Anti-Glyphosate Campaigners Cling to a Science Fiction
There’s a mediocre Star Trek movie from the 1990s called “Insurrection” in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise finds a paradisiacal group of clean, beautiful people living a perfect agrarian life because they have rejected all advanced technology.
The reality of course would be the exact opposite. Without technology, people would filthy and exhausted. Children would be starving. There would be no time for wholesome recreation because gathering and preparing food would demand virtually all of most people’s time. When the Enterprise crew showed up, they should have found misery, not paradise.
And yet, some people cling to this notion – that the answer to our ills is to look backward, not forward. It’s borderline religious for some: any human development has a deleterious impact on the environment, ergo we need to stop developing.
This week, fortunately, there was some good news from the Environmental Protection Agency, which announced that glyphosate is not a carcinogen. The most widely used herbicide in US agriculture, farmers spray glyphosate on fields of crops while others use it on lawns and golf courses. Millions of people use it safely every year. Some say it’s “almost as fundamental to farming as tractors.”
But several high-profile lawsuits have ruled large awards in favor of plaintiffs that allege glyphosate causes cancer. In California recently, two lymphoma patients were each awarded about $80 million apiece in suits against Bayer, and there are thousands more lawsuits waiting in the wings.
Critics on one side may say that the EPA’s determination is actually the Trump Administration ruling in favor of big business, but critics on the other side may say these juries are ruling in favor of the lawsuit industrial complex. (Indeed, you can sign up for your own glyphosate lawsuit here.)
But the EPA under Trump isn’t the only regulatory authority that’s found glyphosate is non-carcinogenic and safe when used appropriately. Their classification is consistent with agencies in Canada, Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and Japan, plus the European Food Safety Authority and European Chemicals Agency.
As one scientist wrote for Slate, “Although it has been subject to outsized scrutiny, glyphosate’s benefit-risk ratio is one of the highest of all weed killers derived from organic chemistry. It is less toxic than common chemicals like aspirin. It is therefore surprising that media coverage has been irrational and even hysterical.”
Evidence of that hysteria: in January, a French court banned the weedkiller Roundup, which uses glyphosate – even though the European Union had given it a seal of approval.
If this gets out of hand, the economic, nutritional, and even environmental impacts could be devastating. According to one study, restricting glyphosate use worldwide would result in an annual global farm income loss of $6.76 billion, plus the incalculable empty bellies across the world. It would precipitate a net 12.4 percent negative environmental impact, as measured by the environmental impact quotient (EIQ), since farmers would need to use more dangerous herbicides. Working unsprayed fields would require increased fuel use equivalent to putting nearly 12 million more cars on the road.
Glyphosate isn’t a magic potion. It must be applied appropriately, targeted against intended pests while protecting pollinators (bees), and adapted for weeds that develop resistance. Fortunately, the EPA is already addressing these issues.
Remember it’s survival of the fittest, not the strongest. And weeds are pretty fit when it comes to outcompeting food crops.
Yet given this basic scientific principle, there is a knee-jerk, dogmatic urge among some to preserve an Earth in a pristine state, untouched by human innovation. Secular environmentalists are trying to return us to a Garden of Eden state, not realizing that even God himself said the ground was cursed, more interested in producing thorns and thistles than herbs. “In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” is the line from the Bible.
No one should want that. We should want to be able to feed as many people as well as we can. It’s a fallacy to think we can enjoy the comforts and indulgences of the modern life without the tools of the modern world. It’s pure science fiction.