Is Glyphosphate the spawn of an evil profit hungry chemical company?

GlyphosphateIf your reaction is to shudder because you consider Glyphosphate to be the spawn of Evil Inc (more commonly known as Monsanto), then I would recommend putting that emotional reaction on pause.

It is popular within some segments of our culture to embrace the idea that there is something inherently wrong with Glyphosphate, hence it needs to be banned, but often this is inspired by tribal membership and not factual information. If the tribe somebody belongs to deems something to be bad, then without giving it too much thought, others fall in line, and that tells us nothing at all about the truth of such a claim, but perhaps does reveal a great deal about human psychology.

OK, back to basics … what is Glyphosphate?

It’s a broad-spectrum herbicide that is used to kill weeds, especially broadleaf ones and also grasses that compete with crops, and has been on the market since 1974 under the brandname of Roundup. The company that produces it is Monsanto. It is incredibly popular and is perhaps one of the most used herbicides amongst both the farming community and also within gardens. There is a good understanding of exactly how it works, and if curious about that, then google is your friend.

Now let’s move on to the discussion regarding it being banned.

It has been extensively studied and is currently approved by regulatory bodies worldwide, but concerns persist regarding just how safe it is in the context of humans being exposed to it.

WHO place it in category 2A last year (that means there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and that further research is needed). Now if that worries you and you wish to see it banned for being part of Category 2A, then you need to remember that in this same category we also have red meat and any hot beverage.

Oh but wait, this is not the full story because this year, last May to be precise, that classification was revised and it was taken out of that category because the further studies had concluded that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet“.

So there rests the problem. You have the name Monsanto in the mix as the producer and that for some is sufficient justification to label this as evil. Then you have the 2015 WHO assessment, which has since then been revised. If you were not aware of that update and simply saw it being identified as something that just might cause cancer, then you would quite rightly be nervous and concerned.

If you then express that concern, you instil within other minds fear.

Yes there are many studies, and yes you can cherry pick from them the paint a picture of Glyphosphate as either wholly angelic or as the spawn of evil, and so there needs to be a wholly complete understanding of the full conversation to get to the truth.

In The News

A recent example of this cherry picking was an article by Cara Augustenborg, chair of Friends of the Earth Ireland.

Here is the article – Do we really need glyphosate for ‘safe, secure and affordable’ food?

It provoked a robust debate on twitter, and so as a good Summary of that, here is Colm Ryan of Cork Skeptics writing about that …

So here’s the story: a few days ago, Cara Augustenborg wrote an article for the Irish Examiner about Glyphosphate, the active ingredient in the the herbicide Roundup.…/do-we-really-need-glyphosate…

This raised some red flags with me and I said so on Twitter. What followed was a strong back and forth among me and some friends, and people who supported the article.

Cara has written a blog article in response, but in it she doesn’t really address the criticisms we had, and mainly restates her original points.…/a-round-up-on-monsanto

In her response, my suggestion that she went on a Gish Gallop is mentioned, alluding to a rhetorical style of proving one’s case through quantity of arguments rather than quality.

The thing is, I do care whether Roundup is rigid and dangerous. If the science weighs in that direction, I would be happy to see it being restricted and banned. I have absolutely no skin in this game as I really am not a farming or food expert, nor do I care either way about Monsanto.

The only thing I do know for a fact is that there is considerable debate in the scientific community about glyphosphate and it appears that the author is taking a position that is actually out of step with our current knowledge about the product. Minority views are fine within science, but they need a strong evidence base themselves in order to change minds on the matter.

The second thing that I noticed about the article was that it failed to give a hearing or acknowledgment to the scientific consensus. It’s a style thing, but it comes across as polemical and self serving. The entire article supports the view that glyphosphate is bad. It uses studies to support this, but there are more studies pointing in a different direction, and these are entirely ignored. It’s a style thing as it comes across as cherry picking, i.e., here’s my position, now here’s everything that supports my position, therefore my position is right. This is flawed logic. 

The last thing is that it doesn’t really address the food security question. If we remove it, what do we replace it with in order to ensure we can safely feed people? Honestly, if we get to a situation where we don’t need to spray crops to keep weeds and pests at bay, I would be very happy, so long as people have enough food. My understanding is that glyphospate is an important tool in the armoury. Let’s not replace it with something that’s worse for the environment, or something that puts global food supplies at risk.…/glyphosphate-and-a-gis…/

Now that really does nail it, because what we really need to know is what is actually true and not launch forth with a conclusion that is not wholly justifiable.

If we start with a conclusion, then we can most probably build up a case to support it, but if we are ignoring the full conversation we are not only fooling others, we are also perhaps fooling ourselves.

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