Chris Pecora

Danger Spray

A "safe" herbicide goes rogue

By Kevin Van Tighem

Glyphosate, better known by its trade name Roundup, is a popular herbicide. It kills almost anything green, and it’s safe too.

Well, maybe not so safe. Recently courts have begun awarding damages to people whose cancer was deemed to be caused by glyphosate. Studies originally showing the stuff to be safe had been conducted or paid for by the industry itself. Regulatory agencies—whose job is to protect the public interest from irresponsible decisions by industry—relied on those studies to approve the product. Independent research has belatedly linked the chemical to cancer risk, but regulators and public awareness have yet to catch up.

The sensible thing would be simply not to use glyphosate in our gardens anymore. Herbicides are designed to kill living things, after all—it would be a bit naive to assume they don’t affect us. But boycotting Roundup and other related products at the consumer level isn’t enough. Governments have approved it for other uses in ways that affect us too.

A common sight along prairie roads nowadays is fields that have turned dirty grey. They look dead. They are. Those fields were sprayed with glyphosate to “cure” crops and prepare them for harvest. You read that right: Some farmers now spray a cancer-causing chemical on crops right before they truck the harvest off to the factories that turn it into food for our kids to eat.

Once-healthy prairie fields become biological deserts while our families absorb chemicals from the food grown there. And chemical company shareholders pocket the profits.

It would probably be wise to avoid foods produced from glyphosate-killed fields. But those foods include corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets and the alfalfa fed to beef cattle. So-called “Roundup-ready” varieties of all those crops are now widely used. The chemical companies profit twice: once when they sell farmers the genetically engineered seeds for those crops, and again when they sell the herbicide. Consumers get all the risks and harm. That’s a clever business strategy.

Still, assuming we stop using Roundup in our gardens and feed our kids only organic food, we should be okay, right?

Wrong. Because glyphosate gets sprayed all over our public lands too. Forest companies use it to kill aspens, willows, roses, grasses, blueberries—pretty much any plant that won’t produce 2×4s and profits.

Most of us live downstream from those poisoned forests. Fortunately, glyphosate binds quickly to soil, so it probably doesn’t run off into our drinking water. Well—we can’t really be sure of that, since the assurance is based on industry-funded research. One thing’s certain: Glyphosate turns once-diverse forests into sterilized tree farms. And by turning vegetation into tinder-dry fuel, it also increases forest fire risk.

Forest companies employ public relations staff to persuade us they’re managing our public forests responsibly. They assert that logging increases biodiversity by creating more diversely aged forests, and that replacing crowded old forests with young trees reduces the fire hazard. It sounds good but it isn’t true—especially where those companies spray glyphosate.

When a natural disturbance like fire goes through a forest, a diverse array of pioneer plants appear within months. Aspen, alder and willows stabilize the soil and start to rebuild its organic matter. Legumes transfer nitrogen into the soil, fertilizing it. With no competition for sunlight or rainwater, grasses, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and roses spread quickly. Wildlife move in to take advantage of all the lush new forage. Fungi and ants colonize the dead tree trunks and become a rich food source for voles, chipmunks, bears and woodpeckers.

But logging is different. Trucks haul away the tree trunks, leaving sparse woody debris for wildlife. Companies plant monocultures of pine or spruce to replace the diverse tree mix they cut down. Some then spray glyphosate to kill everything else. In recent years over 30,000 hectares of Alberta forest have been sprayed annually—almost half of the total area logged.

In central BC the province has been scapegoating wolves after moose numbers dropped by 80 per cent. Logging companies have been killing willow and aspens with glyphosate there for years. That’s moose food. Little wonder moose are vanishing. But the companies employ voters, so killing wolves is more politically rewarding than banning a chemical spray.

Glyphosate is not safe; it’s disastrous both for human health and for our prairies and forests. But simply being better consumers won’t protect us—the herbicide is too widely used in agriculture and forestry. Keeping our families and home places safe will require some active citizenship: We need to demand that our elected governments start putting the public interest ahead of the profits of multinational chemical, agricultural and forestry companies.

Kevin Van Tighem’s latest book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, was released in spring 2017 by RMB.

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