Charles Sturt University
Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation

Glyphosate and fake news

Professor Jim PratleyCharles Sturt University (CSU) Emeritus Professor Jim Pratley says recent court cases regarding the use of the chemical glyphosate may have significant impacts for Australian farmers and global food security.

Manufacturer Monsanto has been ordered by a Californian Court to pay more than $280 million after a jury found Roundup contributed to a man’s cancer, while a Brazilian judge has suspended the use of glyphosate.

Professor Pratley, who is a member of the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, looks at the context of these decisions and examines the potential impact for Australian agriculture and global food production.

Glyphosate is in the news again. It is the most widely used herbicide globally and is considered to be amongst the safest. It also seems to be the most researched and reviewed, but why is that? The answer appears to be that it is a product of the multi-national Monsanto.

Monsanto has also been a leader in plant Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) development that also involves glyphosate, more commonly known as Roundup™. The so-called activists have attacked Monsanto though its products, creating a fear campaign against GMOs and now against glyphosate. The problem is that if a fear is expressed loudly and often, some of the community will accept the argument regardless of whether there is evidence or not. How does this apply to glyphosate?

Glyphosate has been used commercially since 1974 in the United States and since around 1978 in Australia – it is used widely in agriculture and horticulture as well as by a high proportion of households. If it were to be carcinogenic we would expect that such cancers would be in epidemic proportions these days, given its widespread use. In fact there have been many studies and reviews and they come up negative to any link – except one, where in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the chemical as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (1). The review that led to this outcome has regularly been discredited particularly because it failed to take into account a long-term Agricultural Health Study (2) covering the period 1993-2005 which could find no association between glyphosate use and cancer. This study is important because of its size – around 45,000 agricultural users of glyphosate.

The gardener at the centre of the recent US court trial, where a claim was made that constant use of glyphosate resulted in cancer, received a payout of $39 million for his losses and $250 million to punish Monsanto. How such a verdict could be arrived at is beyond belief as courts are supposed to rely on evidence; and the evidence is not there. Further, it is not Monsanto’s fault if the gardener did not use protective clothing – that is the responsibility of the employer to ensure duty of care. What we do not know is the financial supporter of the litigation, since it is unrealistic that the gardener was operating on his own behalf? Clearly lawyers also see this area as a cash cow regardless of the validity of the argument – where is the integrity?

Also recent was the decision of the court in Brazil to ban the use of glyphosate until a study proved it to be safe. The rationale for this decision is unclear.  Brazil is the second largest producer of Genetically Modified (GM) crops globally with almost 50 million hectares involving soybeans (96.5 per cent GM), maize (88.4 per cent GM) and cotton (78.3 per cent GM) with the Roundup Ready™ capability represented in almost all GM grown. Thus it puts at risk the whole of the country’s agriculture.

In both the above cases, there will be appeals against these decisions and there is a high expectancy that the truth will prevail and the decisions will be overturned. It is to be hoped that the mischief makers carry the cost but some dirt will stick.

What it does do however, is make us reflect on the consequences should these decisions remain in place and maybe extend to other jurisdictions like Australia. Glyphosate is a fundamental part of our conservation agriculture which is practised by probably 90 per cent of farmers. It was the saviour chemical in mitigating the soil erosion that occurred on farms resulting from cultivation. The alternative options to glyphosate are certainly much less safe if we are to maintain our no-till farming; we do not want to return to the tillage activities of the past.

A study by economic experts in this field, Brookes (PG Economics UK) and colleagues indicate that there would inter alia be: an annual loss of around $7 billion from the farm income gains achieved by GM production; significant loss of production of soybeans, corn and canola production; a negative environmental impact of an increase of 8.3 million kilograms active ingredient of extra herbicide used; and the associated additional carbon emissions from extra fuel usage (3). It would also necessitate the need for additional land area of over 700,000 hectares at the expense of global forests. Other studies by Brookes have shown that around half the economic benefit of the GM technology goes to developing countries (4), so the impact will be very much greater for those nations.

In summary, the stakes are very high for nations around the world including Australia. The moral high ground is with the status quo and those who wish to undermine the use of safe technologies to feed the global population deserve contempt. The people whom they are going to hurt most are those who need the technologies most. The activists have form in that they have been instrumental in preventing production of golden rice, a GM product that would help address blindness in children. This product has been available since 2000 but is not yet in the field. At a rate of around 500,000 cases of blindness in children through Vitamin A deficiency each year, the activists are responsible for millions of children going blind during a period where the solution was potentially available.

The world is moving towards nine billion people in a few decades. We depend on biotechnology and glyphosate to be able to feed them. Fake news serves us poorly. As Academy of Science Fellow Dr TJ Higgins (5) once said “red herrings are in plentiful supply but they will not feed 9 or 10 billion people”.  GM and glyphosate, however, just might.

References:

1. IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans (2015). Some organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans; volume 112: Lyon, France) ISBN 978-92-832-0178-6 (NLM Classification: W1) ISSN 1017-1606

2.  Andreotti GKoutros SHofmann JNSandler DPLubin JHLynch CFLerro CCDe Roos AJParks CGAlavanja MCSilverman DTBeane Freeman LE. (2018) Glyphosate Use and Cancer Incidence in the Agricultural Health Study. National Cancer Institute.110(5):509-516. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djx233.

3. Brookes G , Taheripour F, Tyner WE (2017). The contribution of glyphosate to agriculture and potential impact of restrictions on use at the global level. Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain, 8 (4) 1-13. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645698.2017.1390637

4. Brookes G and Barfoot P (2016). Global income and production impacts of using GM crop technology 1996–2014. Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain 7 (1) https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645698.2016.1176817

5. TJ Higgins (2011) Time to modify the GM debate. The Conversation, April 8 https://theconversation.com/time-to-modify-the-gm-debate-210

About the author

CSU Emeritus Professor Jim Pratley currently leads the plant systems research pathway at the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation. He was the foundation Dean of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture at CSU and is secretary of the Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture. Professor Pratley has served as President of the Australian Society of Agronomy and Vice President of the International Allelopathy Society. His research has focused on conservation farming, herbicide resistance, weed science, and the development and management of self-weeding crops.