Jane Brooks, freelance journalist.
BACK in 2016 the Soil Association called for a ban on pre-harvest applications of the agrochemical glyphosate on milling wheat.
It did not happen, but is it time to give the matter serious consideration.
In today’s world, food politics are the order of the day and there is no doubt the fertilisers and pesticides that helped feed ever-growing populations during the 20th century are under threat.
This is mainly because vast armies of consumers fervently voice their concerns about food safety and we live in a world where politicians put popularity before science – so much so that last year the EU was on the brink of completely banning glyphosate.
Herbicide-tolerant crops were first introduced in 1996 when glyphosate resistant soybeans hit the US market. Known as Roundup ready, pre and post emergence spraying could take place to prevent weed growth, leaving the crop unharmed and giving farmers a crop-safe herbicide option.
The introduction of roundup ready crops enabled the substitution of glyphosate for the far more toxic chemicals that were used in the past.
The use of glyphosate enabled farmers to move to no-till or minimum tillage arable practices, while still maintaining satisfactory yields. But minimum tillage operations use a lot of chemicals, right up to seven to 14 days before harvest when some crops destined for human consumption are completely killed off (desiccated) by glyphosate.
Last year glyphosate was relicensed for another five years.
In a tweet, French president Emmanuel Macron, confirmed a ban on the use of glyphosate in France ’as soon as alternatives are found, and within three years at the latest’.
Three years is a very long time in politics, but Macron’s stance is a vote catcher, certainly in France and quite possibly in other parts of the world as well.
For the farming population, it will be imperative to find an alternative way forward without facing immediate and significant yield losses and many agricultural chemical companies are already investing heavily in biological research, such as encouraging seed predation by invertebrates and seed degradation in the soil, together with the use of cover crops. However, we could be facing a near future of lower yields, lower quality and higher production costs.
Perhaps we need to save ourselves and one way would be to voluntarily ban the use of desiccation on milling crops.
It took 10 years to recover from the salmonella egg scare of 1988.
The threat to glyphosate is real – the public no longer believe pre-harvest applications of glyphosate to desiccate crops are safe.
Fear may have overcome science but, if the buying public does not believe in the product, sooner or later they will stop purchasing anything containing flour or oil that has been produced from desiccated crops.
It is time to seriously consider the public’s position on glyphosate and join the call for a voluntary ban on its use for the desiccation of anything entering the human food chain, because it might just help us retain glyphosate as part of the agricultural arsenal for a little bit longer than four and a half years.