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Sunday 21 January 2018

Opinion:'Twitterati' are shouting down logic in the glyphosate debate

Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers displayed for sale. Photo: Reuters
Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller atomizers displayed for sale. Photo: Reuters
L/T Wesley Hatton, Thomas Plummer, Tom Manning were at the Glas farm walk in Tinnashrule, Ferns, Co Wexford. Photo Roger Jones.

Richard Hackett

The current EU impasse on renewing the license for glyphosate shows no sign of abating.

I have been trying to figure out who is at fault for this mess: is it the regulators, the MEPs, the 'twitterati' or is the root cause of the problem much closer to home?

I eventually concluded that the real culprits in the glyphosate affair - and many other food related problems - are us the producers of food, the practitioners of the science of agriculture.

Since the green revolution in the early 20th century, access to food is not a limiting factor in the operation and development of society.

The current 'best guess' information, (though no doubt this will change), is that as we head towards a global population of nine billion people, we will have all sorts of problems, but feeding them won't be one of them unless political divisions and warfare create famine situations.

In most peaceful societies, producers can supply food in abundance.

But access to abundant food has led to complacency among consumers about food supply and food security which would rank low on any list of consumer concerns.

Access to chemicals such as glyphosate is one of the factors that drive food abundance.

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The glyphosate molecule is one of the most environmentally benign and toxicologically safe molecules that is available to food producers.

The reason for this can be explained by Leaving Cert level organic chemistry. The glyphosate molecule is a short chain organic molecule.

Short chain molecules occur in nature and nature can easily break down short chain molecules such as glucose, ethanol, vinegar.

Nature on the other hand has real difficulties breaking down long chain molecules, particularly those that contain a benzene ring. This was an issue with the first generation pesticides that appeared in the 1950s.

Because nature couldn't break them down, these molecules persisted in the environment and caused huge problems to nature and target and non-target consumers alike.

In contrast, glyphosate can be broken down easily in our natural biochemical systems. It doesn't 'hang around' in the environment to cause long term problems.

Until now, European regulators knew this. They assessed glyphosate rigorously as they do all pesticide molecules.

They determined that provided it is used according to label instructions, glyphosate is a safe molecule.

So what is the problem?

I believe a big factor is the rise of social media and the citizen journalist.

There have always been contrarians who dispute factual evidence - they are entitled to their opinions, we live in a democracy.

They used to write inflammatory letters to newspapers or walked around with sandwich boards, and in general no one took any heed.

Over the last five years, however, this section of society has taken to social media.

Transfixed

Again, this in itself is no problem, but what is a problem is that our regulators have become transfixed by the noise from social media.

Suddenly science is not important, independent evaluation is not important - instead, because they are so loud, 'twitterati' must be right.

Food production and food producers are being thrown under the bus to try and placate this group.

Regulators show no appetite for stoutly defending the science behind their decisions. They are drowned out by the shrill cries of the few who grow progressively louder.

Meanwhile, food producers are standing on the sideline as passive bystanders. We'll continue to produce the food, regardless of what accusations are thrown at us. We'll continue to fill the shelves.

The twitterati can be confident that no matter how much they shout and roar, how much long term reputational and actual damage they do to agriculture, they can call to the supermarket and fill their trolleys regardless.

In the long term though, that might not always be the case.

A major problem in EU agriculture is the lack of young people coming into the sector.

Enticing people into a sector where their efforts are treated with contempt by some of those that they serve is not easy.

We need pro-agriculture policies, not handouts, if we are encourage young people to return to farming.

Richard Hackett is an Agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.


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