Critics say it’s a chemical that could cause infertility or cancer, while others see it speeding the growth of super weeds and causing worrying changes to plants and soil. Backers say it is safe and has made a big contribution to food production.
It’s glyphosate, the key - but controversial - ingredient in Roundup herbicide and the top selling weed killer used worldwide. For more than 30 years, glyphosate has been embraced for its ability to make farming easier by wiping out weeds in corn, soybean and cotton fields, and for keeping gardens and golf courses pristine.
But the chemical touted as a safe, affordable and critical part of global food production, is now at a crossroads.
Amid rising voices of alarm, regulators in the United States and Canada are conducting a formal review of glyphosate’s safety, lawsuits are pending and some groups are calling for a global ban.
“Glyphosate’s days are numbered,” said Paul Achitoff, a lawyer for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that last month sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture in part over concerns about heavy glyphosate use.
Agricultural seeds and chemicals giant Monsanto Co introduced the chemical to the world in 1974 and has made billions of dollars over the years from Roundup as well as from the “Roundup Ready” corn, soybeans and cotton the company has genetically engineered to survive dousings of glyphosate.
Last year alone, Monsanto made more than $2 billion in sales of Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicides, though revenues have been in decline amid competition from generic makers since the company’s glyphosate patent expired in 2000.
“I think it would be difficult to overstate the contribution that glyphosate has made and will continue to make to farming,” said Monsanto executive vice president of sustainability Jerry Steiner. “It is a phenomenal product.”
Many top U.S. farmer organizations say glyphosate is too beneficial to give up. But critics say glyphosate may not be as safe as initially believed, and farmers should be fearful.
Environmentalists, consumer groups and plant scientists from several countries are warning that heavy use of the chemical over the years is causing dangerous problems for plants, people and animals alike.
The Environmental Protection Agency is examining the issue and has set a deadline of 2015 for determining if glyphosate should continue to be sold or in some way limited. The EPA is working closely with regulators in Canada as they also assess the ongoing safety and effectiveness of the herbicide.
“The agency plans to re-evaluate risks from glyphosate and certain inert ingredients to humans and the environment during the registration review process,” the EPA said in a written statement. The agency declined to make anyone available to discuss the review.
Meanwhile, Monsanto and its corporate agricultural rivals are scrambling to roll out different herbicides as well as new herbicide-tolerant crops that they hope will halt the advance of weed resistance and silence critics.
“Glyphosate resistance has built up to quite concerning levels in the United States,” said John Ramsay, chief financial officer of Switzerland-based plant sciences company Syngenta, one of many companies introducing glyphosate alternatives.
“It is not surprising that with every single farmer pouring glyphosate over virtually every acre, plant life is going to have something to say about it,” he said.
It all spells potentially big changes for world agriculture and the profits of those companies playing in the chemicals and seeds arena.
A FAVORITE WITH FARMERS
World annual spending on herbicide totals more than $14 billion, with more than $5 billion of that spent in the United States alone, according to the ...
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CA legislators to EPA: Ban methyl iodide - please!
More than 35 California legislators, including Speaker of the Assembly John Pérez, submitted a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency urging policymakers to “suspend and cancel all uses of iodomethane (methyl iodide) in the United States…” on April 4, 2011.
The fumigant pesticide, ushered in against scientific opinion during the final weeks of the Schwarzenegger administration, is destined for California strawberry fields as early as this spring. Methyl iodide causes cancer, is a thyroid toxicant and has been called “one of the most toxic chemicals on earth” by Dr. John Froines, the lead scientific reviewer for the state.
Bees “entomb” pesticide-laced pollen
In an apparent, and failed, attempt at self-defense, honey bees are sealing off pesticide-laced pollen.
U.S. entomologists published a study two years ago that described a newly observed phenomenon in honey bees, now known as entombed pollen: food stores sealed off by bees after being deposited in the hive. That pollen was much higher in pesticide residues than any other pollen stored in the hive, and correspondingly had no detectable bacteria or fungi. Hives with entombed pollen were more than twice as likely to collapse later in the season than hives without it.
New research confirms this trend. According to leading U.S. bee researcher, Dr. Jeff Pettis, “The presence of entombing is the biggest single predictor of colony loss. It’s a defence mechanism that has failed.” And although once thought to be rare, entombing is showing up with greater frequency in U.S. research on honey bee declines, according to recent coverage by The UK Guardian.