Litigation, not regulation the big threat for glyphosate

Glyphosate's big threat is litigation, not regulation


Grain
The crop protection industry is nervous about the legal risks posed by glyphosate.

The crop protection industry is nervous about the legal risks posed by glyphosate.

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In other jurisdictions, farmers have been worried glyphosate may be banned by regulators, in Australia legal risk is a bigger concern.

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Opinion 

FOR YEARS the Australian agriculture sector has been quietly confident of the ongoing availability of glyphosate.

In spite of sporadic negative press, such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labelling the herbicide a 'probable' carcinogen there was the overwhelming opinion that regulatory approval would be there, given the scientific studies showing the product's safety.

On that front nothing has changed. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) remains in line with the vast majority of international regulators and scores of studies that continue to say glyphosate, when used in accordance to the label directions, is safe to use.

But there is growing concern that the product's downfall may well come not from a government ban but due to worries about legal liability.

Bayer has been hit with huge legal fines in the US as a result of three successful lawsuits in California, where juries found that the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide owned by Bayer had contributed to the plaintiffs' Non-Hogdkins' Lymphoma.

News has filtered through the first Australian lawsuit against the company on similar grounds have been launched and the legal firm behind the court action, Carbone Lawyers, say there is significant interest among the community that could lead to further cases being lodged.

It has the crop protection sector spooked - Nufarm issued a release to the ASX commenting on the significant legal risks faced around glyphosate at present, even though it did not manufacture the product but simply used it in its own formulations.

A global giant like Bayer may be able to withstand some legal pain, to an extent, but for smaller crop protection businesses it would not take much to force them to the wall, and while the actions thus far are limited to Bayer there is nervousness it could spread to others involved with the chemical.

It has some farmers worried that while legally, it is fine to continue to use glyphosate, companies will choose not to make glyphosate-based due to the legal risks involved.

That may sound like a long bow to draw at present, but should other legal jurisdictions outside famously liberal California find in favour of plaintiffs and the legal costs pile up then investors are not going to continue to give the companies a mandate to lose money hand over fist just because farmers want the product.

There's been a lot of talk from the farm sector about the infallibility of the science and the unfairness of having livelihoods and environments negatively impacted by laymen juries without the capacity to fully understand the background and easily swayed by emotive arguments.

It's true it is not fair - nor have the arguments surrounding animal welfare or the use of genetically modified crops but the cruel fact is that public perception is all.

The key is going to be getting the message out to the people- but the sobering point is that this is a lot easier said than done and previous attempts to improve the glyphosate brand have failed to cut through in urban areas in any way, shape or form.

Here's hoping concerted campaigns on educating consumers, such as the one currently being pushed by the National Farmers Federation (NFF) will gain traction, as public perception will be equally as important as scientific fact in keeping glyphosate in the toolbox for Aussie farmers.

One thing is for sure, lobbing out broadsides at people for being unscientific and expecting Joe Public to miraculously acknowledge glyphosate's role in our farming systems is simply equivalent to fiddling while Rome burns.

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