational, efficient and incorruptible bureaucracies are--certifying it "organic." It is also true that botanically derived products are not synonymous with "safe." Strychnine is all natural, as is curare; daffodils, oleander, poison ivy and rhubarb are poisonous in all or most of their parts (an indelible lesson I learned the hard way as a child about rhubarb).
I also acknowledge that many "organics or bust" organisations can be shrill (cf. the comment above about bureaucracies). But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let's give just due to the soil-building, sustainability and health-awareness practices of many small farmers.
As to Roundup use: in our gardening business, my husband and I eschew it because a) the Atlantic Ocean is a stone's throw from where we work; and, on a practical note, b) we have found it singularly ineffective against the roots of herbaceous weeds, and completely useless on woodies.
I would be interested to hear your take on the growing body of evidence relating to the emergence of Roundup-resistant superweeds in genetically modified crops, such as the testimony contained in
I put it to you that Monsanto and the USDA are no more reliable as sources of unbiased information than the organics lobby. You are quite right that finding understandable non-partisan data is very difficult. Thank you for opening up this forum for a thoughtful, civilized discussion on an issue that touches us all, right in our stomachs.
P.S. I can't wait to read your citation about coffee's carcinogenic cocktail. I'm a goner for sure!

Rob (ourfrenchgarden) said...

Why the constant referal to a brand and not the principle chemical glyphosate except for para 5?

Interesting all the same even if non conclusive, how could you be?

Keep an eye on the surfactants though.

la cartonaria said...

I agree that Glyphosphate (the generic for Roundup), is sometimes the only practical solution in getting rid of aggresive, unwanted plants. But like any poison it needs to be used with care and intellegence.
Isn't that what we're talking about here? As you said, poison is poison whether its' source is synthetic or organic, and what's really important is that pesticides are used responsibly, only when needed & with common sense.

Two websites I find extremely helpful: The National Pesticide Information Center - - a cooperative between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Oregon State University, and, which is the Integrated Pest Management website for the University of California at Davis.

Anonymous said...

Hi Noel
I don´t agree.
Here in Denmark we se still more toxic-poisend wells each year, and in just a few years we need clean drinkingwater manipulated by chemicals.
Roundup is the worst thinking pesticide I know of, and gardeners have to pay a lot of money to buy it. Søren Ryge Petersen, a danish tv-gardener used the roundup in one of his programes on danish tv, and a rowling choir of wievers, send him protest-letters. I think that the readers of Gardens Illustrated need a little more informations about the future-consequences of using pesicides, and that´s why they still use it, and don´t argue with you, I think.

Anyway; I Like your blog...
it´s one of the best gardenblogs we have.

kindly regards

carolyn mullet said...

Thanks for this measured and practical post. I agree completely.

Eco Safe Pest Control said...

Thanks for these valuable tips! More power!

Jeff said...

I've a vested interest in mechanical weed control so maybe I'm biased but if you've ever had a garden with bindweed you'll sympathize with those who hit it hard, once, with glyphosate before taking a more "green" approach thereafter. As has been said, there needs to be balance. A lot of us making small, manageable changes can be considerably more effective than one evangelist sermonizing from their ivory tower.

Telegraph Tea Rooms said...

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant, in the very first instance, use it first so that we can get on the ground, otherwise we ain't ever gone grow flowers! Backs will be broke first!