What Would Happen If RoundUp Went Away?

Published online: May 15, 2019 News, Video Spike Jordan
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Source: Scottsbluff Star-Herald

On Monday, a California jury ordered Monsanto, the maker of Roundup brand herbicides, to pay a combined $2.055 billion to a couple who allege that the popular weed killer caused their cancers.

Bayer AG, which bought Monsanto last year, said in a statement Monday that it intends to appeal the jury’s verdict. Monday’s verdict was the third delivered against the company in California courts since August of last year.

At issue in the lawsuits has been a chemical known as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide that controls broadleaf weeds and grasses. Since its introduction in 1974, glyphosate has been described as a “once-in-a-century herbicide,” because of its ability to kill weeds while leaving crops and other plants alive. It is regarded as one of the least-toxic pesticides when it comes to people and animals.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, said glyphosate is a “probable” human carcinogen. However, that designation has been contested as other studies have disputed IARC’s claim. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed and reassessed glyphosate’s safety and uses, and just two weeks ago, the agency said the chemical is safe when used as directed.

“EPA continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label and that glyphosate is not a carcinogen,” the agency said in a statement in late April. “EPA is proposing management measures to help farmers target pesticide sprays on intended pests, protect pollinators and reduce the problem of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate.”

But in a worst-case scenario, what would happen if the world’s most widely used herbicide were to be removed from the shelves tomorrow?

The impact—particularly for sugarbeet growers—would be significant.

While other row crops have had genetically modified variants on the market for quite sometime, the adoption of Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, has been relatively recent. The first commercially available GMO sugar beet seeds were introduced in 2007, with wide deployment seen in 2008. Since then, use of Roundup Ready sugar beets spread quickly — making it the fastest adoption of any GM crop so far.

“If they were to pull glyphosate from the market, it would be a pretty major blow to the sugarbeet producers,” Andrew Kniss, professor of weed science at the University of Wyoming, said Tuesday. “That would, by far, be the biggest impact.”

Other herbicides used to manage broadleaf weeds prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready sugarbeets are no longer available on the market. That’s because there’s no reason for manufacturers to continue producing something that growers aren’t buying, Kniss said.

For other cropping systems, the next-most effective herbicide would need to be used if Roundup were no longer available, said Nevin Lawrence, integrated weed management specialist with the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research & Extension Center in Scottsbluff.

“Some of those herbicides would probably have an increased environmental impact,” Lawrence said. “There would likely be an increased health impact as well, depending on the product, but it’s a really complex question because it’s specific to the crop, the herbicide and to the farming system.”

Beyond sugarbeets, glyphosate resistant corn is used in about 90 percent of the corn acres planted in western Nebraska. Roundup Ready alfalfa accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of the acres of alfalfa planted. The use of glyphosate goes beyond just GM crops.

However, glyphosate resistance has been found in certain weeds in western Nebraska, including kochia and palmer amaranth. Lawrence said it's becoming a problem that needs to be addressed.

“Glyphosate is a very good herbicide, and in most situations, with most weeds, it’s usually the best herbicide we have,” he said. “When (growers) lose glyphosate due to a resistance issue, they will usually add in another herbicide to control the weeds that are resistant to it. In most cases, that has been dicamba.”

Dicamba can have drift problems, which affect can affect crops, especially soybeans, that are not dicamba resistant.

“We don’t grow a lot of soybeans in western Nebraska, so we don’t have nearly as many drift issues as the rest of the country,” he said. “Dicamba has been the go-to herbicide in crops that will allow its use once glyphosate resistance becomes prevalent.”