AP NEWS

What would happen if RoundUp went away?

May 15, 2019

SCOTTSBLUFF — On Monday, a California jury ordered Monsanto, the maker of Roundup brand herbicides, to pay a combined $2.055 billion to a couple who allege that the popular weed killer caused their cancers.

Bayer AG, which bought Monsanto last year, said in a statement Monday that it intends to appeal the jury’s verdict. Monday’s verdict was the third delivered against the company in California courts since August of last year.

At issue in the lawsuits has been a chemical known as glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Glyphosate is a widely used herbicide that controls broadleaf weeds and grasses. Since its introduction in 1974, glyphosate has been described as a “once-in-a-century herbicide,” because of its ability to kill weeds while leaving crops and other plants alive. It is regarded as one of the least-toxic pesticides when it comes to people and animals.

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, said glyphosate is a “probable” human carcinogen. However, that designation has been contested as other studies have disputed IARC’s claim. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has reviewed and reassessed glyphosate’s safety and uses, and just two weeks ago, the agency said the chemical is safe when used as directed.

“EPA continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label and that glyphosate is not a carcinogen,” the agency said in a statement in late April. “EPA is proposing management measures to help farmers target pesticide sprays on intended pests, protect pollinators and reduce the problem of weeds becoming resistant to glyphosate.”

But in a worst-case scenario, what would happen if the world’s most widely used herbicide were to be removed from the shelves tomorrow?

The impact — particularly for sugar beet growers — would be significant.

While other row crops have had genetically modified variants on the market for quite sometime, the adoption of Roundup Ready sugar beets, which are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, has been relatively recent. The first commercially available GMO sugar beet seeds were introduced in 2007, with wide deployment seen in 2008. Since then, use of Roundup Ready sugar beets spread quickly — making it the fastest adoption of any GM crop so far.

“If they were to pull glyphosate from the market, it would be a pretty major blow to the sugar beet producers,” Andrew Kniss, professor of weed science at the University of Wyoming, said Tuesday. “That would, by-far, be the biggest impact.”

Other herbicides used to manage broad-leaf weeds prior to the introduction of Roundup Ready sugar beets are no longer available on the market. That’s because there’s no reason for manufacturers to continue producing something that growers aren’t buying, Kniss said

Conservation tillage practices, such as no-till farming, would also be difficult without the aid of glyphosate, especially for sugar beets. Tillage and less-effective herbicides were necessary for weed control before Roundup Ready technology was adopted, Kniss said. Whenever the soil is disturbed through tilling, carbon in the soil oxidizes and is released into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Water is also lost when soil is tilled. No-till practices keep moisture in the ground, allow for carbon to stay sequestered in the soil and require fewer inputs from the farmer in terms of applications and fuel used in preparing a field for planting. Generally, no-till has less leaching of fertilizers and pesticides into groundwater, less soil erosion, and a decreased carbon footprint. It could be argued that the loss of those practices, which are enabled largely by use of glyphosate, would impact the environment negatively.

For other cropping systems, the next-most effective herbicide would need to be used if Roundup were no longer available, said Nevin Lawrence, integrated weed management specialist with the University of Nebraska’s Panhandle Research and Extension Center in Scottsbluff.

“Some of those herbicides would probably have an increased environmental impact,” Lawrence said. “There would likely be an increased health impact as well, depending on the product, but it’s a really complex question because it’s specific to the crop, the herbicide and to the farming system.”

Beyond sugar beets, glyphosate resistant corn is used in about 90% of the corn acres planted in western Nebraska. Roundup Ready alfalfa accounts for between 30% to 50% of the acres of alfalfa planted. The use of glyphosate goes beyond just GM crops.

“Pretty much all of the crops in the area use Roundup as a pre-plant burndown herbicide, either right before or right after planting the crop, to control weeds that are standing at the time of crop planting,” Lawrence said. “Without that, the only other option would be to move to a less-effective herbicide or use tillage to prepare the seed bed.”

However, glyphosate resistance has been found in certain weeds in western Nebraska, including kochia and palmer amaranth. Lawrence said it’s becoming a problem that needs to be addressed.

“Glyphosate is a very good herbicide, and in most situations, with most weeds, it’s usually the best herbicide we have,” he said. “When (growers) lose glyphosate due to a resistance issue, they will usually add in another herbicide to control the weeds that are resistant to it. In most cases, that has been dicamba.”

Dicamba can have drift problems, which affect can affect crops, especially soybeans, that are not dicamba resistant.

“We don’t grow a lot of soybeans in western Nebraska, so we don’t have nearly as many drift issues as the rest of the country,” he said. “Dicamba has been the go-to herbicide in crops that will allow its use once glyphosate resistance becomes prevalent.”

spike.jordan@starherald.com