The common weed killer Glyphosate, known as the active ingredient in Roundup, is at the centre of a global debate surrounding alleged links to cancer.
On Friday 10 August, a California jury ordered Monsanto to pay $US289 million in damages to a school groundskeeper who claimed he developed cancer after years of using the herbicide.
The jury’s findings does not mean that Roundup or its main ingredient, glyphosate, causes cancer. In fact there are more than 600 studies that say it is safe to use.
Glyphosate is an organic compound that kills weeds by interfering with the plant’s metabolism.
Glyphosate has been registered in Australia for 40 years and is approved by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).
The jury were persuaded by the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) statement that classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Under the IARC list coffee and aloe vera are also “possible” carcinogens.
“It is concerning that such a significant legal decision has been made in blatant ignorance of the findings of the world’s most authoritative sources on human health,” said National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simson.
Glyphosate in Australian farming
Glyphosate is vital for farmers’ productivity and helps protect the environment on which they farm.
The herbicide manages noxious weeds in the early stages of growth in both grazing and cropping systems. This allows farmers to adopt minimum or no tillage practices.
Glyphosate kills the weeds without disrupting the soil structure through tillage.
As a result, farmers can reduce soil erosion by up to 90 per cent and reduce carbon emissions by an amount equivalent to removing 11.9 million cars from roads globally for one year.
Ms Simson said importantly, farmers are also consumers, with a social and environmental conscience.
Farmers, like all citizens, care about the safety and health of their families and farm workers and of the impact of their practices on the land they manage
The safety of Glyphosate
In November 2017, the US Agricultural Health Study was released with a sample size of over 89,000 farmers and their spouses taken over 17 years.
The study concluded that there is “no association between glyphosate and any solid tumours or lymphoid malignancies overall, including non-Hogkin Lymphoma and its subtypes.”
The product’s safety has been supported by regulators in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Australia’s APVMA concluded in 2016 that [if used in accordance tot the labelling] “glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic risk to humans and that there are no grounds to place it under formal reconsideration”.
Fiona Simson said that no other herbicide has been tested to the lengths that glyphosate has.
“After four decades of evaluation, no regulatory agency in the world considers glyphosate to be carcinogenic.
“With all due respect to Californian Legal processes, chemical regulation should be based on science.
“Australian farmers can continue to use glyphosate in accordance with the instructions of the label, knowing it is safe to do so,” she said.