Friday, June 16, 2017

Can we have a sensible discussion about Roundup?

Roundup. Incredibly useful stuff. You've got to plant an area up, but how do you get rid of the existing vegetation, specifically all the persistent perennial weeds like couch, ryegrass, bindweed etc.? Or if you are trying to establish a native wildflower meadow mix on a site dominated by pasture grass? Or deal with Japanese knotweed? Or deal with a persistent weed problem which is threatening to overwhelm an existing, perhaps otherwise very successful planting? Or cope with a weed problem deeply rooted into paving or other hard surfaces? Roundup is usually the answer.

For years, since 1974 in fact, Roundup has been an essential part of the toolkit for the landscape and horticulture industries, and increasingly for nature conservation workers too. Now, in the European Union at least, it appears threatened. It needs to be re-registered by EU rules - a process required for all agrochemicals, and designed to ensure that all materials used are regularly reviewed for safety and environmental impact. Re-registration appears to be being constantly delayed. 

There is an incredible amount of hypocrisy round Roundup, and indeed many other agrochemicals. Well-known designers hoe their 'organic' plots in magazine articles and TV progammes but out of the limelight specify herbicide clearance for many of their clients' gardens. A lot of us love to eat in organic 'artisan' restaurants, buy organic food when it suits us, but carry on buying conventional produce the rest of the time. Conventional agriculture, for all its faults, does a remarkably good job of feeding us, on a steadily diminishing global stock of arable land. 

After a very long time in use, there have been countless studies showing Roundup to be, ok, not something you'd pour over your cornflakes, but pretty well harmless to humans. Then a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer came up which claimed a cancer link. The organic lobby, who having ignored the science on the active ingredient glyphosate for years, grabbed this with both hands and ran with it. Only the other day I read a Facebook posting from somebody describing how she accosted a neighbour and accused him of poisoning the neighbourhood. Now there is a story, see here, about how unpublished evidence of glyphosate's safety has been ignored. The cancer scare should perhaps have never seen the light of day, and a lot of unnecessary controversy and worry avoided.

For us in the garden and landscape industry there are two main questions here. One is the safety of this very widely used chemical, specifically of glyphosate, its active ingredient. The other is, given that its safety record has actually been remarkably good over 42 years on the market, why is re-registering so politically fraught?

It is always difficult for those of us outside a narrow scientific circle to really assess whether a chemical is safe or not. Scientific and medical research uses a jargon which can be impenetrable and rarely gives the clear answers we want. Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so. There is a further problem, which is a political muddying of the waters. Environmental campaign groups have long had it in for all agrochemicals, and their well-funded press departments are all too quick to fling out press releases on the latest research findings giving their own point of view. Journalists overwhelmingly react to these, rather than research on their own, they written in plain English, and inevitably take up no more than one side of A4.

Every now and again, I try to take a look at what the scientists are saying, and I have a chat with a colleague who is a plant sciences prof. and does work for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. What I see and hear is not, to be honest, hugely worrying. You can check it out for yourself on wikipedia – which gives a good dispassionate summary with lots of references. I personally use Roundup, mostly on nursery plots, for which I find it incredibly useful.

Roundup's being in the dock is largely political, an example of how the garden and landscape world is getting blow-back from other, bigger controversies. Many environmentalists hate Roundup because it was invented by Monsanto, an American multinational. It is very hard to have a sensible conversation about this company with many people, largely because of the genetically-modified crops issue. Has there been a single negative impact on human health because of GM crops? No. So, why the almost-hysterical opposition? The sheer irrationality of much of the debate has seeped into and poisoned sensible discussion of so much else. Of course need to discuss how and when we use agrochemicals in the managed landscape, and to continually review this. But we need to look at the evidence and take it from there.


ProfessorRoush said...

"Such research is often passed on to us by journalists, who rarely have any better understanding of science jargon than we do, and often have little interest in doing so."

You said it all right there, Noel. Quasi-Journalists are not into facts these days, they're seeking sensationalism to boost their readership and salaries. The dangers spill over into almost every aspect of life, from disease prevention (witness the anti-vaccine lobby), to medical care (i.e. the actually rare evidence for homeopathy, chiropractic, etc), to ag production (your Roundup example, and GMO), to politics (anonymous sources and extremism) in the US and abroad. Somewhere, while our lifespans increased and work effort decreased because of science and technology, we stopped trusting science and started listening to irrational prophets again. Maybe we should stop all the chemicals and technology, starve our way back into the caves, and all die before 35 again. said...

yes. what Noel said. to repeatedly dose maize and wheat crops with Roundup to dehydrate them for better harvesting and processing may be questionable. I would rather gardeners use it correctly and in a timely fashion to reclaim weed infested land than try to dig all perennial weeds repeatedly by hand then finally give up in despair, resolving never to garden again.

Noel Kingsbury said...

What Katherine said is important as it touches on the overuse of a basically safe material, which is something that affects pharmaceuticals too - something works and then it gets overused, abused and things go wrong. Prozac anyone? I don;t like the way that Roundup is now used routinely by councils as a way of avoiding paying people to strim around roadsigns etc.

Benjamin Vogt said...

There's research showing Glyphosate destroys soil life in ag fields, making it impossible for soil to hold water (in fact, the soil becomes a hard pan -- which increases irrigation runoff, topsoil erosion, and chemical runoff, which in turn finds its why into streams, rivers, and oceans making it inhabitable for aquatic species). With RoundUp ready crops, farmers can spray as much as they want. And while it may not be as harmful to humans (I don't know), is it harmful to pollinators? Sure is. Even the dust from coated seeds being planted in a farm field is deadly to bees. I think this issue is far more nuanced. I do recommend clients use glyphosate to kill grass in order to prep a bed for planting, but only those formulations which don't have pre-emergents and only target leaves / roots. And it is a good tool for knocking back invasive exotics. But how many homeowners use "chemicals" responsibly or follow directions?

Segar Rogers said...

A good topic for discussion Noel. I must say I gave up using Roundup a year or so ago after something I read citing its damaging effect on the environment; but it's difficult to get to the facts of the matter and the science doesn't appear to be definitive either way. And then there's also the question of who's sponsoring the science.

Unknown said...

Very well said Noel. A balanced, objective overview of an important question that has become a political hand grenade.

Robin White said...

Thanks for bringing this up Noel. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place, to use an American expression. Roundup is troubling but it's the only practical solution for the noxious weed problems that you mention. At work we (landscaping design/contractors in the Bay Area in California) use it very judiciously - only applying the minimum amount to effectively do the job and making sure that it is a one time application - that we kill the plant that we are trying to get rid of and that we don't have to come back and use it again and again. Typically this is for site clearance before landscaping. This is actually the same use as in _organic_ agriculture in the US which allows Roundup to be used 3 years prior to an organic certification being granted. I battled bermuda grass for about 6 or 7 years in my vegetable garden until I gave up and sprayed. Did it once and that was it - basically I never saw the grass again except for a couple of spots that grew and got spots of glyphosate. I'm sure that is much less Roundup than that which is used in conventional commercial agriculture. Maybe the key is to use the smallest amount possible until there is a better solution. And to not allow it to be used for other jobs than weedkilling - i.e. not to permit it to be used on food crops in the way that Katherine outlines above. It has been proven to negatively affect soil microfauna for a number of years btw. But it is essential that we have an effective way to clear land of certain persistent perennial weeds that can only be got rid of that way.

JohnK said...

Though I avoid use of chemicals as much as possible in the garden, occasionally they are useful. Whether they are "necessary" is a moot point but, as Katherine says, without them we would most likely see more time-constrained people giving up and concreting over their outside spaces. Simple sales statistics show that people are still buying chemical products but I wonder how many of them bother to read the instructions properly. Those who simply scream against chemical use would be far better employed explaining the safe use of chemicals.

To get a sense of perspective, consider the number of studies that have identified casein as a carcinogen. But there have been no calls to ban cows' milk as a result.

Specifically on Roundup, though, I will not touch the stuff. It is Glyphosate plus. But plus what, exactly. If glyphosate on its own does the job, why the need for the extras?

Unknown said...

My personal view is that if I have a choice of using a product that leaves its mark in the soil for an infinite length of time, and no one, scientists included, know how damaging these lasting molecular effects are, let's not use it. Why not use a slower, tried and true method, such as light blocking cover methods--slower but more earth friendly. Round up use seems to me to follow the current belief that what is easiest to use, what is faster acting, let's go for it, damned be the effects on the environmental big picture. One can almost say "Why can one person use a product that has global repercussions for the betterment of just his/her edification" It seems very selfish in the long scope of things.

dweeb said...

Political hand grenade would be putting it mildly. I have just cleared by hand a open area in early spring for a meadow planting area about 610 sq ft, As there were plants emerging that I wanted to keep, so I did the work by hand. The area was infested with goutweed ( Aegopodium podagraria) among other items, so the hand to hand combat was the answer, and probably got 99% of it. I have no illusions that it is all gone but dealing with 1% is better than 40%.. I have used Roundup in the past, Despite my reservations the stuff does work well. So I will use it sparingly and focused for a particular problem I have some reservations as to the residual effects to pollinators and watersheds. The property is on a flood plane next to a wide flowing creek. I am also somewhat skeptical of large Agrochem's science, as to who's benefit the science tilts to. The funny thing is , the weeds or invasives I am trying to remove are human induced species. So it seems here I am removing something that never should have been planted in the first place, the human condition it seems.
Andrew Peake

www.ravenscourtgardens. com said...

I think the over use of chemicals in the landscape is a symptom of our instant gratification society. As Betsy said there are alternatives they are just slower. I feel we should work with nature and natural systems. There is enough research to make me wary of the long term use of glyponsates and soil health
Equally much research has been on the active ingrediant of products like Round up and not the compination of ingrediants some of which are considered inert. Here is more on that aspect.
Scientific America
Excerpt -
"The new findings intensify a debate about so-called “inerts” — the solvents, preservatives, surfactants and other substances that manufacturers add to pesticides. Nearly 4,000 inert ingredients are approved for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, is the most widely used herbicide in the United States. About 100 million pounds are applied to U.S. farms and lawns every year, according to the EPA.

Until now, most health studies have focused on the safety of glyphosate, rather than the mixture of ingredients found in Roundup. But in the new study, scientists found that Roundup’s inert ingredients amplified the toxic effect on human cells—even at concentrations much more diluted than those used on farms and lawns.

One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call “astonishing.”

“This clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert,” wrote the study authors from France’s University of Caen. “Moreover, the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels” found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens."

Grumpy Hobbit said...

I agree with many of Laurin's comments that it might even not be just the glyphosate, but carrier compounds or surfactants. A bit like side effects with poly pharmacy, how is one meant to unravel what is causing problems when several agents are in the mix? ( Similarities here with chelating agents and "organic" ferric phosphate slug pellets.)
Personally I found the review article here....
helpful in drawing attention to precisely how glyphosate or its metabolites disrupt plant physiology and biochemistry in multi-factorial ways. And how it can leach from roots to affect neighbouring plants, or even be transferred through the rhizosphere, so explaining often quite dispersed effects from very targeted selective applications, which we have observed with precise spot applications.
Finally I know that it does, from occasional personal experience, ( or at least something in the formulations) produce vague clinical signs of malaise several days after using it - particularly, though not exclusively, in a spray application, rather than with a weed wiper approach.
However having used it as a weed wiper means of managing extensive soft rush infestations in wet meadows, I would love to hear of a more appropriate organic methodology for restoring flowering plant diversity. And to date no one has been able to convince me that there is indeed a viable organic alternative.
So use sparingly, preferably by wiper techniques, with all appropriate safety gear, for a specific role, and be prepared for some collateral effects in spite of this.

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Unknown said...

I agree. Tricky probs like Bindweed can only really be solved with glyphosate.

Roger Brook - No Dig Gardener said...

Congratulations on a very fine article with which I 100% agree

El chino nursery said...

I avoid use of chemicals as much as possible in the garden. glyphosate take some thing like 3 years for the soil to be 100% .im in the plant nursery buss .its hard not to use it but i see it the lessthe beter.

Paul said...

RoundUp is the only chemical I will use in my garden. Used sparingly it's very helpful in all of the situations that Noel mentions. I dare anyone to try killing Japanese Knotweed without it.

Douglas said...

I have used Roundup when previous weed control methods had failed, but I immediately regretted polluting the soil with a biocide. We only see the few life forms above the soil surface, while knowing that the multitude of hidden soil organisms are probably more important than our current favoured plant species. When we impose anthropocentric life-or-death decisions on other evolved life we should do so with more respect and humility, and less haste.

My particular weed foe is couch grass, but I observe that although this plant invades places where it is unwelcome, it is not entirely beyond natural control. Couch grass is not present everywhere, and it never was. For example, I don't find couch grass growing among nettles, and I find nettles easier to control than couch grass. It seems that plant communities may offer us alternative controls. Whether by competition for light, for nutrients, via mycorrhizal interaction, or by other soil-dependent interactions not yet understood, we don't lack alternatives to herbicides. Perhaps we need the will to discover, understand and apply new living techniques, rather than reaching in convenient ignorance for Roundup.

Anonymous said...

I broadly agree as well. Roundup is overused so it's important I think to use it only when necessary and practical. And don't overdose. One problem is that roundup is cheap. Convenient in one sense but the lack of cost pressure means that it's used with gay abandon by some. The local authority comment by Noel is relaxant here. It's a flawed decision making process to choose between roundup and strimming.

I think targeting he product is important. Within this I include all hard areas, e.g gravel paths and drives, I have had customers and hear of people who want gardeners to hoe these areas so they can present themselves as organic or they disliike agrochemical companies which frankly is ridiculous. We're not living in Victorian times where labour was utilised this way., Of course for many people gardening labour is cheap enough that they will request - which is always a very bad sign for any professional gardener.

Ultimately though I find there is so much suspicion about the product that we need to get a grip on the facts.

Nick said...

Glyphosate is just as effective at much lower dose rates than "10ml/Litre" - weeds just take longer to die. I use 30 - 50% strength with complete success and much less risk to nearby plants. Adding Amitrole at similarly low concentration helps with the more difficult weeds such as Dock and Blackberry. Manufactures overstate the strength needed to ensure their product gets a good reputation.