It is not a stretch to say glyphosate has become a lightning rod in the conversation about the future of pesticides in farming, writes Mark Buckingham.
Its popularity worldwide has been built on a combination of incredible efficacy, high safety levels and relatively low cost.
For those adopting a no-till approach, it helps dramatically reduce diesel use, not to mention bringing other environmental benefits, while better protecting ground-nesting birds and worms which can be vulnerable to soil cultivations.
In the UK, it is also a vital part of other farming systems – not least to the many growers struggling to keep black-grass in check. Without it, many believe that growing wheat in those areas could become impossible or, at the very least, much less viable.
Yet for all of its positive benefits for farmers, glyphosate has become the target of scrutiny following the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) 2015 opinion that glyphosate was ‘probably carcinogenic’ – an outlier among scientific and regulatory bodies around the world.
As a result, the American tort law industry has targeted glyphosate, resulting in thousands of claims from people alleging that glyphosate is to blame for their cancer condition. In the first three of these cases, juries have found in favour of the plaintiff and awarded large financial damages against Monsanto.
But the science is squarely on the side of glyphosate.
All pesticides go through meticulous scrutiny by independent expert regulators before being approved and, again, after a set period (usually between five and 15 years), into a re-registration process.
In the case of glyphosate, more than 800 rigorous scientific studies on glyphosate and Bayer’s glyphosate-based herbicides that relate to human and mammalian health, have been submitted to regulators including in Europe, the USA, Canada and many other countries.
These have continued to conclude that glyphosate can be used safely and is not carcinogenic. Several of the agencies that reaffirmed their conclusion post-IARC, including Health Canada and European Food Safety Authority, considered not only the scientific evidence, public comments and submissions from campaigners, but also the opinion of IARC.
These are some of the reasons why it is very possible that the science in these cases will ultimately prevail as they go through the appeals process.
In 2017, we started releasing safety studies online. This is our transparency programme, it is an example of the work we are doing to bridge the gap between ourselves, farmers and consumers. We all want sustainable, safe, affordable food, yet from that common starting point, there is a lot of debate.
Increasing transparency about the science behind our products is one step we have taken.
Global demand for food is increasing and failing to innovate risks expanding the footprint of farming, increasing pressure on biodiversity.
Glyphosate continues to be a crucial part of the farming tool box, but we must not lose sight of other tools.
I believe we should not have to choose between food security and environmental protection, but that means being open to scientific advances and mindful of the scientific evidence.