The renewal of the glyphosate licence in the EU is controversial in large part because so many farmers in the EU are heavily reliant on the herbicide to rid their fields of “weeds”/wildflowers. Many farmers are arguing that spraying glyphosate on their fields is a ‘sustainable alternative’ to tilling the soil with heavy machinery, which releases carbon stored in the soil into the atmosphere and damages the health of the topsoil.
So-called conservation agriculture or chemical no till based on glyphosate is actually limited in terms of carbon sequestration: the mulch layer becomes saturated, carbon and nutrients gather only in the upper soil horizons. Therefore the argument for glyphosate no till is not as effective as many are claiming and it requires input dependency.
It is important to note that glyphosate is a non-targeted herbicide that can be extremely damaging to soil health and biodiversity. Glyphosate works to the detriment of soil and its humus levels. This in turn makes the soil more vulnerable to drought and flooding, as it can neither retain nor drain off water as easily. It also kills off the mycorrhizae which defend crop roots and supply plants not only with nutrients, but also with water during drought. Glyphosate has also been shown to reduce some crops’ resistance to disease and increase the severity of diseases.
The idea that heavy tillage or glyphosate are the only weed management methods for farmers is unhelpful and frankly untrue. We know that there are viable alternatives to glyphosate already practiced by many farmers. However, health and environmental concerns surrounding glyphosate first justify further research into alternatives, particularly biological controls through which farmers could potentially save on input costs. The Julius Kuhn Institute, Germany’s independent Federal Research Centre for Crops, made an impact assessment (in German and English) of partial or complete abandonment of glyphosate application for farmers in Germany. The study is available here.
Greens support an integrated approach to weed management where a series of techniques are used to reduce weeds through preventative measures, monitoring, physical control of weeds and biological control, with pesticides only a final resort if all else fails. There is a huge difference between saturated soil/herbicide dependency, and using minimal amounts of herbicides as a last resort.
You can read more about alternatives to glyphosate in this report by PAN Europe.
Farmers have been led to believe by companies wanting them to be dependent on their products to have zero tolerance to non-crop plants, yet only a minority of weeds are damaging to yields, and only when beyond certain thresholds. Whilst these methods don’t always completely eliminate weeds from our fields, they do not allow the presence of weeds to significantly hinder overall crop yields whilst keeping topsoil intact and feed subterranean populations of beneficial micro-organisms and soil fauna. The total elimination of weeds and other non-cultivated plant life (such as hedgerow flora) is indirectly killing our bees and beneficial insect, because they have less flowers to feed on outside the crop flowering seasons. As we know, bees and pollinators are essential for the long term prosperity of the farming sector, as they pollinate around one third of our crops. Wildflower presence is also providing habitats for beneficial species or predators of pests, which will also decrease the need to spray crops with other kinds of pesticides.
Greens are calling for a change in the way we do farming, so that we become less dependent on chemicals and more focussed on creating and maintain healthy soils, boosting functional biodiversity (especially beneficial species that help farmers) and growing food that is nutritious and natural. That is why Greens are constantly working with farmers so that we can support them in this endeavour. There are around 3500 organic producers in the UK, and many more farmers and smallholders who use very limited amounts of chemicals or would become organic if they had the sufficient support, labour force and training.