Editors' Notebook

Glyphosate Safety: An Untimely Convenient Truth

Greg D Horstmeier
By  Greg D Horstmeier , DTN Editor-in-Chief
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In a move that had me gasp, then giggle, then seethe, EPA this week came out discussing the ecological consequences of glyphosate misuse. Well, that wasn't what the agency started out to do. In fact, that statement was probably lost to most readers, overshadowed by the much more positive support that the agency does not believe glyphosate is a carcinogen.

To be certain, the human health issue -- does glyphosate cause cancer -- should be front and center these days, given the number and size of the lawsuits that are latching onto claims of glyphosate's role in Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and other cancers.

But it was the secondary statement, that there might be other ecological issues with glyphosate, that garnered my responses. EPA said it was "proposing management measures to help farmers target pesticide sprays on the intended pest, protect pollinators, and reduce the problem of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate."

(For full coverage on EPA's statement, see our story by DTN Staff Todd Neeley, "EPA: Glyphosate Safe, Not Carcinogenic," at https://tinyurl.com/…)

I gasped, because here was our "environmental" watchdog group, actually making a comment related to herbicides that was about the "environment." What a novel thought!

I giggled, just a little, as I imagined the scene of severely strained elbows after all that patting each other on the back as the news release was drafted. There was actually some gravitas put into the calling out of some issues that glyphosate can cause -- namely that it's been so effective as herbicide that it has led to weed resistance. "We bad!" I could imagine a group of emboldened bureaucrats saying as they plucked a fresh draft out of the office printer. "Oh yeah, we bad!"

But that image also made me utter a few words of which my dear mother would not approve. Here we are, more than 20 years after the Roundup Ready system of seeds and herbicides was brought to market, and EPA has finally publically mentioned an issue that farmers and others in agriculture have been dealing with for decades, actually from almost Day One: weed resistance.

I mean, this isn't just shutting the proverbial barn door after the horses are out. This is propping what remains of the barn door against the rotting heap of lumber, horse dung and straw left after the barn collapsed from neglect. The horses? Well, they are a distant memory, as faded as the recollection of the fields glyphosate once made squeaky clean with just a sprayer pass or two.

Why EPA previously ignored issues of pest resistance, not just in herbicides, but insecticides (pink bollworm, anyone?) and all other "cides," is explained in the law that guides the agency's pesticide actions. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA), was about protecting flora and fauna, particularly humans. FIFRA was not, EPA often said, about protecting the viability of a product. That was up to the industry to police.

But was viability the only issue? On multiple occasions during the past 30-odd years, this writer asked various EPA officials: Didn't things like resistant weeds, bugs or fungi actually constitute an "environmental" problem, and didn't they work for the "environmental protection" agency? On each occasion, I tersely received chapter and verse on FIFRA and EPA's mandate. It's only been in recent years -- mainly on the backs of the dicamba chemical trespass issues and the glyphosate weed resistance problem that gave those new dicamba systems economic viability -- that officials at EPA have decided to address the "other" environmental consequences around pesticide misuse and overuse.

As I've written before in this space, the future of glyphosate's downfall, that its strength would also be its Achilles Heel, was foretold many times in the early 1990s. Every time a scientific paper or event discussed the potential, even the reality, of glyphosate weed resistance, it was immediately followed by an "equal time" presentation wholeheartedly denying resistance could happen. For years, as the not-so-funny joke went, the official answer to glyphosate resistance was "more glyphosate."

The bigger crime, in my book, is that industry was allowed, we were allowed, to let that happen. Because EPA just didn't want to get in the middle of the proper use issue. They simply looked the other way, conveniently visioned by their FIFRA blinders.

Today's EPA, if recent comments are to be taken as a sign of change, might have given us another 20, 30, heck maybe even 50 years of effective glyphosate use with just a little mandated common sense.

Perhaps this new, broader look will prevent, or at least slow, resistance in the future. Maybe it will weigh into the current battle over dicamba, which by some scientific findings is already "breaking," with weed resistance showing up in places.

It's just a shame this revelation comes after what's arguably the most effective, safest weed control product since the iron plow has been reduced to a sideshow in the battle over weed populations. One has to wonder, if that common sense would have led to just a little less glyphosate use, and therefore less glyphosate residue showing up across the environment, if these lawsuits and the general growing hatred of that active ingredient might have been stalled as well.

Greg D. Horstmeier can be reached at greg.horstmeier@dtn.com

Follow him on Twitter @greghorstmeier



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