THE local authority official from Ballaghaderreen wrote to the Department of Agriculture to advise that regional councillors had voted to call for a ban on the use of a controversial chemical, but what he got back was a lecture on semantics.
Denis Kelly, acting director of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, fell foul of the department’s linguistic police by using the term ‘weedkiller’ in his letter.
“Your note refers to the term ‘weed killer’ which is not an accurate or indeed a helpful descriptor of the type of PPP [plant protection product],” came the reply.
“In fact the term only invokes an immediate negative and emotive response. Consequently, we refer to such products as “desiccants” and/or “herbicides” which merely mean that they are used to eradicate or destroy unwanted vegetation.”
So that was Mr Kelly put in his place. Whatever about the ban on the use of the chemical, he was banned from calling it a weedkiller.
The plant protection product, desiccant, herbicide or, to be mischievous, weedkiller, in question was glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, one of the most familiar chemical sprays you’ll see in your local garden centre and one of the most commonly used by farmers around the world.
What this brief exchange of letters reveals is the level of sensitivity around it. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a cancer-causing evil or the greatest, and safest, biochemical breakthrough since penicillin.
And it’s not just the usual suspects lining up on either side of the argument — organic growers versus traditional farmers, environmentalists versus big business. Two giants of public health are also at odds over it.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is one arm of the World Health Organisation, following a review of various studies, published findings in March 2015 that classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
However, in May 2015, other experts at the WHO and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded that glyphosate “is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans”.
The European Food Safety Authority backed this view in November 2015. There followed a lengthy and heated row between scientists on both sides, each attacking the research methodology of the other.
In the meantime, glyphosate came up for its periodic licencing review with its authorisation for use in the EU due to expire at the end of June 2016.
The proposal on the table was that the authorisation be re-approved for a 15-year-period but the cancer studies row made some member states nervous — in particular heavyweights France and Germany.
A compromise proposal was put forward that approval would be granted for 18 months and meanwhile, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the EU’s regulatory body, would be asked to undertake a review of glyphosate to see if it believed the IARC’s concerns were justified.
That review, which included an element of public consultation, began last summer and is due to be completed by November of this year.
The move wasn’t enough to secure a vote in favour of the extension, however. In early June, 20 member states, including Ireland, voted in support of the proposal but seven abstained and Malta voted against it.
An appeal vote followed on June 24 and again the necessary majority was not reached. That left it back with the European Commission to make a decision. If its authorisation was not extended by June 30, glyphosate was off the shelves.
Imagine the unfortunate official who would get the job of breaking the news to glyphosate’s manufacturers, foremost among them the international chemical giant, Monsanto.
So the commission approved a temporary extension, throwing glyphosate a lifeline for six months from the end of this year or six months from completion of the ECHA review, whichever is earlier, with recommendations for restrictions on its use in the interim.
A sigh of relief ran through the Department of Agriculture. Documents released under Freedom of Information show anxiety among officials and the farming sector at the thought of losing glyphosate.
At all stages leading up to the summer vote, Ireland was firm in backing the renewed authorisation — for 15 years as initially proposed, then for nine years, then seven and eventually 18 months as the commission tried to find a universally acceptable resolution.
In letters to various interest groups who wrote seeking guidance on the likely outcome of the deliberations, the department repeatedly stated its belief that glyphosate use was entirely safe.
In May, the frustration of a senior official in the pesticide control division with the perceived dithering and posturing by other member states was clear.
In an email to some of his like-minded counterparts abroad, he wrote: “Maybe we have to lose glyphosate to bring some sense to the EU system, where sound bytes and NGOs hold more sway than scientific reason. Agriculture simply cannot survive without glyphosate.”
A counterpart in the UK agreed, replying: “When the supermarket shelves have large gaps and the price of food increases, we might begin to realise we have gone too far.”
The commission’s decision to take the decision out of the hands of the member states — at least temporarily — put those fears on hold. But while extending the authorisation on glyphosate to the end of this year, the commission also added the following conditions on its use:
- 1. Glyphosate based products that also contained POE-tallowamine be banned. POE-tallowamine is a derivative from animal fat that, when used in conjunction with glyphosate, increases its effectiveness and so reduces the level of glyphosate required in the product.
According to the Department of Agriculture, products containing both substances POE-tallowamine are 20% cheaper than those based on glyphosate alone so it’s a popular additive but concerns about its toxicity have been growing.
- 2. Member states must pay particular attention to the protection of groundwater from contamination by glyphosate. Essentially, that meant restrictions on how close to groundwater sources spraying could take place.
- 3. Member states must pay particular attention to risks from using glyphosate in public parks and gardens, playgrounds, school grounds, healthcare facilities and sports and recreation grounds.
- 4. Member states must pay particular attention that the pre-harvest use of glyphosate on crops complies with good agricultural practices.
This was another case for the semantics police for it wasn’t clear what “pay particular attention to” meant in practice. As one department official interpreted it, Ireland couldn’t be forced to do anything but “the nuance is that we take some regulatory action”.
Ireland had no objection to the POE-tallowamine ban, but, as a department position paper put it: “With regard to the other three proposals/restrictions, there is no scientific basis on which to act.”
The groundwater issue was considered taken care of by existing domestic regulations so that wasn’t deemed to require any additional regulatory action.
It was also felt that there were sufficient regulations governing the use of glyphosate in public areas so no further restrictions were considered necessary there either although it was intended to produce a “decision support system” to assist those in charge of maintaining such areas to carry out risk assessments and plan their spraying accordingly.
The fourth condition was different and requires a quick lesson in agricultural practices to understand.
Glyphosate is used by grain farmers — those growing the likes of wheat, oats, barley, oilseed rape and linseed - after a crop is harvested to clear fields of any weeds and other unwanted vegetation so that the land can be prepared for sowing crops for the next harvest. It is also used on standing crops for weed control. When used this way it is called a herbicide or weedkiller.
But it is also used pre-harvest when those crops are close to being ready for cutting. Then it’s called a desiccant but only the terminology changes because essentially it does the same job as when it is called a weedkiller.
It kills off the leafy and green parts of the plant and dries out the crop, hastening readiness for harvesting and ensuring all of the crop is ripe and ready at the same time. A combine harvester can cut a crop like this much quicker and straw baling is also faster because the stalks left behind are already dry.
Wet summers can play havoc with the process otherwise, delaying harvests, creating uneven harvests, or destroying the crop altogether.
As rain and summer go hand in hand here, glyphosate is the Irish farmer’s friend. A Department of Agriculture briefing document says, “pre-harvest use of glyphosate on cereals as a desiccant and harvesting aid... is a significant use in Ireland”.
One farmer spelled it out clearly when he wrote to Agriculture Minister Michael Creed on behalf of 223 tillage farmers in the minister’s Cork North-West constituency last May.
“If we were to lose the use of this chemical it would surely spell the end for a sector that is already suffering from four years of low prices and high input costs,” the farmer wrote.
“Roundup as it is most commonly known is the most effective way of dealing with weeds such as sterile broom, Italian grass, canary grass and black grass.
“The last weed in particular has decimated many tillage growing areas of the UK but thankfully is being kept in check in Ireland. Roundup is our only weapon to keeping this weed and others at bay. It is critically important that glyphosate is licenced again.”
Barclay Chemicals, based in West Dublin, echoed that view in a letter in June. “Barclay is very concerned with the current impasse regarding the renewal of glyphosate,” the company’s managing director wrote. “Glyphosate is a vital tool for farmers leading to both economic and environmental benefits across the EU,” he said, warning that restrictions on its use would have a “significant negative impact on Barclay end users”.
“Pre-harvest uses of glyphosate for managing harvest are good agricultural practice where crops are harvested under adverse conditions,” he continued.
“Ireland and the UK reside in a temperate climate which can lead to uneven ripening and perennial grass weeds. This is not the case in drier climatic regions of the EU.
“Barclay sincerely urges the minister to intervene and ensure that Ireland votes against such restrictions which are wholly disproportionate and unwarranted given the benign toxicological and environmental profile of glyphosate.”
Not everyone associated with grain production is so enamoured, however. Some food producers, such as Flahavans, and some malsters who process barley for the drinks industry, do not accept crops that have been treated in any way with glyphosate — for weed control or desiccation.
It’s a standard they have applied voluntarily in response to consumer demand and farmers wanting supply contracts have to comply. But other producers have no such qualms about using the chemical.
No such restrictions apply either to oilseed rape which is grown for both cooking oil and for the production of high protein animal feed.
As such, it is classified as a non-food crop although there are semantics at play there too as if it is used in cooking or in feeding animals that become meat for the table, it is indirectly a food crop.
Despite Ireland’s reliance on pre-harvest use of glyphosate, when the European Commission set out the conditions attached to the temporary extension of its authorisation, the initial reaction to the edict to “pay particular attention to” this usage was one of acceptance.
An internal Department of Agriculture email from July 2016 states that Ireland would be prohibiting all pre-harvest use of glyphosate on food crops, and only allowing it for weed control in non-food crops — with the exception of oilseed rape grown for animal feed, and grazing grass.
That position is reasserted repeatedly in internal communications and in letters to external bodies. In August, a letter to the employers body Ibec, which wrote on behalf of its subsidiary, Food and Drink Industry Ireland, stated: “All pre-harvest glyphosate use on crops for human consumption will be suspended pending the deliberations of ECHA. This means that from 2017, pre-harvest use on cereal, oilseed or pulse crops destined for the food and drinks sector will no longer be permitted.”
Given that the department had earlier expressed the view that “there is no scientific basis on which to act”, it is probably no surprise that the letter adds: “This is purely a stance to give reassurance to the public.”
Another letter in September, this time in response to queries from Irish Distillers, states: “For harvest 2017, no Irish cereals destined for the food and drinks sector should contain any residues of glyphosate.”
The minister made a statement to that effect in reply to a parliamentary question in September, saying: “My department has taken a few very precautionary measures in an attempt to allay any concerns the general public may have.
“These measures include the removal of certain products containing a particular co-formulant [POE tallowamine] from the marketplace, as well as disallowing the pre-harvest use of glyphosate on crops which may enter the food chain (milling wheat, malting barley, etc.).”
Change of heart
Yet in November, there is a change in attitude and the policy is watered down. The total mandatory ban on pre-harvest glyphosate use on food crops is gone and it can now be used for weed control on standing crops.
That automatically raises the question of when does weed control end and desiccation begin? Glyphosate can’t be applied for weed control too soon in a crop’s life or it will gradually kill the growing crop too but if it’s applied late in the crop’s growing cycle, it is effectively functioning as a desiccant.
Without a mandatory ban, it’s arguable whether there would be any discernible impact on farming practices.
So what happened in the interim to change the department’s mind? A strongly worded letter from the Irish Grain and Feed Association on file dated October 18, 2016, may have had some influence. The association writes that the proposed prohibition on use of glyphosate on food crops would have the effect of “seriously damaging the bottom of the chain”, ie the farmers and intermediate processors.
“A broad sweep move such as this will prevent our ability to offer premium oilseed rape contracts this spring/autumn. The seed and contracts when available may be offered to the UK instead,” it warned.
“A public statement such as this will give the WRONG [the association’s emphasis] impression to international food customers, raising their expectations unnecessarily and putting a burden and cost on IE [Irish] suppliers that is unsustainable legally and financially.
“Irish tillage farmers depend on a wide range of PPP [plant protection products] and technical dynamic arable advice that adapts to the season and GAP [good agricultural practice]. Giving the impression that primary production can manage without a full tool box is simply untrue and damaging to the sector.”
But perhaps more significantly, the files show that a meeting with a delegation from Monsanto was arranged for September 16 at Monsanto’s request.
“Monsanto would like to meet with you to clarify point 4 [the fourth condition laid down by the commission] and discuss pre-harvest uses and Good Agricultural Practices and to present a case that challenges the assertion that harvest management is not deemed to be a good agricultural practice,” the company’s head of regulatory affairs wrote.
The reply from the department was sympathetic: “We agree entirely that harvest management should be considered as good practice and we have made this known to the COM [commission]. We do not wish to attract any negative attention to the country by ignoring the recital [decision] at the very least until ECHA give their pronouncement.”
A meeting was agreed to, however, with four representatives from Monsanto due to attend. Whatever happened at that meeting is not chronicled in the correspondence released but by mid-November there is a softening of the department’s stance.
An internal email clarifies the position: “Having consulted with industry, but also having due consideration to actions taken by other member states, it is proposed to amend the restrictions in one area (No 4).
“It is now NOT [the department’s emphasis] proposed to apply a ‘mandatory’ ban.”
Later, in a reply to Diageo who were seeking clarification on restrictions, an official wrote: “It is true to say that we were considering restricting the pre-harvest use to animal feed crops however, it was decided that as there was no scientific basis for such an action, we would restrict our actions.”
In reply to a query from this newspaper, the department emphasised the significance of the glyphosate ban imposed by some food producers. “The department continue to endorse this voluntary initiative but after further consideration did not introduce this restriction as a mandatory label requirement,” it said.
Public opinion may decide glyphosate’s fate
Negative perceptions of the pesticide could harm Irish food industry, writes
The scientific jury might still be out on glyphosate, but the court of public opinion could decide the chemical’s fate.
A letter to the Department of Agriculture, from a senior manager at Bord Bia, last May, illustrates the point. He asked for help in dealing with “some negative publicity we are getting in Holland around the usage of Roundup in Irish grassland, and thereby in beef production in Ireland”.
Mark Zieg, head of the beef sector at Bord Bia, explained the problem with the Dutch, who are an important market for Irish beef.
He wrote: “Food journalist, Felix Wilbrink, of De Telegraaf (largest daily newspaper in Holland), has been making an issue of Roundup usage on Irish farms, following a visit a few years ago. He has previously been a supporter of Ireland’s natural food-production system, but the usage of Roundup has struck a negative, and lasting, chord with him.”
Mr Zieg said efforts had been made to show Mr Wilbrink that there was relatively low usage of glyphosate on pasture here.
“However, it remains an issue that he continues to make negative references about and he remains unconvinced of our case. It is becoming an issue in our promotional work, and amongst other, supportive opinion farmers in the market.”
Mr Zieg asked for statistics on glyphosate usage across the EU to back up his arguments, but was told the data was not readily available.
The department does not downplay glyphosate’s image problem. In a letter to Simon Sheridan, managing director of the Dublin-based, Barclay chemical company, last July, Mr Sheridan was assured that the importance of glyphosate to his company was recognised, but the letter went on to say: “Notwithstanding our support for the continued approval of glyphosate, we are also cognisant, and aware, of the extremely poor public profile of pesticides in general, but more so glyphosate. Never before has a pesticide issue attracted so much attention in Ireland.
“As a food-producing island with a very positive and green profile, we have to be measured, and calculating, in our approach, and while my department continues to place emphasis on maintaining a science-based approach, we must always be aware that customers of Ireland Inc are observing our every action.”
Public perception isn’t unique to Ireland. In October, a senior official in the department emailed a counterpart in Finland to see what uses for glyphosate the ministry of agriculture there allowed. A more restrictive regime was in place, but the inference was that it was not for scientific reasons.
The Finnish official replied: “We have not authorised glyphosate for desiccation use. We have a pre-harvest authorisation in barley, oats, and oil-seed crops (oil-seed rape and turnip rape), but only for treatment of weeds (esp grassy weeds like Elymus repens — couch grass).
“And this is only authorised for a grain harvest that will be used as feed. It is not authorised on grain for food use. This authorisation has been in place for a long time, but not very much used, since the market is not interested in buying grain that has been treated with glyphosate. This is mostly an image issue, an ‘it does not look good to spray a crop close to harvest’ issue.” He said that farmers in Finland were not happy with the situation.
Concerns about glyphosate extend beyond agricultural use. Letters on file from members of the public, council officials, public representatives, and others, show a lack of clarity about how, and where, the chemical can be used, with a tone of reservation throughout the questions raised.
The regulations don’t necessarily clear things up, as the replies reveal grey areas — such as when is or isn’t a roadside gully considered surface water (close to which glyphosate must not be sprayed), and what body is responsible for pursuing an individual who appears to be using excessive amounts of glyphosate.
Some confusion also surrounds who can use what glyphosate-based products, for while anyone using them in a professional capacity — for example, in farming or grounds maintenance — is required to be registered and trained in its use, the products are often the same as those that can be bought in any garden centre and used by anyone.
Last August, a Tidy Towns adjudicator sought advice on what policy to adopt, writing: “We continue to have long discussions on the weedkillers/chemicals.”
The reply from the department advised: “In a Tidy Towns scenario, if it is all volunteers that are doing the spraying, then only amateur products may be purchased and used. In many instances, the same product, with a different registration number, may be available for professional and amateur use.”
Similarly, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, who wrote asking what permits were needed to use glyphosate on Japanese knotweed, were told: “While there are different products registered, they have identical formulation details. This means that we could have amateur users needing no training whatsoever to do the same job as professional users who require training.”
The Golf Course Superintendents Association of Ireland wrote last September, seeking clarification on the regulations around glyphosate generally.
The importance of registering as professional users was stressed. They were told: “There are still a lot of people who are not registered, unless, of course, there are a good number of clubs who are turning organic and do not intend applying any pesticides in the future.”
Glyphosate has been considered a godsend for tackling Japanese knotweed, the insidious plant that destroys native vegetation, damages buildings, and which can withstand most other approaches to weed control.
But even among those working tirelessly to keep the plant at bay — and who would attract a high level of public sympathy for their task — there are concerns about glyphosate.
The Japanese Knotweed Project in Co Kerry wrote to the department last July, suggesting that Teagasc might like to support a study on alternatives to the chemical.
How a herbicide became the ‘holy grail’ of weed control
Glyphosate first appeared on the market in 1974. The agrichemical industry was then under a cloud, following the discrediting of the pesticide, DDT, which was toxic to helpful insects, as well as birds, animals, and fish.
As a non-selective herbicide — meaning it kills just about every plant it touches — glyphosate might have caused similar jitters, but for the fact that it works by blocking an enzyme that is essential for plant growth, but which is not present in humans or animals.
That proved a strong selling point for its creator, the chemical giant, Monsanto, who sold it under the brand name, Roundup, and while it was originally sold for non-crop use, it quickly became popular with farmers, boosting crop yields and allowing them to cut down on labour-intensive tilling to clear fields after harvest. Roundup was as effective as any plough in preparing the land for the next sowing.
It also began to be used in spot-spraying around standing crops to control weeds during the growing season. That was time-consuming, however, and Monsanto began working on the holy grail of weed control — a method of indiscriminately spraying an entire field and eradicating the weeds without killing the crops.
In the mid 1990s, the solution was developed in the form of genetically modified seeds that were glyphosate-resistant and this ‘Roundup-ready technology’ soon dominated the soy, cotton, corn, and oilseed sectors.
In Ireland, Teagasc, the national agricultural advisory body, dabbled in GM for a time, but public opinion was against it and the trials were discontinued.
But Ireland, along with other rain-soaked countries in western and northern Europe, found another use for Roundup, applying it to crops a few weeks before harvest to halt growth and dry out the plants, ensuring they were all ready for the combine harvester at the same time, whereas nature might only manage an uneven ripening and a water-logged yield.
Neither Monsanto nor the Glyphosate Task Force, a lobby group of glyphosate-producing companies, mention desiccation — as the practice is called — in their information literature as a use for their products.
Regardless of that omission, use of Roundup as a desiccant took off in the early 2000s, driving up sales considerably.
838,250kg of pure glyphosate was used here in 2014, which represents sales of around €12m.
According to some counts, around 140m kilos is used in the US each year, while usage internationally is many multiples of that.
Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired some years ago, but the company is still a major producer of glyphosate-based products and Roundup remains the best-known brand in western countries.
As the use of glyphosate has grown, so, too, have concerns about its impact on human health and the environment.
Initially, fears focused on the theory that long-term, intensive usage of one herbicide would cause weeds to become Roundup-resistant.
Those fears were justified and, in some places, farmers have had to increase their doses of glyphosate to stave off these so-called superweeds, causing more concerns that this strategy will simply result in even more indestructible weeds.
More recently, attention has turned to possible hazards to human health, from exposure to spraying, from the chemical entering water sources through field run-off, and from residues in cereal crops used to make flour, oatmeal, malting barley, and cooking oils.
As desiccation uses glyphosate closest to harvest, it might be expected to leave more residues, but testing of foods here has not yet found examples where permitted maximum residue levels were exceeded.
Focus on Europe’s little-known agency
It’s a safe assumption that the European Chemical Agency is not the EU’s best known regulatory body but later this year there will be more anxious eyes on it than if it was holding a red wire in one hand, a blue in the other and a wirecutters between its teeth.
The agency has the task of assessing glyphosate to see what, if any, hazards it may present and what, if any, steps the European Commission should take to restrict its usage up to and including ending its authorisation for use within the EU.
The agency’s 50-member Committee for Risk Assessment does this kind of work all the time but rarely on a substance that has divided the scientific community as much as glyphosate. On one side, it is accused of causing cancer, chiefly non-Hodgkins lymphoma, as well as reproductive difficulties and digestive disorders. On the other, it is praised as one of the safest chemicals in use.
The dispute centres to a large degree on different research methodologies.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which emptied a whole sack of cats among the pigeons in 2015 by declaring glyphosate to be probably carcinogenic, has been criticised by other scientific bodies for basing its studies on a mix of pure glyphosate and products that contain glyphosate along with other substances.
The argument is it could be the chemical reaction caused by a combination of substances rather than glyphosate alone that is to blame for any suspected health problems. The agency’s Committee for Risk Assessment is looking at glyphosate alone, drawing on years of studies from all over the world as well as some 300 submissions it received from a public consultation exercise last summer, and the presentations of both advocates and opponents who were brought together in December to voice their opinions in open session in an unusual step from an agency that prefers to work under lab lights, not spotlights.
It has until the end of this year to provide its opinions and recommendations to the European Commission. Ireland has two members on the Committee for Risk Assessment — Yvonne Mullooly from the Health and Safety Authority and Brendan Murray from the Department of Agriculture.
The man with the job of keeping the 50 members in order is also Irish. Tim Bowmer, who was appointed chair in 2012, is a graduate of marine biology, botany and zoology from NUI Galway but has spent most of his career as an ecotoxicologist in the Netherlands.