Should councils stop using the weedkiller glyphosate?

Credit: Original article can be found here

It has been the subject of nationwide protests, billion-dollar lawsuits in the United States, and recently Japan turned away New Zealand honey because of it. What is glyphosate, and should we be worried about its use in New Zealand?

Glyphosate is the world’s most commonly used herbicide. In New Zealand, it is used to kill weeds in places ranging from orchards, crops and vineyards, to private gardens, roadsides and public parks.

The herbicide is contained in hundreds of products globally, and used in about 90 products in this country, with Roundup arguably the most recognised brand.

Glyphosate, manufactured by Monsanto, is the world’s most commonly used herbicide.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Glyphosate, manufactured by Monsanto, is the world’s most commonly used herbicide.

Glyphosate now underpins much of New Zealand’s – and the world’s – food production.

Why do we use glyphosate?

Glyphosate was discovered to be a herbicide in 1970, by a chemist at American agrochemical corporation Monsanto.

READ MORE:
* Alarmists, ideologues and the weak-willed drive Christchurch council
* Greens call for ban of glyphosate weedkiller in Marlborough parks
* Roundup foes driven by hatred for Monsanto
* Taranaki councils have no plans to stop using herbicide Roundup

The chemical works by blocking an enzyme present in plants (not in animals), which plants need to survive.

Monsanto brought glyphosate to the market in 1974, under the Roundup trade name.

It was quickly adopted in the agriculture sector, as it enabled farmers to kill weeds without killing their crops.

Environmental campaigners protest at Christchurch City Council's draft annual plan submission hearings on a council plan to bring back widespread use of glyphosate.

Marney Brosnan

Environmental campaigners protest at Christchurch City Council’s draft annual plan submission hearings on a council plan to bring back widespread use of glyphosate.

Ecologists are now among those who use it for land restoration projects.

But glyphosate has been mired in controversy over the past six years after it was linked to cancer.

Courts in the United States have subsequently ordered Monsanto to pay millions of dollars in damages to people who claimed the weedkiller caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

What do the scientists say?

In 2015 the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic in humans”, prompting several countries to ban, or restrict its use.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

Subsequent reviews by international bodies either contradicted that, or were inconclusive.

The European Food Safety Authority found that glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans.

And in 2016, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organisation joint committee on pesticide residues said the use of glyphosate formulations did not necessarily constitute a health risk, and gave an acceptable daily intake.

In 2015, the active ingredient found in Roundup – glyphosate – was classified as being "probably carcinogenic to humans" by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015.

tom dillane/Stuff

In 2015, the active ingredient found in Roundup – glyphosate – was classified as being “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2015.

What is New Zealand’s position on glyphosate?

In line with regulatory authorities in the US, European Union, Australia and Canada, New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) said in 2016 that glyphosate was safe to use, when the rules around its use were followed.

An amount of glyphosate residue is permitted in food.

The highest level allowed in food, grown in New Zealand, is 0.1 parts per million (ppm). This is apart from in fruit, which has a limit of 0.01ppm.

Residues of up to 30ppm are allowed in some imported foods, such as cereal grains.

But the use of glyphosate remains hotly contested by campaigners and some scientists, because of health and environmental concerns.

Last month, the EPA called for information about the manufacture, importation, and patterns of use of the weedkiller in this country, ahead a review of the classification of glyphosate in Europe.

The EPA said that would ensure it was better prepared to assess the findings of the review, due to be released in mid-2022, by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

“We want to understand whether products containing glyphosate may be damaging the environment or human health, despite the clear rules in place,” Dr Chris Hill, EPA general manager hazardous substances and new organisms, said.

“We also want to know about the economic benefits of glyphosate’s use, and any potential alternatives.”

Why do local authorities use glyphosate?

Many councils use glyphosate to kill weeds in public spaces, including parks and playgrounds, to keep them tidy.

But they say they also use the chemical to maintain safety in road transport corridors, to protect assets like kerb sides and help with ecological restoration projects.

Some local boards choose not to use it at all.

Auckland Council and Christchurch City Council last year backed away from proposals to expand their glyphosate use.

Auckland Council did so after alternative methods for killing weeds, such as hot water, plant-based herbicide and removal by hand, were found not to be as expensive as stated.

Extinction Rebellion Whakatu protest outside the Nelson City Council main offices, calling for the council to phase out its use of the herbicide glyphosate.

Extinction Rebellion Whakatu protest outside the Nelson City Council main offices, calling for the council to phase out its use of the herbicide glyphosate.

Christchurch City Council acted after opponents branded the plan “short-sighted”, and environmental campaigners called for a reduction in spraying as a way of getting rid of weeds.

Wellington City Council said it currently didn’t have “suitable alternatives” to glyphosate, which it used to protect and maintain infrastructural assets, ensure public safety, and protect the natural environment from invasive or difficult-to-control weed species.

Nelson City Council said it was prioritising a review on its use of glyphosate, over ecological, economic and health concerns from some in the community.

The council – recently targeted by Extinction Rebellion protesters for its use of the weedkiller – said 49 per cent of the 441 litres of glyphosate concentrate it used in 2019 was on its parks.

Police arrest an Extinction Rebellion protester outside Nelson City Council’s main offices, during a demonstration over the council’s use of the herbicide glyphosate.

Martin De Ruyter/Stuff

Police arrest an Extinction Rebellion protester outside Nelson City Council’s main offices, during a demonstration over the council’s use of the herbicide glyphosate.

Seventeen per cent was used in roadside vegetation, 28 per cent on forestry, and 6 per cent on ecological restoration/environmental weed control activities.

The council said it sought to minimise glyphosate use in parks through mulching, and techniques including hand-weeding.

Is glyphosate harming humans and the environment?

That is the multibillion-dollar question.

German conglomerate Bayer AG, which bought Monsanto in 2018, has committed over US$10 billion to settle a flood of US lawsuits alleging Roundup caused cancer.

The firm says decades of studies show glyphosate is safe for human use.

In New Zealand, toxicologist Dr Belinda Cridge, from the Institute of Environmental Science and Research, says all chemicals pose risks.

While the IARC found glyphosate had the potential to cause cancer, it did not assess the chances of that happening.

Glyphosate affects soil composition, but poses very low risk to human and animal health as it breaks down “reasonably quickly”, based on factors including soil chemistry and rainfall, Cridge says.

She believes there is no evidence that it is unsafe for people to use if applied correctly, using protective gear while spraying, and not spraying in high winds.

Toxicology professor at the University of Canterbury, Ian Shaw says not enough is known about the long term effects of glyphosate.

supplied/Stuff

Toxicology professor at the University of Canterbury, Ian Shaw says not enough is known about the long term effects of glyphosate.

But the Soil and Health Association of New Zealand says evidence that glyphosate has the potential to cause harm to people should be enough for it to be banned in public places and around waterways.

Its glyphosate spokesperson, Jodie Bruning, says research overseas shows glyphosate can last in soils for months.

Countries in Europe and elsewhere are moving away from using glyphosate where the public could be exposed, and New Zealand should do the same on a “precautionary principle”.

She says the EPA never conducted a risk assessment of glyphosate to understand how it worked in the New Zealand environment.

“Local councils need to take the initiative … because they are responsible for protecting public health.”

Why do ecologists use glyphosate?

Ian Price, from Forest & Bird, has been using glyphosate to help restore native forests in the Nelson region for more than 30 years.

He sprays the grass with it before planting, and uses glyphosate “intensively” for 12 months, until the trees start shading the grass.

Before using glyphosate, he would lose 60 per cent of native plantings, he says. That compares to 2–3 per cent now.

“I do not deny glyophosate is a toxin. But a little bit of negative achieves a hell of a lot of positive.”

Controlling the grass early means native forests can establish quickly, providing an environment that fosters biodiversity.

With 14,500 trees to plant this year, it is practical and cost-effective to use glyphosate, he says.

Should glyphosate be reclassified?

University of Canterbury toxicology professor Ian Shaw says glyphosate should be categorised as hazardous until proven otherwise.

Having recently reviewed the gamut of scientific papers on glyphosate, he says we don’t know enough about its long-term effects.

When glyphosate was licensed in the 1970s, it was seen as the “holy grail of pesticides”, with no effects on humans and animals.

Extinction Rebellion Whakatu members protesting outside the Nelson City Council offices, in a demonstration against the council’s use of the weedkiller, glyphosate.

Martin de Ruyter/Stuff

Extinction Rebellion Whakatu members protesting outside the Nelson City Council offices, in a demonstration against the council’s use of the weedkiller, glyphosate.

“One of the important environmental aspects of it was that it was quickly removed from the environment. We now know that really isn’t true.”

The risks to people from single spraying or exposure to glyphosate are very low, he says.

But the chemical is constantly leaching into the environment, binding to soils and sediment in rivers and streams, and breaking down to a compound about which we knew very little.

“We don’t have enough data about glyphosate’s long-term effects to rule out that it might be a carcinogen, and to rule out that it might be affecting ecosystems in a long-term context.

“We’ve got to sit down and do a proper study that gives a definitive result, rather than lots of bits and pieces from around the world, that confuse the picture.”

He says there are “good reasons” to use glyphosate in a farm setting, and as a “one-off” for planting natives.

But whether councils should use glyphosate routinely to control weeds at the side of roads is “highly questionable”.

Is glyphosate killing bees?

Environmental campaign group Extinction Rebellion says research from 2018 shows glyphosate disturbs the gut bacteria of bees, making them more susceptible to parasites, and could disorient the pollinators, disrupting hive activity.

But Kerry Harrington, associate professor in weed science at Massey University, says the study does not show a strong link between normal glyphosate use and the health of bees.

“It appears there are many other things that are just as likely to affect bees, and the importance of glyphosate compared with many of these other environmental factors is still very much unknown.”

Using hot water or steam to kill weeds instead of glyphosate requires more frequent treatment, more use of fossil-fuels and emissions of carbon dioxide, and would lead to a build-up of weed species that were partially tolerant of heat, he says.

Alternative herbicides are either more expensive, less effective or have safety issues.