This is the FINAL post on glyphosate (Psst: read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 first). Whew! Making this series was definitely a challenge – there was a lot of scientific research to pour through, and a lot of really good arguments on both sides to consider.
My opinion – as you have probably gathered by now – is that glyphosate is bad, and we, as a society, should definitely phase it out. But we shouldn’t just ban it and pat ourselves on the backs, because there are chemicals in use in agriculture that are far more harmful, both to the environment and public health. Instead, we need a new way of doing things. We need to maintain crop yields – there are a lot of people to feed. We need to practice environmental stewardship – wrecking our ecosystems is terrible for about a million reasons. And of course, we need to protect peoples’ health – live expectancy is currently decreasing in America, and given our medical technology…well, that’s ridiculous.
So what do we do?
More specifically, what can you do, besides hope the government magically comes up with a solution? (I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you…)?
What Can You Do, As a Consumer?
Don’t buy glyphosate, 2,4-D, or other weed suppressors for your lawN, driveway, Or backyard garden.
These chemicals need to be RESTRICTED (not banned…) for our health and the health of the planet. Don’t contribute to this pollution – and to the profits of the chemical companies – just for your lawn. Leave that to the folks who really NEED to use these chemicals. Worried about weeds? Here are few options:
- Salt your driveway cracks: Remember how in old books they describe enemies “salting” the earth during raids and pillages? This is because excess salt prevents growth. Hot (read: boiling) vinegar, borax, and other (harmless) household items can also destroy vegetation in a driveway or sidewalk. [Fun Fact: Borax also deters ants from building ant hills in your driveway]. Just be aware that these things will also destroy your grass if you put them in your lawn (just like Round-Up!). Also, I’m pretty sure salt is cheaper than Round-Up. Double win.
- Hand-Pull. If you have a LOT of weeds in your yard, this may be a challenge, but if you only have a a few, this could make a lot of sense. Many weeds are also edible, so go ahead and eat them while you’re at it (if you know what they are and can verify that they’re not toxic).
- Lay Down Weed Barriers. You can put cardboard or plastic weed barriers in your garden to prevent weeds. Personally, I prefer to use cardboard. It will eventually degrade and need to be replaced, but the degradation is very slow. Additionally, when it breaks down, it provides needed nutrients to the soil. Double win.
- Cover Bare Dirt. Mother Nature does not like to see bare dirt, and if she does…she’ll fill it with weeds. Simply PLANTING on bare dirt can really help cut down on weeds. Not into wild looking forest-gardens? Try mulching or putting in rocks.
- Foster Lawn Health. The MOST IMPORTANT thing you can do to prevent weeds in your lawn is to make your lawn healthy. Grass is great at choking out other plants, even weeds…but it has to be healthy. Many common lawn weeds, like dandelions and plantain, actually don’t thrive when the soil is rich. You can create good lawn health by getting your lawn aerated regularly, and fertilizing. I DO NOT recommend all chemical fertilizers, but amending with some good compost should be all you need to do to bring your lawn up to snuff. If your soil is poor, this could take some time, but it’s absolutely worth it.
- Get Rid of Your Lawn. There are some climates where a green lawn just doesn’t make sense. Many people in the American Southwest are embracing rock gardens with little or no actual lawn. If you hate mowing the grass and don’t have a climate that is conducive to a green lawn, this may be a good option for you.
- Embrace the Weeds. Personally, I don’t care if my lawn has weeds in it. I love clover and violets, and I think that ivy is much softer and nicer on my bare feet than grass. I selectively pull weeds that I think are ugly or unpleasant – thistle for example, is a no-no in my yard. But letting some of them stay can actually make your lawn prettier, and healthier. Clover, for example, is a nitrogen fixer. This means that it actually adds nitrogen to the soil, and is EXTREMELY beneficial to lawn health (your grass needs nitrogen to flourish), if you’re willing to leave it alone.
Petition your city to stop using chemicals in public areas
If you and other well-meaning citizens can convince your city council to ban spraying of pesticides (even just certain, more harmful pesticides) in public areas, it’ll be a big help. Many cities currently spray schoolyards, boulevards, city lawns, churches, sidewalks, and more. The city I work in actually sprayed the areas around the trees and fire hydrants with Round-Up because they thought it’d be easier than trimming around those objects! If this ends, it can create a greener, safer cities.
In fact, I would argue that limiting – or eliminating – pesticides in your area is MORE IMPORTANT than eliminating them in agriculture. Your exposure from residues in food is much lower than your exposure from city spray programs. Ending chemical use here wouldn’t impact the livelihood of farmers, but it would lower the public health and environmental health risks of pesticides.
Don’t Buy processed food with monocrop fillers
The BIGGEST barrier to moving away from herbicides in agriculture, is the demand for the biggest monocrops – corn, soybeans, and canola. It is very, very difficult to grow these crops in large quantities without chemicals – which is partially why organic processed food is so much more expensive than conventional processed food.
If consumers demanded a wider variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, dairy, and meats instead of processed mixtures of sugar, wheat, vegetable oil (which I call “death oil” for these reasons), corn, and soy…well, then there will be more demand for diversified farm plots. This would not only decrease the need for herbicides, but it will would also allow farmers to diversify, minimizing impacts if a particular crop has a bad year.
Buy Local, from farmers with good practices
Most farmers care about their crops, animals, and the people who buy them, whether they use conventional methods or not. Many small farmers are starting to try no-spray or permaculture methods, but can’t afford an organic certification – that piece of paper is super expensive and eats tons of man-hours in paperwork time. Talk to your farmer, and buy from farmers who have good growing practices. Buy from farmers who don’t use pesticides. Buy from farmers who do use pesticides, but are willing to explain why and how often…and maybe even listen to your concerns about them.
What Can Farmers Do?
Small-scale crop Farmers – Explore your options
Moving away from herbicides doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to give up your livelihood or obtain an (expensive) organic certification. It also doesn’t have to mean that you suddenly stop using glyphosate and flounder for a new method that will provide you with high enough crop yields to survive. Here are a few ideas:
- Permaculture. Permaculture is a technique that minimizes pests, diseases, and weeds by fostering biodiversity. By planting a variety of things together and practicing companion planting, you can save yourself a lot of work and minimize the need for chemicals. With this technique, yields of any specific type of crop are definitely more limited, but it may be a good option for small-scale farmers who aren’t growing large monocrops of corn/soybeans.
- Use Animal Labor. There are other ways to minimize weeds besides herbicides. Justin Rhodes, who blogs here, has developed a method where he runs chickens through his garden plot to till his soil and eliminate all weeds before planting. Other farmers use pigs to similar effect.
- Cover Crops. The Penn State Extension office recommends cover crops for weed control – and bonus, growing useful cover crops may provide additional income. I know a farmer, who I buy beef from, who plants cover crops that he can use as feed for his cattle. On off-years, he plants his family garden which provides produce for him and his family. His farm focuses on raising beef, so he does not try to sell produce, but the principal is the same.
Basically, if you designate a small portion of your plot to experimenting with other options, you may find things that work very well for you.
Some organic farmers claim that they actually have less problems with weeds and pests than they did when they used conventional methods. If you can get some of these practices to work for you on a small scale, then you can start implementing them across a larger operation.
Small scale crop farmers – Use sprays as a last resort.
One of the farmers I buy from at my local farmer’s market advertises most of his crops as “no-spray” at his farm stand. However, in the event of an unforeseen problem (such as a disease or bug infestation), he will use sprays as a last resort. Then, he advertises these crops as “conventionally grown,” and is happy to let you know what sprays he used and why. I’ve bought both types of produce from him, and I really respect the moderation of this method. He tries to avoid using chemicals, but acknowledges that sometimes there is no other way to save a crop.
Can we get a big round of applause for moderation?
Large scale farmers – consider Organic
Unfortunately, in order to make a transition away from pesticides on a large scale, most farmers need the organic certification. This is because organic products sell for a higher price, which is necessary to make up for the lower yields. The good news is that in the Midwest, studies do show that organic farming can be just as profitable as conventional, and possibly more so. The bad news, is the startup costs are difficult to swallow. I’m not a big fan of the organic certification, but I do think it is worth considering.
Farmers could also consider making part of their fields organic, to try it out, without losing too much profit in the meantime.
All Farmers – consider diversification
Obviously, as long as the demand for processed food remains high, we will “need” tons of corn, soy, and canola. But this agricultural trend has a lot of problems associated with it. From a health standpoint, it necessitates lots of chemicals that can be hazardous. From an environmental standpoint, a lack of biodiversity is generally bad.
But from an economic standpoint, monocrops are also an issue for the farmers. If you only grow corn, what happens if the corn crop gets destroyed for some reason?
Answer: Bad things. Government subsidies. Debt.
Unfortunately, there are a LOT of barriers to diversification, from start-up costs to infrastructure problems to government interference. Ultimately, consumers need to demand a wider variety of produce and animal products in order for this to be viable on a large scale.
Glyphosate is not good for public health or for the environment, but minimizing it’s use goes far beyond banning it. Round-Up is BETTER for health and the environment than many other pesticides; vilifying it beyond other chemicals is just an invitation to greater impacts on health and the environment from it’s outdated replacements!
Glyphosate is also far more dangerous to the people applying it than to the people eating food contaminated with it. What good is buying organic apples if you spray your own lawn?
My advice is to focus on minimizing/eliminating glyphosate (AND OTHER PESTICIDES) in areas outside of agriculture first. This is the logical place to start, because it is easy to do, and it doesn’t impact the livelihoods of farmers or the food supply of the nation.
Next, is to investigate alternative methods in agriculture. Buying local is a key way to support these practices as a consumer, as is learning to avoid processed foods that raise the demand for corn/soy/canola.
For farmers, being open-minded and willing to experiment with new methods is critical. Just because we have been doing something a certain way for 50 years does not mean that is necessarily the best way to do it. We, as humans, can innovate and improve. In fact, it’s something we have historically been rather good at.
Thoughts on glyphosate? Are you for or against it? Do you agree with my moderate take on the issue? Let me know if an email, or in the comments!