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Is it right to ban glyphosate?

Gardener handling weeds. Photograph by PhotoAC

Glyphosate may sound complicated for those who aren't aware of what it is. However, it is the most commonly-sold weed killer across the globe and has been said to damage human health.

After discovering food containing the herbicide, the European Parliament recently voted in favour of phasing out glyphosate across the continent over the next five years.

With news that the weed killer is causing complications with human welfare, is it right to take it off the market since it's a popular tool used by those in the gardening, transportation and farming sectors?

Banned across Europe

The decision did not come lightly for the European Parliament to ban the use of glyphosate, with multiple debates surrounding the issue. In October 2017, the European Parliament voted 355 to 204 in favour of a resolution that has urged the European Commission to adopt measures to phase out the use of glyphosate across the entire EU by mid-December 2022.

However, it's worth remembering that this was a non-binding vote and that this is a phasing-out ruling, not an immediate ban. The use of glyphosate around public parks, on farms and within households whenever other biological pest control systems are available is now not allowed in member states of theE U.

Glyphosate present on UK farms

One point that helped the European Parliament strike a decision for the ban was reports that it had been contaminating food that was made for human consumption. Arguably, advocates of keeping glyphosate on sale might protest that industries could have simply better monitored its use to prevent other contaminated incidences. But, is the use of glyphosate truly widespread?

The answer is yes. The Guardian reported that there has almost been enough of the herbicide sprayed since its creation that it would cover every cultivable acre of Earth, while, according to research from the Soil Association, the use of glyphosate in UK farming has risen by 400% over the past two decades.

Benefits and drawbacks

'Roundup' was the name used for glyphosate throughout the 70s. Introduced to the market by agricultural company Monsanto, glyphosate-based substances are currently used in everything from parks, streets and schools, to agriculture, farming and forestry.

It's important to understand why the European Parliament made that decision in terms of human health - was the herbicide that bad? Fears have long been raised that the herbicide is a hormone disrupter that is linked to birth defects, the development of cancerous tumours and other developmental disorders. Some scientists have argued that there is no safe lower level for human consumption.

The cost of food after the ban

Experts suggest that one drawback to the banning of glyphosate is that the prices of food will go up - this is because the product helps growth and, ultimately, this could take longer. Monsanto's vice president, Scott Partridge, who believes that the move could cause "uproar in the agricultural community", stated to The Guardian: "You would see increased costs for farming and decreased productivity, increased greenhouse gas emissions, loss of topsoil, and loss of moisture. Farmers through Europe would be very upset that a very effective and safe tool had been taken out of their hands."

It's said that those working in the industry have commented saying it's 'impossible' to work without glyphosate as there is no competitive option. A Polish orchard farmer who has used the herbicide explained to Monsanto's companion site, Growing Our Future: "The use of other herbicides would require a greater number of applications, which would result in more environmental pollution. For fruit farmers, there is no alternative to glyphosate because there are no other products that do what it does."

The impact the ban will have on public transport

It's reported that those working in farming and food production will have a downfall once the ban is made official. But, outside of these areas, other industries are also preparing for a change of established processes once they are no longer allowed to use the weedkiller.

Transport is vital in society, with many members of the public becoming more reliant on links to travel. Weeds that are left unchecked can significantly restrict track visibility, track access for workers and possibly even render a line impassable in severe cases across Europe's railways. Specialist operator, Weedfree on Track, has been combatting these problems for over half a century through a method called a "weed killer train". These machines target a glyphosate solution onto areas which have been identified by a high-tech camera as having weeds with a specific amount of chlorophyll content.

What will those working with rail do once the ban has been made? Lycetts, a leading UK provider of reliable crop insurance, investigates:

"We've carried out a number of trials to see how much more effective the train is than manual methods. We've estimated that to do the same job manually, in the same time frame, can cost up to 40 times more. Weedfree on Track is dedicated to trying to reduce the use of pesticides, but whether you're hand-cutting, using steam, acetic acid or a bio-chemical, the alternatives simply aren't as effective when used correctly," commented Operations Manager at Weedfree on Track, Jonathan Caine.

When we look across Europe, we can see that it's not only Britain which is worried about the ban. Jean-Pierre Deforet, a chemist at Belgian railway authority Infrabel, pointed out in a Growing Our Future article: "There are currently no alternatives that are as effective as glyphosate, which would cause a huge problem for Belgium's railways. The alternatives are to use mulch or to spray manually. But allowing people onto the tracks would cause another, bigger safety issue than spraying from the train."

Additional sources:

Photo credit: PhotoAC

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