The day the glyphosate debate changed forever

The day the glyphosate debate changed forever

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Californian groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson won a landmark civil court case against Monsanto when the jury upheld his claim that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide had contributed to his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Californian groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson won a landmark civil court case against Monsanto when the jury upheld his claim that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide had contributed to his non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

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It's easy to pinpoint when glyphosate shot into the public consciousness when the IARC report found it was a 'probable' carcinogen in 2015.

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TEN YEARS ago the average punter in a capital city could not tell you what glyphosate was used for.

There were odd pockets of consumer resistance to the herbicide, some listing health concerns, in particular the links between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but more often based on an inherent distrust in Monsanto, the company that manufactured Roundup, the most popular glyphosate-based product.

A clear tipping point where glyphosate entered the public consciousness can be traced back to a quiet March day in 2015 when a bombshell report from International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC), a semi-autonomous arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO) dropped.

It found that glyphosate was a 'probable' carcinogen and the panic among consumers took off.

In spite of a clarification from the main body of the WHO that said glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer at realistic exposure levels and other groups highlighting that other products such as coffee and alcohol were in the same risk rating according to the IARC study, the genie was out and could not be put back in the bottle.

Glyphosate has been under the pump ever since, and no amount of support from government chemical regulators across the globe that continue to say it is safe to use has been able to counteract the bad publicity that has rolled in from every angle.

Whether it be the high profile civil court cases in California which Monsanto, then its buyer Bayer, have been ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to plaintiffs who a jury found had contracted cancer due to exposure to glyphosate through to a concerted push within the European Union (EU) which came within a whisker of having glyphosate banned it has been a difficult time for proponents of the herbicide.

The EU has been a hotbed of anti-glyphosate sentiment, with strong consumer pushes in some of the federation's most powerful nations in France and Germany meaning the product is likely to be phased out in those two nations.

Along with the human health concerns Germany also said it was concerned about glyphosate's impact on insect populations, saying it had been linked with a decline in pollinators such as bees.

Other nations such as Austria have taken the step to ban glyphosate altogether.

But it is not just the affluent Europeans who are looking to do away with the product.

In south-east Asia, which was formerly widely known for its lax chemical regulations, both Vietnam and Thailand have moved to ban the use of glyphosate, although Thailand has since reversed that decision.

Australian proponents of the product have not taken the hits to glyphosate's status lying down and have launched initiatives such as the Glyphosate Facts information sheet talking about the scientific data showing the safety of the chemical along with trying to highlight the environmental benefits of glyphosate, which is crucial in the no-till systems that have taken over the Australian cropping sector.

But the battle is far from won and the average consumer now identifies glyphosate as a potential risk factor, even while other forms of pest control such as insecticides and fungicides come under no mainstream scrutiny.

Ten years ago the industry was comfortable that the bulk of scientific work that showed glyphosate was safe would ensure its future viability.

Now, however, while the science remains the same they have acknowledged the need for a sustained PR campaign to restore consumer trust if the product is to be retained.

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