Glyphosate is the most-used agricultural herbicide in the world. Registered in the US since 1974, the herbicide is facing increasing scrutiny by governments around the world as detrimental impacts to the environment as well as human health are raised. However, the potential bans have been highly criticized for not providing effective alternatives which has raised alarms not only from farmers but also environmentalists.
Monsanto, which was taken over by Bayer in 2018, was the original maker of glyphosate. Concerns about glyphosate were really brought the forefront in 2015 after a review by the World Health Organization’s cancer research arm, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”. That puts it alongside other chemicals that have proven to be harmful but also in the same category as alcohol, red meat, and sunshine, which the IARC also labels as “probably carcinogenic.”
Glyphosate has since been banned in several countries as well by dozens of local governments. EU farmers could be banned from using glyphosate by the end of 2023, while Mexico is targeting March 2024 as a deadline for phasing out use of the herbicide. Some worry that it’s only a matter of time before governments in the US follow suit.
It’s hard to put a number on the potential economic impacts that a glyphosate ban poses to farmers and the wider ag industry. The obvious downsides would likely be decreased crop yields and increased costs for weed control, reducing overall profitability for producers. It also runs the risk of higher food prices as well as global food shortages.
Those assumptions are largely based on the fact that there is no alternative herbicide that offers the same level of weed control. Governments set on banning glyphosate suggest that a combination of organic herbicides, hand weeding, and tilling would be viable alternatives.
Farmers and environmental groups alike caution that these strategies may have other adverse impacts, including allowing invasive weeds to spread unchecked. It could also lead to producers using chemicals that have not been thoroughly studied or push producers in some countries to resort to black market products that are known environmental hazards.
Farmers in countries facing bans have also indicated that they will likely increase applications of approved chemicals in order to achieve the same effectiveness as glyphosate. Environmental groups worry about the buildup in soils as well as the possibility that these lesser-studied products could prove to be toxic later on.
Ag experts and environmentalists also warn that these proposals don’t consider the impact of increased soil cultivation. In the absence of glyphosate, farmers may need to resort to more conventional tillage practices to manage weeds. This in turn would lead to increased soil erosion and compaction. What’s more, the loss of glyphosate would in many cases make the use of cover crops economically unviable.
The end result of repetitive tillage is topsoil that has been worked into a fine powder, which is easily and rapidly lifted into the air with even the slightest of winds, creating soil erosion events that include massive dust storms that can travel thousands of miles. Over tilling and bare soils were key factors in one of the United States’ biggest environmental disasters – the Great Dust Bowl.
Bans on glyphosate could also undermine other efforts currently underway to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. For instance, it would reduce opportunities to increase carbon removal via sequestration while leading to additional fuel usage. It might also lead to additional land being required to maintain food self-sufficiency which in turn could result in the release of already stored carbon and a further reduction in biodiversity.
Overall, the full impact of glyphosate bans is still unknown but it’s also clear that governments are not thoroughly considering the potential downsides, which could be highly significant. A quick google search also reveals that little research into the negative environmental impacts of such bans has been conducted. (Sources: USDA, Science Direct, The Guardian, “Impact assessment of the loss of glyphosate within the EU“)