The NFU, glyphosate, and statistics

The NFU is telling its members that the herbicide glyphosate is “vital”, and that all protests are fatuous. But, says Colin Tudge, the NFU’s thinking is highly suspect.

In the December edition of its own British Farmer and Grower the NFU is urging its readers to lobby their MPs and MEPs to ensure the long-term future of glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up. In June 2016 the EU extended the license to market glyphosate for another 18 months, which means it’s up for review by the end of 2017 – when, theoretically, the European Chemical Agency by could ban it. But, says the NFU’s senior health plant health adviser Emma Hamer, glyphosate is “a vital tool for weed control” which allows “a number of conservation tillage techniques such as min-till”. The anti-glyphosate lobby argues among other things that glyphosate is carcinogenic but such “scare stories promoted by NGOs have no factual basis”.

Many farmers and growers have indeed found Round-Up to be useful in all kinds of situations although it always dangerous to argue as Ms Hamer does that there is “no factual basis” for alarm. Such claims have been made in medicine as well as agriculture and all too often have proved hubristic.

More to the point, the statistics that the NFU offers in support of glyphosate are deeply suspect – and if these are the best it can do, then we must at least declare their case “not proven”.

So they tell us that min or zero tillage, made possible with glyphosate, increases the earthworm population by 53%. To control weeds by cultivation rather than with herbicide would require 49% more labour. Its use “allows 15% more rapeseed and 17% more wheat to be produced”. Losing glyphosate would mean we would need 546,000 ha more land to produce the same amount of food – which is 3.4 times bigger than London. If weeds were controlled mechanically then greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production of arable crops would increase by 25%. This would include 12 million tonnes of extra CO2 per year – the equivalent of 2.5 million cars.  QED, the busy reader might conclude.

But what’s lacking in all such polemics is context. Increase in earthworms and reduction in CO2 – compared with what? No-one over the age of 40 or so can doubt that there were far more earthworms in the past, well before glyphosate came on the scene. It surely isn’t a lack of glyphosate that’s killed them off but the rise and rise of industrial agriculture in general – including the over-use of fertilizers and the decline of rotations which has (demonstrably) reduced the soil organic content and so robbed worms of their food supply. What, in short, is the baseline, from which the hypothetical 53% increase is judged?

Twenty-five per cent less GHGs with glyphosate – but again, compared to what? Glyphosate may well improve on the hyper-industrialized status quo which depends on machines and agrochemicals which all depend on oil, which eventually, by one route or another, is reduced to GHGs. But well-managed low-input farming, exemplified by organic farming, already produces far less GHG than the industrial kind. Does industrial-plus-glyphosate farming improve on that?

More broadly, to what extent do modern high technologies of all kinds – including glyphosate – serve primarily to make good the damage done by earlier technologies that in their day were introduced with similar hype and razzmatazz?

Increase in labour of 49% – but is that necessarily a bad thing? More and more evidence shows that small mixed farms which perforce are skills-intensive can be far more productive per hectare than the vast monocultures of industrial farming, which in the interests of centralizing profit veer towards zero-labour (with ultra-cheap immigrant labour in the interim). Even more to the point, as more and more people in all areas worldwide are displaced by high tech, unemployment and all the misery and discontent that go with it have become prime concerns for all humankind. Farming worldwide is still the biggest employer so far, offering billons of real jobs (as opposed to car-cleaning and call-centres). Even if – and it’s a big “if” — the industrial kind is “efficient” in financial terms, it is also, beyond all doubt, a social disaster.

To make a sensible judgment on glyphosate, or on agrichemicals in general, or on any aspect of agriculture, requires broad and integrated, “holistic” thinking, taking everything into account; with a proper sense of history and indeed of science, and an educated feel for what “evidence” really means. That is not what we get from the NFU or, in general, from Defra.

You will certainly find such thinking at next year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference to be held in Oxford Town Hall on January 4th and 5th (and throughout the year on the website of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture). For the antidote to the shoot-from-the-hip stereotyped polemic that rains down on us from high, the ORFC and the CRFFC are the best places to be.

Colin Tudge, December 4, 2016.

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