With environmental and human health at stake, AFE student Maggie O’Connor argues that we must fund research into pesticide alternatives.
For years the American public has received complicated and often contradictory information about the risks of glyphosate, a potent herbicide that is the active ingredient in many weed killers, including Roundup. Seen as perhaps the most significant agricultural breakthrough of the last century, Roundup and Roundup Ready crops—crops genetically modified to be resistant to Roundup—have allowed farmers to spray weeds without worrying about damaging their crops. Since its introduction to the market, Roundup’s use has grown steadily, and it is now the most used agricultural chemical ever.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed the chemical to be “probably carcinogenic to humans,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has maintained that glyphosate presents no risk to human health. Despite partial bans of the chemical throughout Europe and lawsuits in the United States alleging that glyphosate has caused illnesses including cancer, the dominant players in both the public and private sector in the United States remain steadfast in their stance that glyphosate is a safe and effective herbicide. But the arguments against glyphosate are compelling. Beyond just the health risks, what was once thought of as a miraculous scientific achievement is now being shown to have some weaknesses: 38 distinct weed species have developed glyphosate resistance, threatening to destroy the careful ecological and economic balance created by our current agricultural system.
The undeniable truth with which we must reckon is that, despite the risks of glyphosate, our current system has become dependent on the chemical. As of 2015, Roundup Ready crops such as soy, maize (corn), canola, sugar beets, cotton, and alfalfa accounted for 43% of total plantings in the United States. A ban of glyphosate would cause billions of dollars in losses in the United States, due in large part to production efficiency losses. Banning glyphosate would force farmers to resort to other weed control strategies, such as spraying other questionable chemicals or tilling more, also resulting in environmental degradation. It could also lead to land-use changes, including deforestation, which would result in a drastic increase in carbon emissions.
While the early promise of the Roundup system led to gains in productivity and widespread adoption, the problems the chemical has caused for human health and environmental integrity have begun to outweigh its benefits. However, our alternatives are severely limited. Before Roundup was widely adopted in the 1990s, new herbicides were introduced to farmers every few years, preventing overuse and resistance. Due to over-reliance on glyphosate and the consolidation of herbicide manufacturers, research into glyphosate alternatives has withered, with no new alternatives introduced in the past 20 years.
Too much is at stake for us to continue to blindly trust in Roundup. We must move away from our reliance on such a dangerous chemical, but before we can do so we need a better alternative weed management system. The only way we will find alternatives that are safe for humans and the environment, enabling our food system to continuously adapt, is through government-funded research. Current seed and herbicide companies have cornered the market, and without competition they have no incentive to solve the problems they have helped to create. They have also created a culture of distrust due to the influence of industry in the existing research. To protect the health of its citizens, the environment, and the agricultural economy, the U.S. government needs to prioritize research into herbicides and weed management systems.
A shift to prioritizing this research would require a shift in priorities from Congress. While there are many causes deserving of federal funding, it is imperative that Congress allocate a larger amount of money to USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture with the directive that it must be spent on glyphosate research. This would demonstrate a national commitment to public safety and allow the top-tier agricultural scientists to reach a conclusion on this topic. It is unconscionable for the government to sit back and let scientific uncertainty abound. It’s time the government provided citizens with authoritative information about the safety of glyphosate and its alternatives.
Maggie O’Connor is a second-year student in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program. She is passionate about making the food system more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. When not at Friedman, she can be found doing yoga, baking bread, and drinking herbal tea.