I once tried the organic alternative to the herbicide roundup for clearing weeds from garden paths: a flame-thrower. It was brutal for the environment, incinerating innocent insects and filling the air with emissions.
Next week I might have to go back to that. Roundup, the world’s safest, cheapest and most effective weedkiller, may be illegal within days in Europe.
Roundup (chemical name glyphosate) was due to have its licence extended for 15 years. Normally it would have been nodded through. But this time the relevant French and German ministers, Segolene Royale and Barbara Hendricks, nervous about the green vote, have blocked the renewal, and the best that farmers and gardeners can hope for is an 18-month extension till after French and German elections.
Yet almost everybody agrees that glyphosate is safe: the European Food Safety Authority, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the World Health Organisation, our government. Even at absurdly high concentrations, lab tests show it is only one-tenth as carcinogenic as coffee – and you ingest coffee, which you don’t roundup.
Just one rogue study, driven by an environmental activist working for a body called the International Agency for Research on Cancer, disagreed, but on the basis of cherry-picked data and elementary errors of interpretation. Yet these days, it’s not the evidence but the headline, or the tweet, that counts. By the time the rogue study’s flaws were known, activists had got to politicians.
Ironically, Monstanto, which invented glyphosate, may not mind much if roundup is banned. It is off-patent, so not very profitable. This may explain why the company has been curiously absent from the debate.
This episode is part of a wider political campaign. Having failed to persuade all but a few affluent consumers to go organic, the greens are now trying to force us instead. If we did, Earth would be in trouble. Many organic farmers plough their land five times as often, to control weeds, harming soil structure, moisture and biodiversity.
Over the past 50 years fertilisers, pesticides and tractors have reduced the amount of land needed to produce a given quantity of food by 68%. Had we not achieved this, not only would far more people be starving, but there would be no nature reserves left.
The city of Petaluma in California recently stopped using roundup in parks and school grounds. The result was a 1700% increase in cost of weed control, and a new requirement for operators to wear respirators (unnecessary with roundup which is less toxic than vinegar) while spraying with the far more toxic organic alternatives.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.