The dust has settled on an emotional debate about the active ingredient glyphosate and the renewal of its approval in the EU. For the time being. The struggle continues. Proponents and opponents are already gathering arguments and trying to influence decision-makers – but also public opinion.
The agricultural chemical manufacturer bayer, for example, bundles reasons for further use in a published brochure that is specifically issued to journalists. One of the most serious: crops for a world with an increasing number of hungry people. According to bayer, crop protection products can increase yields by an average of 22 percent across all crops. Dr. Helmut schramm, managing director of cropscience, is quoted as saying: "the approval system for crop protection products in europe is the strictest in the world." Cropscience belongs to bavaria.
Bayer does not deny that the international agency for research on cancer (IARC) classifies glyphosate as a probable carcinogen – but points out that IARC also classifies red meat, drinks above 65 degrees and hairdressing as probably carcinogenic. The most important support for further approval of glyphosate is the assessment by the federal institute for risk assessment (bfr): "no carcinogenic risk if used as directed." The bfr was criticized for this. The assessment was based on the studies that the manufacturer must submit for approval.
An accusation against which the bfr is defending itself: "the sole criterion for the consideration of study results is the scientific quality and evidence of the studies. Possible interests of clients, politicians or other interest groups cannot and must not play a role in a scientific evaluation", says your manager andreas hensel. In addition, a number of other investigations by other bodies had been taken into account.
Use in practice
Around 6000 tons of glyphosate are used in germany every year. By the way, the largest single customer is the railroad, which alone takes 75 tons a year to keep its track beds free of weeds. And the product is also used in german gardens. But the largest amount ends up on agricultural land.
"A major use is in the preparation of minimum tillage", explains hans rebelein, managing director of the bavarian farmers' association in coburg. When farmers green their fields over the winter, such as with mustard, to provide much-needed erosion control, they have been using glyphosate to remove the residue of the intercrop in the spring. So you can apply the next crop with minimum tillage that is gentle on the soil. If glyphosate is discontinued, this approach will be made more difficult and many people may then abandon erosion control. Alternative work methods require more work steps and thus higher energy consumption.
Another area of application was the control of dwarf weeds. This problem is currently acute. When rain fell after a long drought, the cereals began to grow in twos. That means that between the almost ripe stalks there are suddenly grasses again – a problem during harvesting. In the past, the green plants were removed with glyphosate and after a waiting period, the harvest could be harvested normally. "This is already forbidden and only possible with a special permit", explains hans rebelein. Farmers can only wait or harvest with green stalks and then dry the cereals. However, not every company is able to do this, and in both cases, losses have to be accepted.
Symbol of a fundamental debate
"Glyphosate is the starting point for a discussion that should have addressed the entire way of working in agriculture and the treatment of the soil", alexander ulmer, geologist and executive officer at the landesbund fur vogelschutz (LBV) in coburg summarizes his assessment. Environmental groups have long demanded that the risk assessment of such products should not be based on studies by the manufacturers, but should instead be based on studies by independent bodies. "In general, we should ask ourselves whether it makes sense to continue to manage the city the way we have in the past, he says. It might make more sense to get by with lower yields instead of endangering the basis for yields, the soil, altogether.
The elimination of plants that generate economic income also deprives many other organizations of their livelihoods. With a view to the decline in species diversity and insect mortality, environmental organizations such as the LBV could not avoid rejecting herbicides and pesticides in general. He is concerned about figures that show that the use of agricultural chemicals in germany is increasing rather than decreasing, contrary to what is often believed. "In 2005 there were 35,000 tons, but in 2013 there were already 44,000 tons", alexander ulmer justifies his advice to perhaps rethink the way they manage their business.