Darragh McCullough: The days of cheap and reliable farm chemicals look to be coming to an end

Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller that contains glyphosate for sale in France. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller that contains glyphosate for sale in France. REUTERS/Charles Platiau
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

My opinion of glyphosate has changed a lot since the landmark case in California last year.

At the time, I dismissed the award of over €250m to Dewayne Johnson, a groundskeeper who has developed a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as an outlier that would be quickly reversed.

Instead, I see farmers among the ranks of the over 9,000 lawsuits that are being filed against Monsanto, the makers of Roundup, the number-one selling spray, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.

And these are hardcore commercial farmers running 1,000ac operations, who would have had access to the best of equipment and advice.

But, of course, the truth is that at farm level, we aren't always meticulous in how we handle chemicals.

We don't always wear gloves, while face masks would be the exception rather than the rule.

Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides get on clothing and skin, and nobody gets excited about it on the basis that 'it'll wash off grand'.

We have been using Roundup and glyphosate-based equivalents here on the farm for years and, as yet, have no issues to report.

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I've also covered lots of stories over the years where tree-hugging types would be banging on about Monsanto like it was some offspring of the devil himself. Their absolute conviction that glyphosate should be banned immediately had me labelling them as cranks and noise-boxes.

Isn't there any amount of studies showing that glyphosate is as safe as houses, and didn't the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) itself say that it was safe as herbicides go?

In fact, I clearly remember a Monsanto rep telling me the stuff was actually safe enough to drink neat.

The chemical companies always pooh-poohed the 'probable carcinogen' classification that was slapped on glyphosate by a World Health Organisation panel by pointing to all the other things that were in the same bracket, including red meat, shift work and aloe vera.

All in all, farmers could be forgiven for being a bit lax with the precautions.

But, in hindsight, I think that farmers have been guilty of being too casual with chemicals like glyphosate.

The practice of 'spraying off' crops of grain about 10 days before the combine went in is a perfect example.

Yes, there were clear benefits from this practice for the farmer in terms of weed control, but I was never too keen on chewing this type of grain afterwards, to see if it was ripe enough.

This practice is still not considered illegal, even though a 2016 study showed a 1,000pc rise in glyphosate levels in human urine over the last 20 years.

Against this, the EFSA pointed out that glyphosate residues found in pasta or beer would only exceed known risk thresholds if someone were to consume their entire body weight's worth of those products in a single day.

But who wants traces of a chemical in their food? Even if a 20-year study of 45,000 US farm workers using herbicides found no link between the product and cancer.

I say this in the full knowledge that the cost of producing crops and food will increase if farmers don't have glyphosate available to them.

Without glyphosate, farmers like me will be spending a small fortune trying to hit a broad spectrum of weeds every time we want to clean up a field before or after sowing.

The combination of sprays that we'll need in the tank to replace good old reliable Roundup will almost surely be harder on the environment, and most definitely harder on the pocket.

But to cling to this as the reason why nothing should change is to ignore the hard facts. With 1.3 million signatures to an EU petition to ban glyphosate, I reckon the product's days are numbered. That's the kind of political clout that just snowballs everything in its way.

It's hard to know whether farmers or the companies that peddle the product are more to blame. Monsanto's determination to play down all risks associated with glyphosate probably fed into the laissez-faire attitude among users.

We now have a situation where a big chunk of the agricultural system out there (including my own) is dependent on the shocking 6.1 billion kilos of glyphosate products used globally every year.

Now chlorothalonil, or Bravo in common parlance, is another cheap, reliable fungicide that has fallen foul of the registration process.

And with the growing number of water samples that are testing positive for MCPA, it's likely this tool in the fight against rushes is going to be banned too.

The truth is that careless use of chemicals is going to cost farmers big time in the very near future.

While we can accuse big chemical companies of being economical with the truth about how safe products actually are, the clue has always been in the name.

A herbicide, fungicide or pesticide is designed to kill biology, whether that's in the form of a plant, insect or disease. Treating it like just another farm input is going to result in more and more products being removed from use.

That might be good news for tree-huggers, but it's not going to make the job of farming any easier.

Darragh McCullough farms in Meath and presents RTÉ's Ear To The Ground

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