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  • Writer's pictureOllie Martin

My Take on the Glyphosate Debate

There continues to be a great deal of media coverage surrounding the use of glyphosate as a non-selective herbicide in arable farming. The focus of these all too often sensationalised reports surround the impact of glyphosate on the environment and, perhaps of greater concern, the possibility that the active may cause cancer in humans.

Let’s deal with the second point first. In 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, which classifies it as a Group 2A carcinogen. Sounds pretty awful right? Now let’s add some perspective. Group 2A carcinogens also include frying pan fumes, drinking hot beverages and eating red meat (I’ll leave that one for another day).

This classification also does little to consider exposure levels. I wouldn’t advised bathing yourself in the stuff, in the same way I wouldn’t advise putting your nose up to your car exhaust – its asking for trouble. At present, most label recommendations still allow glyphosate products to be applied to growing crops as a desiccant (i.e. to prematurely end the plants life cycle so as to manipulate the harvest date – for efficiency purposes). This, if you want my opinion, is wrong. On this farm glyphosate is used only to create a weed free seedbed prior to sowing a crop to create an growing environment free of competition from weeds. It is never applied to a growing crop here. As such, little if any glyphosate residue should be detectable on any produce leaving the farm, meaning that when you eat the bread that’s made with our wheat, you are theoretically not being exposed to the product at all. Problem solved?

It’s also worthy of note that in March 2017 the European Chemicals Agency contradicted the International Agency for Research on Cancers conclusion by stating that there is no evidence of glyphosate causing cancer in humans. This conclusion was seconded by the European Food Safety Authority. So why the furore? Blame culture? Ambulance chasing lawyers? Social media band wagon riders? I won’t speculate – you can make up your own mind.

By applying glyphosate before sowing......

Now, why is glyphosate so important to arable farming? Well there are, broadly speaking two main methods of broad acre weed control: herbicides and cultivations. The problem with cultivation is that whenever a soil of any type is tilled a proportion of the organic carbon stored within that soil is oxidised – lost to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). Loss of soil carbon is a big problem. Soil carbon is the engine room of soil function, the prerequisite for soil life, for soil fertility and for soil structure. If we deplete our soil carbon reserves beyond critical levels (a very real possibility if intensive cultivations continue to be practiced globally) then mankind’s ability to produce food from the land is in grave danger. Loss of soil carbon also leads to significantly increased risk of soil erosion through wind and rain – ever heard of the American dustbowl?

....we can create a weed free seedbed which we can directly sow into, without the need for destructive cultivations.

Some make sensational estimates such as there are only 30 or 50 or 100 harvests left – the fact is that no-one really knows exactly, but we do know that continued intensive cultivations on a mass scale as has been seen in the past century or so is simply not sustainable in the long term. This is why here at Weston Park we establish our crops using no-till. We value our soil; in fact it is our most valued asset. For weed control we therefore rely on other methods – some cultural and some chemical – and that’s where we arrive back at herbicides and in particular glyphosate. Would I like to farm without glyphosate? In an ideal world yes. In an ideal world I would farm without any expensive artificial inputs. But we don’t live in an ideal world and therefore farmers like me have to make a decision – farm organically with heavy reliance on cultivations for weed control, or make judicious use of well proven, safe chemistry to sustainably grow food, fuel and fibre products.

If we lose glyphosate, increased reliance on cultivation for weed control will, sooner or later, mean that vast areas of the world are no longer able to grow food due to the mass depletion of once fertile soils. That’s a pretty sobering thought.

Spring milling wheat pictured several weeks after sowing. Glyphosate was used pre-sowing which has meant that so far no further herbicide has been needed to be applied to the growing crop.

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Sep 13, 2021

"Weston Park Farms farms uses the principles of regenerative agriculture. This is great news for the bees that thrive in the diversity of the herbal leys and cover crops. The farm also uses zero insecticides which makes for healthy pollinators, a vital ecosystem service."

As a beekeeper, and following reading your article on the use of glyphosate. I am surprised by the statement above taken from your website. would you comment on the below abstract?

"Glyphosate is the most used pesticide around the world. Although different studies have evidenced its negative effect on honey bees, including detrimental impacts on behavior, cognitive, sensory and developmental abilities, its use continues to grow. Recent studies have shown that it also alters the composition…

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