Glyphosate is an herbicide. It is the active ingredient in Roundup and other broadleaf weed and grass killers. Scientific research has shown that glyphosate may be partially responsible for the global die-off of honey bees.
Before we begin learning about this litigious herbicide, let me tell you from the gate that I do not use it in any form. I practice sustainable, integrated pest management (IPM) and organic gardening.
The chemistry of glyphosate
Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum, systemic herbicide, which means it is absorbed by and kills the plants it touches. It does this by blocking an enzyme pathway called the shikimic acid pathway. [It gets this unique name from the Japanese shikimi flower, which was part of the initial discovery in the 1800s.] When the shikimate pathway in many organisms is blocked, they die.
Glyphosate in the environment
Glyphosate is the world’s most-used pesticide, with over 700,000 tons produced annually. As a substance, glyphosate molecules bind tightly to soil. While this means they are less likely to end up in groundwater as motor oil, it can cause a different type of pollution. Depending on soil type and weather conditions, glyphosate may remain in the soil for six months or more.
Soil bacteria break down glyphosate, but I have to wonder about the chemicals those bacteria poop out afterward. Maybe it’s just me. Some studies have found that carrots and lettuce plants absorb glyphosate months after spraying. Many glyphosate products also contain other toxic ingredients.
Glyphosate and GMOs
Glyphosate use walks hand-in-hand with genetically modified plant development. GMOs are resistant to glyphosate and other weed-killing chemicals by design, allowing farmers to grow more food for our ever-increasing global population. It certainly has its appeal. It’s so simple—Aim, squirt, done. No more weeds. But at what cost?
Glyphosate and overspray
If you (or your neighbor) use a glyphosate product, be aware of the overspray risk. Since none of us is perfect, and breezes happen, these chemicals can travel on the wind to where they are not welcome. That delicate, well-loved exotic, handed down from your great-grandmother, is just as vulnerable to death by glyphosate as the dandelions. Also, since glyphosate indiscriminately kills all the plants it touches, many plants important to local biodiversity are being lost to this herbicide. We do not yet know the full extent of that domino effect.
Glyphosate and bees
Beekeepers have long suspected that glyphosate is partly responsible for the recent decline in global bee populations. [Did you know that China now must hand-pollinate their apple and pear trees because there are not enough bees?] Research from the University of Texas at Austin shows that glyphosate kills beneficial bacteria in a honey bee’s gut, making the bees more susceptible to infection. [Maybe we need to start feeding our bees probiotics? I’m guessing.]
Glyphosate first came on the market in 1974. It provided an easy way to kill weeds with just a squirt. Commercial farms, railroad companies, and city parks all use glyphosate. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, farmers use one form of glyphosate to regulate plant growth and ripen fruit. It’s convenient, but not what I want in or on my food.
More than 750 products on American shelves contain glyphosate, including Roundup, Bonide KleenUp Grass and Weed Killer, and Kleeraway Grass & Weed Killer. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), glyphosate is also in many oat products on grocery store shelves. This organization has successfully gotten many companies to reduce the amount of glyphosates in our food. You can read more here. Drugwatch also has more information.
The FDA is aware of glyphosate in our food but has failed to release its findings publicly. [Makes me wonder what we are paying taxes for...] Glyphosate may also be involved in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and may cause cancer.
As with any herbicide, always follow the package directions EXACTLY and COMPLETELY. It is not a time to be careless. You can harm other plants with overspray or expose yourself to dangerous chemicals. It can occur by breathing it in during the application process, eating or smoking after applying it, if you don’t wash your hands, or by touching plants still wet from the spray. If exposure occurs, follow the first aid directions on the product label. For more information about risks and treatments, contact the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222. Pets are also susceptible to herbicide poisoning.
Instead of using toxic chemicals to rid your garden and lawn of weeds, be industrious and pull them before they go to seed. While you’re out there, use it as a time to take a closer look at the other plants and soil and listen for the birds and insects that share your yard space.
Bottom line: glyphosate makes it possible to grow far more food, at least in the short term. But the long-term costs, in my opinion, far outweigh any convenience or benefits it may provide.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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