THE decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to announce it felt the leading agricultural herbicide glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic’, on the back of going through existing research, was always going to be taken out of context.
Alarm bells ring when a chemical is said to be carcinogenic, creating chaos among consumers.
The IARC findings were made based on studies that have all previously been released and users of the chemical remain steadfast in their assertion it is safe, pointing to a raft of studies that show glyphosate to be harmless, especially when used at the correct rates.
Do we need to keep checking whether products are safe? Absolutely. Does a non-regulatory body’s findings suddenly create the need to override what is already one of the most stringent chemical use regulators in the world in the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)? Not in the slightest.
Without a scientific background, I would hazard a guess there is a good chance glyphosate, used inappropriately, could cause health issues. Any compound that is used to kill a living organism needs to be treated with respect.
But the research conducted by regulators such as the APVMA show that glyphosate is safe if used correctly, which is not what the IARC report was looking at.
Although the IARC was perfectly within its rights to announce its findings, the glyphosate decision needs to be taken in the context of other common household products it has ruled as carcinogens, such as aloe vera and coffee.
Critically, it does not refer to glyphosate in food at label rates.
The IARC report is not useful for those convinced of a link between on-label usage of glyphosate and cancer, as it can so easily be disproven by the plant protection sector, who will simply point at studies supporting their own case.
There is obviously a risk, however minimal, that glyphosate may be later proven to be damaging to human health as it is used now, but according to the best practice research, it is not.
How do we ever truly assess an ag chemical as safe? Do we wait 10 years, 20 years or 50 years?
The cold, hard truth of the matter is that the world would rapidly run into a food deficit if we relied on organic systems, not to mention the environmental degradation caused by tillage heavy cropping.
The evolution of farming sees more targeted than ever application of chemicals. We can look at initiatives such as integrated weed and pest management as good ways to cut down on chemical use, but at some times crops must be sprayed.
In the wake of the IARC findings there have been a series of calls. Some, such as a push for more investment into non-chemicals means of boosting productivity and alternative weed controls measures are fantastic. There is some exciting work going on regarding the use of microwave energy to kill weeds and that needs to be encouraged.
Other suggestions, such as a ban on glyphosate ... well, you have to wonder whether the practicalities have been considered. If products are clearly found to be unsafe, we’ve seen the APVMA ban them. Let’s back it to do its job in this instance also.