A Monday morning Round-up

Round- up.  It’s a clever name, isn’t it.

Combine two alternative, but complimentary, meanings – first, the “rounding-up” of weeds, like cattle. Just round-’em up and dispose of them. So simple.

A second more subtle meaning might also seep into our sub-conscious. Rounding up, as in getting a bit more (for our money.).

Round-up – Not only simple, effective, but also money-saving.

I first came across Round-up when I was still living at home as a teenager. My dad bought some to control some weed or other (there were quite a few) in the garden. I still have a pot (of Tumbleweed) in the greenhouse, though I haven’t used any in probably 10 years. I had a bit of a bindweed problem in the veg patch. I gave up using round-up on it, because it didn’t work. It just killed the leaves and a bit of the rhizome. I realised the only answer was digging down deep to find the long-established roots – and keep digging and removing every last bit. It’s more or less gone now, certainly contained.








It’s about 9 months now since I last wrote about glyphosate (the chemical name for Round-up). Wow I got a lot of stick for that article. There were a few errors in it, for sure. But then there was a lot of fact in it too.

Since then things have moved on. The EU came within a whisker of banning glyphosate – and it turns out the only reason they didn’t is because the German agriculture minister ignored his Government’s own policy. Schmidt is no longer farm minister. It’s pure coincidence I’m sure that, at the time Schmidt made his fateful decision, German agrochemical giant Bayer were in the process of taking over the US company Monsanto, maker of Round-up and the GM-crops which depend on it.

Despite the EU’s collective decision to give glyphosate just another five years of licenced use, many member states have decided to act unilaterally and phase its use out. Obviously that doesn’t include the UK. This is partly because of Brexit, but mainly because there is such a strong lobby (from within the agricultural industry) working here to protect it. Its main use in UK agriculture is to prepare standing arable crops for harvesting, by desiccating them and killing any weeds that might be in there.

A much more minor, but more interesting use, is by zero- and min-till farmers who use it to kill cover crops (and weeds) when preparing to direct drill their crops. Killing the cover crop at the right time releases things like Nitrogen from the cover crop, enabling the growing crop to make use of it, rather than applying artificial fertiliser. The over-wintering cover crop also reduces the risk of soil erosion, or loss of nitrogen and phosphate into rivers.

Then there was last week’s historic judgement by a US court. The jury concluded that glyphosate had caused a rare type of cancer in a groundsman who had regularly used the chemical. He’d been spraying it in school grounds. Imagine your children had been at that school. Now imagine that the school your children attend here in the UK, uses glyphosate. Because they do.

Can farmers and the agrochemicals industry continue with their “glyphosate is vital” and “glyphosate is safe” media campaigns, now that the jury is no longer out on this question?

Probably yes.

Monsanto (which as a company no longer exists – very conveniently) has repeatedly turned to the Tobacco Industry playbook of lies, smears, character assassination, buying “friendly” scientists, and astro-turfing (setting up fake civil society groups to provide “independent” support) to prevent regulatory action on glyphosate. No doubt they will appeal the California verdict. But the flood gates have opened and thousands of others, who believe their cancers or other illnesses have been caused by glyphosate, are now going to launch their own legal actions. Perhaps some even in the UK.

It’s true that when glyphosate was first introduced as a new herbicide, it replaced earlier chemicals which were more dangerous – Paraquat for example. Paraquat is still manufactured in the UK, for export to countries which have not yet banned it. But just because something is safer than the thing it replaces, doesn’t mean it’s safe, does it. It just means that work needs to be done to find a safer alternative. That’s really part of what we might call civilisation. Why stop at glyphosate?

For me, there’s a bigger issue, which is why farmers are using so many agrochemicals (like glyphosate) to produce our food. As bee expert Dave Goulson noted recently, while the weight of pesticide use in the UK has declined over recent decades, the capacity to kill wildlife (specifically bees) increased six-fold. And that wasn’t even taking into account the impact of widespread, almost ubiquitous use of glyphosate in the countryside. That use has one over-riding impact – to remove wild flowers, which provide pollen and nectar for bees and other insects.

Would it cost more for UK farmers to produce food without using glyphosate, neonicotinoids, or the myriad other agro-chemicals currently being used? Yes it would. But it wouldn’t cost much more. And, more importantly, the cost of producing food is only a small component of the total cost of food we buy on the supermarkets shelves. So – if the UK Government decided to ban glyphosate (and to be honest there should be an immediate ban on its use in gardens and parks – and its use preparing crops for harvest) in agriculture, and food prices went up a smidgen, would anyone notice? I doubt it, given all the other factors which influence how much our food costs.

What about the use of glyphosate in zero- and min-till farming? I would suggest a three year phase out for this use. This would give time for alternative methods to be developed – and the Government should put up some funding to help develop these techniques.

But while Defra and its leader Michael Gove continue to stand in support of glyphosate (and his Biodiversity minister enthusiastically endorsing it immediately after the court finding), it will take concerted public action to shift that position.




About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Agriculture policy, agrochemicals, glyphosate, monsanto and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to A Monday morning Round-up

  1. Hi Miles – interesting- I was always told by ‘experts’ ie male gardeners and scientists that it was harmless – I never believed them. Do you know anything about 1080 widely used in NZ as an indiscriminate pest animal killer. The word is that it is harmless and very reactionary to question it. All non natives must be exterminated at any cost…

    • Miles King says:

      Hi Sasha, lovely to hear from you. I first heard about the health effects of glyphosate from an organic gardener in 1987. 1080 is a bait used to kill possums – it’s certainly toxic to humans. I guess the question is whether there’s a more effective way of controlling/removing non-native mammals, especially where they threaten native fauna.

      • Not easily it seems. Mass drops of 1080 into the bush. Can’t really manage trapping on that scale. Can the benefit/ cost be weighed in these cases?

      • Miles King says:

        I tend to avoid getting into cost/benefit analysis – too often it ends up with an economic calculus, which I feel is the wrong way to approach our relationship with nature (I’ve written a few times about the dangers of natural capital). If invasive non-native mammals caused the Kiwi to go extinct, what would that mean for New Zealand?

  2. stevecjjones says:

    Since the Isle of Wight Council contracted its highways maintenance out to joint venture of private firms, Island Roads, they’ve been driving around the island on gangs of Quad bikes spraying clouds of Glyphosate all over dry stone walls across island towns. These once supported nice communities of stable perennial plants. These have been replaced by rapidly washed-out soil and annuals, which they ‘need’ to spray off several times a year. A nice perpetuation of a ‘problem’ for the contractors to deal with. Over the last three summers I’ve found moribund wall lizards, sat on pavements, barely moving. Then the ‘weeds’ start to wilt within hours. Now, I have no proof that Glyphosate is having sub-lethal effects on wall lizards. And ‘who cares’, they’re not native, right? Well, the same stone walls support slow worms (which are harder to detect so who knows if they’re also being harmed?) and common lizards. Those moribund lizards were adults. Adults tend to rush into crevices as the sprayer passes, then re-emerge quickly into the sun, to get a drenching of weed killer. In autumn loads of inch-long baby wall lizards bask on these walls, but they freeze rather than rushing off, so get a direct soaking.

    • wendybirks says:

      Just as a matter of fact, glyphosate doesn’t cause plants to wilt immediately. It takes sometimes, a couple of weeks to show signs of effect, and then they the start to turn yellow. Often annual plants, that are near the stage of seeding anyway, are stimulated to go to seed thereby defeating the object of spraying in my opinion.

  3. “Can farmers and the agrochemicals industry continue with their “glyphosate is vital” and “glyphosate is safe” media campaigns, now that the jury is no longer out on this question?”

    You regard a jury decision in California as having settled a matter of scientific fact. I find that strange.

    • Miles King says:

      But I answered my own rhetorical question with a yes.

      I find it strange that so many people are dismissing the verdict of a court composed of jurors.

      Are you going to dismiss jurors verdicts on all criminals who are convicted using forensic evidence, because they are not forensic scientists?

      Are you going to object to jurors verdicts on complex fraud cases because they have no prior knowledge of forensic accounting?

      The job of the court is to provide information and evidence to a jury in such a way that they can come to a conclusion, based on that evidence.

      That jury’s judgement (and the evidence on which it is based) will now be tested further, in subsequent court cases, and no doubt Monsanto will appeal. This is the nature of the judicial process.

      However, this judgement has not happened in isolation. The evidence that Monsanto has been hiding for decades is now being put in the public domain. The evidence that Monsanto has sought (successfully) to influence regulatory bodies, both in the US and here in Europe is also now in the open.

      I’m not sure that settled scientific facts actually exist. Science is a process of discovery. Each generation’s scientific facts are rejected or amended by the next one, based on new research, and based on scientists not accepting that the current state of scientific understanding is fixed.

      As I said in the piece, I agree that glyphosate is safer than paraquat, at least for human health. But then glyphosate is used far more widely than paraquat ever was – and its mode of action is very different. Scientists are only now starting to understand the effect of glyphosate on various microbiomes (especially in mammalian guts and the soil), and the evidence emerging is pretty disturbing.

      This is where the Precautionary Principle applies – and why it’s so important that we retain it once we have left the EU.

      • For a good discussion of the court case, see https://thelogicofscience.com/2018/08/11/courts-dont-determine-scientific-facts/ .

        Invoking BOTH the Precaustionary Principle and the notion that science is never settled would lead to never ever doing anything.

        “Scientists are only now starting to understand the effect of glyphosate on various microbiomes (especially in mammalian guts and the soil), and the evidence emerging is pretty disturbing.”

        That’s important. Tell us more. But the California case had nothing to do with this.

        As for jury trials, consider the steady stream of people condemned by juries but then cleared by DNA evidence (check out Reprieve). And of course, there was OJ.

      • Miles King says:

        thanks Paul. I think the precautionary principle can and should operate alongside scientific progress, challenging scientists to consider the impact of the research they are doing; and acting accordingly.

        Juries, like democracies, are not perfect. It’s just that they are both better than the alternatives.

      • Thanks for the link. Juries, IMO, are far worse than judges. The precautionary principle cuts both ways, and I am concerned about the effects of this ruling on agricultural production, just as I am concerned about the effects of the hostility to GMOs.

        I am concerned about recent reports that different groups of marine mammals, in convergent evolution, have lost an enzyme that as an incidental side-effect deactivates organophosphorus pesticides, including presumably glyphosate. So there are real issues, but I do not think that cancer in humans is among them.

        Your link, of course, is to an advocacy group, and I would be reluctant to cite it without drilling down to the original research and its critics.

        I’ll leave it there.

  4. Gwil Wren says:

    If a Councillor enthusiastically endorsed a product in the way that Ms Coffey did they would have been regarded as having fettered their discretion and be unable to take part in any decisions about it. I wonder if this applies to ministers?

    • nimby says:

      Perhaps look at any declarations of interest or submit FoI request minutes of meetings with lobbyists for the agri-chemical industries?

      The minutes of meetings which involved grouse shooting estates and the Minister were eventually released (all be it heavily redacted).

      Too many politicians are bringing themselves into disrepute, little wonder confidence and trust continues to decline? Time to introduce accountability, long-term for their decisions and actions?

    • John Kay says:

      I think Ben Gummer’s response was very apt.

  5. Gwil Wren says:

    If a Councillor enthusiastically endorsed a product in the way that Ms Coffey did they would have been regarded as having fettered their discretion and be unable to take part in any decisions about it. I wonder if this applies to ministers?

    • nimby says:

      There is reputedly a code for Ministers, but let’s face it they appointed themselves to sort out their expenses scandal so #credibility #integrity or just puppets to corporate sponsors? 😦 Sorry but fed up with broken politics Let’s bring on #APeoplesManifestoForWildlife

  6. John Kay says:

    I don’t like Monsanto. Primarily for their litigious pursuit of farmers who had the temerity to sow seeds of crops grown from seed harvested from crops grown from purchased seed. This extends the reach of patenting too far. As for the impacts of glyphosate as a production tool – that’s a consequence of the failure of regulation to prevent harm to the natural environment, that could result from the repeated use of a (theoretical) product completely free from operator or residual side-effects.

    Last year I spent some time, with lots of help from Alexandra Elbakyan, looking into the murky world of glyphosate. I amassed nearly 200 papers and reports occupying 140MB of digital storage. That’s a lot of words, but I’m still not much further enlightened than when I started. I could make progress with some severe file weeding to eliminate all grey, industry, and journalistic literature, critically scanning the contributing author lists, and dumping anything that emanates from or quotes IARC. Perhaps what remains will be objective and honest – you never know your luck. I admit to being drawn to papers concerned with formulation – glyphosate is not Roundup – so anything mentioning adjuvant, surfactant, wetter, emulsifier and especially POEA snagged my confirmation bias about them being given a free ride. But I didn’t find any apparently reliable and unequivocal reports that glyphosate, alone or formulated, caused any disease when used competently. On the other hand there were papers that reported failure to find any association whatever between Roundup and n-HL, but found a (non-significant) association with lung, pancreatic and myeloid leukaemic cancers.

    So there’s plenty of smoke – poor health of soybean farmers in S America for instance – but the cause of the fires remains obscure among all the other possible exposures to potential carcinogens. In the recent case, what hasn’t filtered through in the MSM is who instructed Mr Johnson to use Roundup? Why they were not sued with Monsanto? Was Mr Johnson held responsible in any way for (twice) managing to soak himself with Roundup?

    IMHO – juries should not be asked to decide in this type of complex case. They are too susceptible to grand-standing by attorneys on both sides – I remember what I was doing when OJ was cleared. They wouldn’t get away with it in front of a panel of senior judges, for instance, who would have the skills to assess the quality of evidence put before them. I also wonder what would have been the verdict of a Texan jury, rather than a Californian one.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks John. As I said in my post, I don’t want to particularly focus on the carcinogen question, as there are more interesting questions from an ecological perspective, and also for human health. Having said that, I think there are still questions about glyphosate and cancer. Whether the Johnson case will help move the investigation on a bit, is another question. What is clear though is that Monsanto have suppressed research about glyphosate that
      they didn’t want aired in public.

      • John Kay says:

        They are not the first and won’t be the last to conceal inconvenient information, but the revelations ought to provoke some interest from the US pesticide regulators – I hope.

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