Have you ever thought about how your favourite picnic spot in the local city park is managed? Or what happens when herbicides are sprayed on the crops that make up your breakfast cereal? The truth is that in both city parks and the intensive agriculture used to produce breakfast cereals, weed killers are used on a massive scale, under the unproven assumption that they are safe. Roundup, one of the most common commercially available herbicides, is marketed by US agrochemical company Monsanto as “safe” for the environment, and for humans – but “deadly for weeds”. Our new report, Herbicide Tolerance and GM Crops written jointly with fellow non-governmental organisation GM Freeze, however, paints a very different picture.
One of the main ingredients of Roundup, as well as several other herbicides, is a chemical known as glyphosate. Numerous studies covered in the report associate exposure to glyphosate with cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses (including Parkinson’s). Alarmingly, lab testing suggests that glyphosate can cause damage to cells, including human embryo cells. Other studies mentioned in the report indicate that glyphosate may be a gender-bender chemical that interferes with our hormonal balance. Do you still feel like having your picnic and breakfast cereal?
The environmental impacts of glyphosate are not much better with evidence suggesting that the chemical has a damaging impact on our rivers and on the animals that live in them. It also disrupts nutrients in soil, exposing plants (that are not weeds) to disease and could end up contaminating drinking water.
Whether we like it or not, we all receive exposure to herbicides: sometimes from aerial spraying, sometimes through chemical residues in our food and sometimes because of chemical run off from agricultural land that pollutes nearby fields, seas or rivers. Nobody is happy with this situation, as an extensive survey on attitudes to the environment published by the European Commission last week shows that, across the board, Europeans feel they need more information on chemicals and farming.
Of particular worry is the association between glyphosate and the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant crops, known as Roundup-Ready. These crops, so far are mostly grown in the Americas, are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate, so that they can survive massive spraying of Roundup to eliminate weeds. However, these weeds are now becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup.
Resistance to glyphosate has now been confirmed in over 20 weed species, with over 100 resistant strains identified, covering nearly 6 million hectares, primarily in Argentina, Brazil and the U.S, where GM Roundup Ready crops are grown. Controlling these glyphosate-resistant weeds has become a major problem for farmers, prompting manufacturers of glyphosate and GM crops like Monsanto to recommend further increases in the deployment and concentration of herbicides - including the use of chemicals that are even more toxic than glyphosate. This escalation in the pesticide ‘arms race’ is creating a vicious circle that is producing a new breed of superweeds.
There are no winners in the war against superweeds - but human health, the environment, farmers and you, the consumer, all the losers. Given the problems identified so far, Greenpeace is demanding a review of the use of glyphosate in the EU and that no glyphosate-tolerant GM crops should be authorised in Europe or elsewhere. With a major reform of European farming policy just underway, governments need to recognise that the industrial agriculture system where GM crops and chemicals thrive is profoundly unsustainable.
Failure to act will threaten food production, jeopardise human lives and put the environment severely at risk. It is time to round up glyphosate for good and embrace ecological farming allowing us to once again enjoy our picnic and breakfast cereal.
Download the report: Herbicide tolerance and GM crops
Lasse Bruun is Greenpeace International's Senior Campaigner for Sustainable Agriculture