Impossible Roundup

June 2017

While the European Commission (EC) maintains that there is "no reason to doubt" the safety of glyphosate (the world's best selling herbicide and key ingredient of Monsanto's 'Roundup'), and that nothing stands in the way of glyphosate's re-approval, Member States are nevertheless steadily eliminating it.

The Commission is clearly under huge pressure, not only from the biotech- and pesticide-industries, but from farmers trapped in the agri-chemical model of crop production, and from importers of GM glyphosate-tolerant feedstuffs and their customers. Banning the most widely-used herbicide in the world and lynch-pin of GM crops, or even daring to question its safety, would be a rocky road for the EC to follow.

It has, however, made a token gesture and banned one of the most widely used 'innert' co-formulants [1] in glyphosate-based herbicides, 'POE'. POE has been recognised as a toxin in its own right, but also increases the toxicity of glyphosate because it aids penetration into the living cells. This ban will change the formulations available for sale, but doesn't mean the alternative versions with their different, less tested, co-formulants will be any safer [2]. The more meaningful restrictions demanded by the EU Parliament (see below) have not been countenanced by the Commission.

Restrictions on glyphosate use demanded by the EU Parliament:
  • ban on use by non-professionals
  • ban on use in public areas such as parks and playgrounds
  • a ban on agricultural use where integrated pest management systems are sufficient for weed control
  • strict limits on pre-harvest use on crops
  • full disclosure of all scientific evidence used for the proposed re-authorisation of glyphosate.

Confidence in the EC handling of the situation seems to have hit the floor:
  • France has banned the use of pesticides by state, local authority and public bodies for the maintenance of public spaces, forests and roadsides. The sale of pesticides to amateur gardeners will also be banned from January 2019 
  • Italy has banned the use of glyphosate in areas frequented by the public with special reference to vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. Pre-harvest use of glyphosate is banned. 
  • The Netherlands has had a ban on the use of herbicides on hard surfaces since 2015 
  • Belgium is moving to a ban on the sale and use of herbicides by non-professionals. Its Minister for Agriculture said there is no justification for the use of herbicides for individuals as there are safer alternatives, such as heat treatment, mechanical weeding or bio-pesticides. 
  • Austria already voted back in 2013 to ban the use of glyphosate-based herbicides as a pre-harvest maturation tool for crops. 

Something else interesting, and somewhat absurd, has been seen in Austria: to side-step glyphosate's increasing unpopularity with the general public, 'glyphosate-free Roundup' has appeared in garden supply stores.

Roundup is, of course, the original and best-known trade-name for glyphosate-based herbicides. It comes in a variety of versions with different concentrations of the herbicide and different (often secret) co-formulants for making the glyphosate more lethal to weeds. Clearly, Roundup without the glyphosate shouldn't be possible.

The novel herbicide in this novel Roundup is one which organic gardeners may already be familiar with: vinegar (see Comment Box).


The greenwashing of Roundup? How desperate is this?

Perhaps it's a sign that, despite all its denials of any possibility that glyphosate could be a carcinogen, Monsanto is taking the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classification of the herbicide as a probable carcinogen very seriously, at least from a PR perspective.

The new product actually isn't an equivalent substitute for the old because it doesn't penetrate into the roots: it will have a very limited effect on weeds with extensive root systems (such as grass) or large, deep-growing roots (such as dandelions). It also seems likely it will fall foul of advertising standards laws.

Another interesting thought is that, while vinegar-ready GM crops are unlikely to be in the pipeline, all that vinegar Monsanto's preparing to sell us may be manufactured from glyphosate-treated GM maize or sugar-beet, and fermented with GM yeast.

Sadly, none of the moves by EU Member States will protect those identified by the IARC as being most at risk of cancer: the farmers treating huge areas of land with glyphosate before the crops are planted, and the farmers using glyphosate multiple times while the crop is growing (if it's a GM one) or just before harvest (if it's not GM).

Comment on vinegar as a herbicide

Vinegar kills the plant's leaves very quickly, burning them on contact with it's acetic acid content. Glyphosate-free Roundup is 6% vinegar, close to the stuff you’d sprinkle on your salad (usually around 5%). However, this could change: vinegar can be produced with 20% or higher acetic acid. Future glyphosate-free Roundup with an extra kick is perfectly possible.

Co-formulants must be present to spread the acid over the surface of the leaf for total contact. These are unknown, but could be every bit as toxic as the ones ones used with glyphosate, and the in presence of acetic acid may be even more so. Conversely, the co-formulants by their spreading and sticking action will likely increase the corrosive power of the vinegar.

There are lots of other natural substances, such as citric acid, Yucca extracts, and plant oils, which can be added to increase the effectiveness of vinegar as a weedkiller. Monsanto could launch a whole series of glyphosate-free Roundups.

All in all, glyphosate-free Roundup might not have the sneaky tumour-promoting or endocrine-disrupting tendencies of the old-fashioned product, but it could deliver some very nasty burns if you’re not careful with it.

  • Pre-harvest use of glyphosate: Recent Austrian decision, Glyphosate Facts, 
  • A product whose time has come: Glyphosate-free Roundup on sale in Austria, GM Watch 3.05.17 
  • Deborah Smith-Fiola and Stanton Gill, Vinegar: an alternative to glyphosate? Unversity of Maryland Extension 
  • How is vinegar made, 
  • Belgium bans glyphosate herbicide use for non-professionals, GM Watch 1.05.17 
  • Sweden plans to ban glyphosate – and vinegar – as herbicides for private use, GM Watch 25.05.17 

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