Call to bridge the glyphosate disconnect

Call to bridge the glyphosate disconnect

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CropLife chief executive officer Matthew Cossey believes the community needs to better understand the science around glyphosate use.

CropLife chief executive officer Matthew Cossey believes the community needs to better understand the science around glyphosate use.

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"If you ask the community, they want farmers to be more environmentally sustainable in their practises, but when it comes to glyphosate there is a disconnect between the community's understanding of why it's so important to the goals they want farmers to achieve."

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BETTER partnership and a level of understanding between farmers and the community that they are feeding is needed to ensure an ongoing social licence for the use of glyphosate by Western Australian growers.

According to CropLife Australia, a non-for-profit organisation that focuses on crop protection, before the broader community can start dictating to farmers what they want, there should be an obligation on the community to understand the processes that farmers use and why.

Chief executive officer Matthew Cossey said there had been a debate for many years about how farmers need to put effort in to get a social licence to use the well-known herbicide, but he believes that debate shouldn't be one-sided.

"It's important for the community to recognise that WA farmers are some of the world's best practise farmers, that they have changed over many years to become more productive, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable in all their practises," Mr Cossey said.

"If you ask the community, they want farmers to be more environmentally sustainable in their practises, but when it comes to glyphosate there is a disconnect between the community's understanding of why it's so important to the goals they want farmers to achieve.

"For social licence to mean something, the community needs to properly understand farming, because if they did, they should be supporting farmers' access to innovations like glyphosate."

 IARC assessed glyphosate as posing less risk than drinking alcohol.

IARC assessed glyphosate as posing less risk than drinking alcohol.

Despite the herbicide being on the market for more than 30 years, the debate surrounding its safety has only been going for just over five years after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a branch of the World Health Organisation, found glyphosate to be a probable carcinogen in 2015.

IARC is not a scientific agency and it doesn't do research of its own, but it assesses information and plays a role in advising regulatory bodies on potential hazards, allowing the relevant regulatory agencies to consider if there are any associated risks and manage them appropriately.

Mr Cossey said from more than 1000 scientific assessments, IARC had only ever found one substance to be "probably not carcinogenic'"

"IARC gave glyphosate a probably carcinogenic rating and the problem is that to non-scientific people that sounds really scary, when in reality there is no scientific data which shows it actually causes cancer in humans," he said.

"In fact, every single independent, sophisticated, scientific regulator around the globe has assessed and re-assessed glyphosate and continues to confirm its safety."

On top of that, an independent study, conducted in the United States by the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Environmental Sciences, confirmed glyphosate doesn't cause cancer.

The study, which is one of the biggest ever undertaken, has tracked about 89,000 farmers and their spouses since the early 1990s and found there was no risk and no link between glyphosate and non-hodgkin's lymphoma.

Mr Cossey said there had been significant misunderstanding in the broader community and that was because they've been informed by one or two sensational headlines rather than actual science.

"If most of the community were given the full facts on it, they would not only be confident in its safety but would realise how crucial it is for farming and how crucial it is for those who want farmers to be environmentally sustainable," Mr Cossey said.

"If there's a safety issue with a product, there's no doubt it should be withdrawn, but if there's not then people need to make sure they don't misunderstand the serious consequences for the environment and for farming should access to the product be removed."

The concern is that if glyphosate is banned and removed from the market, it would fundamentally take growers back to old-style tillage farming and burning diesel which destroys soil health and moisture content.

"It would destroy the profitability of cropping and it would compound the issue of resistance," Mr Cossey said.

"There are enough people around who still remember the dust storm events from the 60s and 70s before farmers had widespread access to glyphosate, banning it would seriously undermine the single largest environmental sustainability measure we've seen in farming."

For the most part, the WA government seems to have confidence in the safety of the product.

"They recognise the robust national regulatory system we have in Australia for glyphosate and similar products, they recognise that the health and safety of their community is a priority and therefore they need to be guided by science and experts in this area," Mr Cossey said.

"However there has been talk about it being important to look at a plan B and while our industry is always looking at what's next, coming up with new and safe chemistry is a significant challenge.

"For one new product to come to market it takes about 11 years of research and development, it takes the testing of about 150,000 chemical compounds and the cost of more than a quarter of a billion US dollars."

Based on that, Mr Cossey believes it's time for governments to say the community is entitled to outline their expectations of farming practice, but it has to come from a properly informed basis.

"We've got this peak interest in food by what is a growing urban population corresponding with a complete peak in ignorance about farming and that disconnect is what governments need to focus on," he said.

"People can't just dictate ridiculous propositions that could undermine what we, as a community, want from our farming sector simply because some activist is being clever with some memes on Facebook.

"It's not to say social licence is not important, but what's equally as important is supporting farmers in being world's best practise by making sure that they have access to all the innovations, tools, techniques and products that they need to become more productive, more profitable and more sustainable."

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