Glyphosate is the most commonly used active substance in agriculture. It is a crop desiccant and it tells us a great deal about the relationship that the “developed” world has with agriculture and, more generally, with nature.
In fact, it is not used just by farmers, but also by a lot of public and private administrations to keep weeds “under control”. It is used for “public green spaces” (European legislation has established that it cannot be used for this purpose anymore, but Member States have until 2020 to comply), to “clear” roadsides, the driveways of private houses, hotels, and restaurants, and to “punish” blades of grass that dare to appear between pavement tiles. Glyphosate is used on escarpments alongside railway lines, sometimes between the tracks themselves, along motorways and, in short, in all non-farming situations where people choose to save time, effort and money (not necessarily in that order) on maintenance.
When it comes to agriculture, glyphosate is supposed to be used as a weedkiller.
One reason it is widely used in areas where large areas of crops are cultivated and in which growing GMO crops is permitted is the fact that one of the genetic modifications produced by genetic engineering is that a type of maize and a type of soy are resistant to Roundup, a herbicide that contains glyphosate as one of its main ingredients. Fields of RR (Roundup Ready) soy and maize can be quite happily sprayed with the herbicide without farmers having to worry about the target crop.
Unfortunately, though, prolonged use selects species and strains of resistant weeds, which are then tackled by increasing the dose, something that happens in large parts of Latin America, the US and beyond, leading to it gradually building up in the environment and in the food chain.
It is also used a great deal in our latitudes because, GMOs aside, we have got it into our heads that agriculture, like our paved driveway, should also be clean and tidy. If we plant an orchard there should only be trees, nothing else is allowed and so we fight it as if it were a matter of legitimate defense. If we plant a vineyard we act as if that vineyard were completely disconnected from the rest of the world, as if the soil, instead of being a living organism that reacts in its own way and is home to other inhabitants besides what we are growing, were instead merely an inert substrate and so should comply. If we could grow a vineyard in cement it would be a whole lot easier. But we can’t and so we do everything in our power to make the soil the vines grow in as similar as we can to cement.
Obviously, this is the case only in a certain type of farming, just as public and private green spaces are managed in this way only by a certain kind of people and administrations.
Fortunately, there are farmers and people who try to disturb the world as little as possible, and they are prepared to do so with a little bit of effort and a little learning. Indeed, they are prepared to devote part of their budget to looking after the world in which they eat, drink and breathe.
There are agricultural systems that are also practicable over large areas, which make it possible to control weeds without using chemicals, such as false seed beds for grain, for example, or crop rotation, mulching or green manure. Or even the use of mechanical techniques is useful, without forgetting the good old hoe, especially in orchards and vineyards, which takes time and effort but which pays off.
Of course, it takes more care, more time, more work and more attention. And it also takes a little technology. Because, to stay with grains, a lot could be solved with combine harvesters that can better select the right seeds and discard others.
There is then the choice of what to grow. Old wheat varieties, for example, grow much taller than “modern” varieties. This makes them a little less profitable (they are more attractive to birds), but also less affected by weeds, because they ensure that the ground is exposed to less light, so fewer weeds grow. In addition, as they grow taller, it is easier to avoid weeds when harvesting. We should remember this also when we decide what bread, pasta or flour to buy. Old wheat varieties, as well as naturally containing less gluten than modern varieties, also require less use of chemicals in the production phase. In addition, they grow well only in places with a sufficiently dry climate and a sufficient number of hours of sunlight. In places where there is no need to spray glyphosate, which is legal in some countries, like in Canada (do you know about CETA?): before harvesting a little glyphosate is sprayed on the fields to make sure everything dries out properly and no unwanted mold develops on wheat in storage or in flour, which is kept for a long time, may travel around the world and arrives in our shops at a very low cost compared with flour from old wheat varieties. Great.
So we’re back where we started: do we want ridiculously cheap food? We can have it, but we need to know what it involves, such as sod seeding (which saves time and money, protects soil from erosion, but also involves the constant use of herbicides). We need to know that not all the chemical residue “disappears” just because it’s not found in products (for the sake of argument), but it will end up in the subsoil and so in the water and in rivers, the sea and in fish. Which we eat. And which those who weed by hand and don’t pollute their driveway also eat. And which those who live on the other side of the world, who do not have fields to cultivate, or driveways or garages, but just a village on an island where they try to live in peace, fishing and raising their children, also eat.
A recent study describes how glyphosate is turning up in our urine, somewhere it definitely shouldn’t be. Do we need to wait until governments set a legal limit for glyphosate in our bodily fluids too? After that, when we see someone pull over in a lay-by and get out undoing their belt we might say: “he really needs to go… do some weeding”.