Reality-Check
May 13, 2015
Of Greens, Greenpeace and Glyphosate

By Brandon Mitchener

Monsanto’s commitment to produce products that help farmers nourish our growing world by making a balanced diet more accessible to people everywhere is the same this week as before. European governments’ commitment to protect consumers and the environment from harm is still there. Farmers and home gardeners still think glyphosate-based weed killers are an important part of their toolkits, and the best way of controlling difficult-to-control weeds.

Nevertheless, the past week has seen renewed attacks on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup® weed killer and generic equivalents, from German Greens and Greenpeace. While the German Greens are more focused on home garden use of glyphosate-based weed killers and Greenpeace says the sky is falling because of agricultural use of pesticides, they are united in three things: a preoccupation with the precautionary principle and the recent statement by an agency of the World Health Organisation that reviews cancer research as well as a deep-seated belief that only “ecological” products should be used in agriculture and home gardening.

Let’s look at each of these in turn:

German state consumer protection ministers—several of whom belong to the Greens party—came out last week and called on the German federal government—which isn’t dominated by the Greens—to immediately ban all non-professional use of glyphosate. This would effectively ban its use by home gardeners, who use glyphosate-based weed killers to remove weeds that are hard to control by other means including hand weeding. The German Greens and Greenpeace both cited the “precautionary principle”, a concept that it’s better to ban or restrict things if issues arise than to wait for conclusive scientific evidence. But is the principle appropriate here? Unlike the Greens and Greenpeace, most German media correctly noted that:

In short, glyphosate is not a ‘new’ substance or technology about which scientists are still uncertain. It has a long history of safe use, and residues on the foods that we eat are well within the legal limits established by European public authorities who understand such things. So there is no justification for invoking the precautionary principle as if this were a new product that is poorly understood.

So what about the WHO agency? The Green lobby also cited a “new assessment” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation. Did IARC produce any new research? Actually no. Instead, IARC reviewed a small subset of the very same, existing research that German and other national authorities had already reviewed, and came to the controversially different conclusion that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”. In fact, in numerous interviews, even IARC has said its conclusions should not be taken out of context:

We won’t rehash the full collection of statements by Monsanto and others about IARC’s classification of glyphosate here, but they’re readily available for anyone who cares to read them.

So what about the Green camp’s other argument, that “ecological” products are necessarily better for human health and the environment?

The bottom line? There has been no good reason to ban glyphosate for the past 40 years, and there is no good reason to ban it now.

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Follow-up: Nice statement from German Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists (CDU/CSU) in the Bundestag about glyphosate and science-based decision-making.

 

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