Proponents of glyphosate renewal count on farmers putting in place agronomic practices following Conservative Agriculture (CA) principles in their bid to get the EU green light for the controversial weed killer.
The current approval of glyphosate – the active substance behind the most commonly used and highly debated herbicide – is set to expire in December 2022.
The renewal procedure started in December 2019, when a group of companies launched a formal application, and will involve an assessment process conducted by four member states – France Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden – appointed as rapporteurs.
Concerns over glyphosate’s impacts on health and the environment persist and the debate over its renewal is expected to remain heated.
Studies on the health effects of glyphosate have produced conflicting results. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have approved the chemical, saying it is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”
The same opinion was shared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) in the previous approval procedure.
However, this is in contrast to an assessment by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which concluded in 2015 that the herbicide solution was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
As the battle on glyphosate is coming alive again in Europe, the side fighting for its reauthorisation is closing ranks and adding another string to their bow with the support of ‘conservationist’ farmers
Glyphosate and no-tillage
Conservation Agriculture (CA) is based on three principles: minimum soil disturbance, permanent soil cover during all the season, and crop rotation and diversification.
According to Emilio Gonzalez, secretary-general of the European Conservation Agriculture Federation (ECAF), glyphosate reduces the use of other inputs and, above all, of soil tillage.
“If glyphosate were to be banned, some farmers would probably use alternatives, but many of them would go back to tillage,” he explained in a recent webinar.
Tilling the soil is the conventional way of preparing it for planting by digging, stirring, and turning it over. This process allows for easier planting but can lower the quality of the soil, causing soil compaction and erosion.
“We don’t know much about 60-70% of the biodiversity we have in our soils. But what we know is that the more you till, the less biodiversity you find,” he said.
Asked about the risks of glyphosate, Gonzalez said that, although not excluding an effect on soil, the one caused by intensive tillage is simply worse.
“No activity has no risk on the environment. Nothing is 100% sustainable, nothing has 0% risk,” he said.
By practising crop rotation and diversification together with a good soil cover, he added, ‘conservationist’ farmers prevent some weeds from emerging, making it possible to apply the herbicide only when it’s needed.
The support from ‘conservationists’ is throwing the pro-glyphosate side a bone. “We are being taken more seriously compared to the beginning of the process,” said Max Schulman, a Finnish farmer who has been using the no-till system since 1992 on his farm.
He opted for CA when he was looking for new ways of keeping the ground and the soils in better shape and spending less time on a tractor.
Asked if he would agree with a final solution that limits glyphosate use in the pre-seeding application, namely just before planting, he said it would be fairly manageable in Northern Europe.
He added that these type of limitations could be easily put in place and that autumn seeding is when farmers in Finland have to cope with difficult weeds.
Despite the involvement of ‘conservationist’ farmers, the media attention on the glyphosate issue and criticism from those opposing its re-approval will not cease, according to Karina von Detten from the agrochemical company Nufarm, who is a member of the glyphosate renewal group.
“I personally don’t mind, if we can get all this through a science-based process and the risk assessment is being done by the authorities,” she said, adding that the EU system should be trusted as it sets very high standards to ensure product safety for consumers and for the environment.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]