Glyphosate is an herbicide. It is the active ingredient in RoundUp and other popular broadleaf weed and grass killers. And recent scientific research has shown us that glyphosate may be killing honey bees along with plants.
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. This is a heated topic and I want you to be aware of where I stand.
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, in which the process was first identified, back in the 1800s.] The shikimic acid, or shikimate, pathway is a 7-step metabolic process that synthesizes folates and amino acids necessary for plant survival. Herein lies the problem. The shikimic pathway is also used by algae, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and others. When the shikimate pathway in any of these organisms is blocked, they die.
Glyphosate in the environment
More that 700,000 tons of glyphosate are produced each year, making it the world’s most used pesticide. As a substance, glyphosate molecules bind tightly to soil. While this means they are less likely to end up in ground water as, say, motor oil, it can cause a different type of pollution. Depending on soil type and weather conditions, glyphosate can be found in the soil 6 months after being applied. 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 long after the area was treated. Compounding the problem, many glyphosate products also contain other toxic ingredients.
Glyphosate and GMOs
Glyphosate use walks hand-in-hand with genetically modified plant development. GMOs are designed to be resistant to glyphosate and other weed-killing chemicals, making it possible to grow more food for our ever-increasing global population. It certainly has its appeal. It’s so simple - just aim, squirt, and you’re done. No more weeds. But at what cost?
Glyphosate and overspray
If you (or your neighbor) use a glyphosate product, you need to be aware of the overspray risk. Since none of us is perfect, and breezes do happen, these chemicals can be carried on the wind to places 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 products kill all the plants it touches, indiscriminately, many plants important to local biodiversity are being lost. We do not yet know the full extent of that domino effect.
Glyphosate and bees
Beekeepers have long suspected that glyphosate is, at least 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?] New research from the University of Texas at Austin shows that glyphosate kills some of the beneficial bacteria found in a honey bee’s gut, making the bees more susceptible to infection. [Maybe we need to start feeding our bees some type of probiotic? I’m guessing.]
Glyphosate first came on the market in 1974. It provided an easy way to kill weeds with just a squirt. Glyphosate is used in agriculture and forestry, and to control aquatic plants. It is sprayed along railroad tracks, between orchard trees, and in public parks. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, there is a sodium salt form of glyphosate that is used to regulate plant growth and ripen fruit. So, it’s very useful and convenient. There are over 750 products on American shelves that contain glyphosate, including RoundUp, Bonide KleenUp Grass and Weed Killer, and Kleeraway Grass & Weed Killer. Tragically, glyphosate is also found in many oat products on grocery store shelves, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The worst offenders the EWG listed include Giant Instant Oatmeal, Back to Nature Classic Granola, Quaker Dinosaur Eggs Oatmeal, and, I hate to say it, Cheerios. I urge you to read through their entire list and shop accordingly. The FDA was/is aware of glyphosate in our foods, but has failed to release its findings to the public. More recently, glyphosate has been linked to the development of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and may also cause cancer in humans.
As with any herbicide, always follow the package directions EXACTLY and COMPLETELY. This is not a time to be careless. You can harm other plants with overspray, or you expose yourself to dangerous chemicals. This 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 that are 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 put out the effort to 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 the 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!