Time to put another view on Glyphosate and neonicotinoid pesticides.
Glyphosate, sold as Roundup, is often making the headlines as being the demon pesticide and the cause of all sorts of ills. It is a non-selective, contact herbicide, meaning it will kill most plants. Pure glyphosate is low in toxicity, however products usually contain other substances that help the glyphosate get into the plants and it is these that can cause irritation of the skin, nose and throat. In humans, straight glyphosate does not easily pass through our skin. If it is ingested by accident it will pass through the body relatively quickly with little harm. I don’t recommend trying this at home though, remember those added ingredients! Most modern products containing glyphosate that we use in the UK have been modified and contain less harmful substances. Studies on animals and humans to see if glyphosate causes cancer have been evaluated by many countries’ regulatory bodies, including the EU as well as the World Health Organization. They have all stated that glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic. There are many more products under your kitchen sink that are much more harmful to you and the environment. Just because they disappear down the plug hole does not make them any less of a risk than a pesticide applied to a growing crop. UK farmers and their operators have to be trained and pass a rigorous exam both theory and practical before they can apply pesticides. This is backed up with compulsory, annual continuing professional development. Yet amateur gardeners can buy a watered down version and spray with gay abandon in their gardens. There are certain pressure groups that have a completely different agenda and see the banning of glyphosate as a way of getting back control of the genetic modification of plants that are resistant to glyphosate. Regenerative farming, a bit of a buzz phrase currently, but really encompassing what good farmers have always done, would struggle to exist without glyphosate. Reducing cultivations to better care for the soil, its worms and micro-organisms relies on glyphosate to destroy weeds and where used, cover crops prior to sowing. Cover crops are sometimes used between the harvesting of a crop in the summer and the subsequent establishment of a new crop in the spring. They help to soak up any free nitrogen that might in a wet winter be washed out of the soil and into water courses. Their roots help cultivate the soil and as the plants die back they contribute to the organic matter. There is currently no other pesticide to replace glyphosate. Work is ongoing to find other techniques such as rolling the cover crop in a frost, grazing with livestock and mowing. None of these will give a complete kill. The only other way is to plough the land and bury everything. This uses much more fuel, releases carbon and can damage the soil as well as killing the worms that we are trying to protect.
Defra have approved the use of a neonicotinoid pesticide as a seed treatment in this year’s sugar beet crop. The pesticide is taken up by the growing crop and controls the aphids feeding on the plant who transmit a virus called beet virus yellow. This has a devastating effect on the yield of the crop and currently there are no other control measures. 12 EU countries have also granted emergency authorisations this year, but it has very strict limitations on how it can be used. The key one is that no flowering crop can be grown in the same field for 32 months after treatment. Neonicotinoids have been banned in the UK and the EU for a number of years following concern that they harm bees. In particular, when feeding on the pollen from crops like oilseed rape it seems it might affect their ability to navigate back to the hive. So, the first part of the ban was to stop its use on crops with flowers but to continue its use on non-flowering crops such as cereals. It is now banned on all crops. Normally it is just applied to the seed, however it persists in the soil for some time so could find its way into a following crop such as rape, that produces flowers. Since the ban on neonicotinoids, the area of rape grown in the UK has fallen as we have struggled to control the flea beetles which wipe out vast areas of crop. We are now starting to find non chemical ways to deal with it and perhaps those growing beet will also find a way to deal with the aphids. Bear in mind most other parts of the world are still using neonicotinoids and we import rape from them.