There is a lot at stake. The herbicide glyphosate – best known under the trade name Roundup – has haunted the headlines for years. The active ingredient that kills almost everything that is green has been on the market since the 1970s. According to the Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety, around 3,100 tons of glyphosate were sold in Germany alone in 2019. This is only a good half of the glyphosate that came onto the market in 2012 – and was certainly also applied – but it is still a huge amount.
Jo Schilling is the TR editor. She has never completely stopped being a scientist and is convinced that complicated relationships are usually only complicated because the right words for them are still missing.
And it is by no means just farmers and allotment gardeners who use the herbicide – one of the major buyers so far has been Deutsche Bahn, which has kept its rail routes free with the herbicide. According to its own information, the railway will switch to hot water, UV light and other herbicides by the end of 2022 at the latest, and everyone else will be through the new plant protection application ordinance finally forced to find alternatives. Because it significantly restricts the use of glyphosate.
In 2005 a French research group published that Roundup has strong toxic effects on human cells. Monsanto, the manufacturer, questioned the methods behind the study. In 2009 the group dared to do it again a risk assessment, published and was ironed off again. Glyphosate was long considered non-carcinogenic – the story is too long to be told here – but with the first US court ruling in August 2018, the glyphosate leaf turned: a caretaker suffering from cancer was awarded $ 289 million in damages because it was considered proven that the years of use of the supposedly harmless glyphosate had made the caretaker sick. The decision went through several instances, but ultimately Bayer (which had since taken over Monsanto) paid $ 20.5 million in damages.
The risk of cancer is not yet an exclusion criterion
That an extremely effective total herbicide could be carcinogenic is, if you use your common sense, not too much of a surprise. However, to this day, the experts argue about the effects of glyphosate on the human organism and the judgment against Monsanto / Bayer did not refer directly to the carcinogenicity itself, but to the lack of warnings about a potential cancer risk.
The risk of cancer in itself is not yet an exclusion criterion for the use of chemicals in industry. Other active ingredients are also carcinogenic, but are still used in industry and have to be handled properly. However, if you think you have to resort to a total herbicide in your private garden so that no more weeds grow under the tuja hedge and the hunter fence, you are running a risk that is out of proportion to the dangers involved in using one Hoe and scissors lurk.
Either way, the wave of lawsuits that swept over Bayer after the first judgment triggered a chain reaction that also brought the environmentally harmful effects of Roundup and all the other glyphosate formulations to the fore. The effects on the animal, plant and fungus world are diverse and cannot be generalized. Insects and birds do not fall dead off the stalk when they come in contact with glyphosate. This complicates the discussion about license extensions.
However, glyphosate opponents have a wild card: the honey bee, because it reacts very sensitively to the herbicide – even if it does not die from the application of glyphosate, it loses its orientation and its intestinal flora and thus its immune system is disrupted. But a large part of our livelihood stands or falls with the bees. All flowers that have to be pollinated for the development of fruits are simply dependent on bees. And so the restriction on the use of glyphosate in Germany is not a result of the discussion about cancer, but part of the Federal Government’s action program for insect protection.
There is a catch in the new glyphosate regulation
It sounds good at first, what is in the new regulation: Ban on agriculture, for example in water protection areas, no more late applications before harvest, use only permitted in individual cases if other measures are not suitable or reasonable. The only catch is that “the user” has to check for himself whether there are alternatives and what the reasonableness is. Use is now also prohibited in private gardens and parks, on playgrounds or sports fields.
The end of glyphosate will probably not be until the end of 2023, when the active ingredient approval and the associated transition period at EU level will expire. “Probably” because there are voices who do not agree with the EU-wide ban on glyphosate. If the approval actually expires, it will be exciting afterwards. Because then farmers are suddenly faced with weeds again.
Small businesses in particular will be hit hard
The fact that our agriculture is so efficient and productive is due in no small part to glyphosate. Small farms in particular, which use herbicides sparingly for cost reasons alone, will be hit hard because they have neither the staff nor the machines to control the wild herbs in the fields. And a farmer who walks along the edge of his field with a backpack sprayer to keep the couch grass out of his field does no significant damage with glyphosate either.
Industrial agriculture, which cultivates thousands of hectares, the smallest sprayer setting of which is three meters wide and which sprays the life out of the grain stalks with glyphosate shortly before harvest in order to be able to harvest more efficiently, has the biodiversity, the cornflower and the poppy on its conscience. The land-related farmers that we need for sustainable agriculture are likely to be the main victims. One can only hope that the ban will also bring about a structural change in agriculture and that it will no longer primarily subsidize land, but rather sustainable management.