On 2nd September 2016 walking down Linlithgow High Street, I noticed a Council worker spraying the pavement. When I asked what he was spraying, he replied “Glyphosate – I am getting rid of the weeds.’ I asked if I could take a photograph and he happily obliged.
This bothered me. Not only was he unprotected, but it was a busy day. The High street was full of shoppers, people wheeling prams, dogs licking pavements, children returning from school. Near the health centre and playpark, other sprayers were dousing the grass, whilst people continued their business, enjoying a pleasant sunny day. No one had been informed that the spraying was taking place, nor what was being sprayed – until I asked.
As a member of the Linlithgow based Women’s Environmental Network Scotland (WENs), I was aware of the ongoing debate in Brussels around glyphosate use and whether its licence should be extended. I knew that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the WHO had declared glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide/weedkiller to be ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. I knew that the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) had reached the opposite conclusion, but that its research had been criticised as it had relied on unpublished studies commissioned by glyphosate producers, including MONSANTO, and had dismissed published peer-reviewed evidence that glyphosate causes cancer.
I also knew that spraying glyphosate in public places should not happen. Regulation EU 2016/1313 already requires the UK to ensure use of plant protection products (i.e. herbicides/pesticides) containing glyphosate are minimised or prohibited in public areas e.g. public parks, sports and playgrounds, school grounds, areas used by vulnerable groups and in the vicinity of healthcare facilities. The sprayers seemed to be unaware of this as they wandered unprotected down the High Street, by the Medical Centre and on the lawns behind the Vennel.
WENs then submitted an FOI to West Lothian Council, asking how much glyphosate/ glyphosate mixtures were being used. Further cause for alarm! The Council replied that in 2015, it
“used 1995 litres of glyphosate, as well as 224 litres of Nomix Duel, a mixture of Glyphosate and Sulfosulfuron”.
West Lothian Council were clearly using this as a common method of weed control, despite IARC’s announcement and the fact that many EU towns and cities and beyond have chosen to go glyphosate (indeed pesticide) free.
Organic farmers I have spoken to also state that some farmers have become so heavily reliant on glyphosate that bringing in a total ban could be a disaster for the agricultural sector. This is why a phasing out approach is needed. Many farmers use Roundup and other herbicides to kill weeds, but chemical companies also encourage farmers to use glyphosate pre-harvest to dry out the plants and make it easier for combine harvesters. The Soil Association is worried that applying glyphosate so close to harvest makes the chance of finding residues in food much higher, noting that 1 of 3 pesticides are regularly found in routine testing of British bread, appearing in over 60% of wholemeal bread samples tested by Defra’s Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food.
Man-made toxic chemicals are ubiquitous: we face daily contamination through the food we eat, the air we breathe and the products we use – a veritable ‘chemical soup’. The glyphosate debate is just part of a wider debate we need to have about our exposure to man-made contaminants and the impact of this on our health.
Because of mounting opposition, including from key member states, The EU extended glyphosate approval for only 18 months rather than the usual 15 years. Further investigations are being undertaken by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), due November 2017, while scientific evidence of its toxicity continues grow. We are hopeful that approval will not be granted when the 18 month period ends, but never underestimate the power of the huge agri-chemical lobby!
Back in West Lothian, WENs started a petition calling on the council to phase out glyphosate/ glyphosate based herbicides and bring in alternative and safer methods of weed control. This was supported by Transition Linlithgow. Sue Friel played a key part, submitting a report and speaking to the petition at the Council’s Executive. A report then went to the Environment PDSP. The upshot is that the Council will run a trial in Bathgate in the near future.
Outside West Lothian
Many countries have restricted or banned glyphosate including the Netherlands, France, Bermuda and Sri Lanka, with Germany and Argentina considering bans. Ghent in Belgium has been pesticide free since 2009 and the local community has supported the Council to become a pesticide free city keeping the footpaths in front of their homes weed free and taking pride in their surroundings. Over 310 French towns and villages are pesticide free with a further 350 allowing for some specified uses. Pesticides have been banned in public green spaces since Jan 1st 2017 and non-professional gardeners can no longer buy them over the counter.
In the UK, Glastonbury Council became the first local authority to ban pesticides. Other Councils, including Hammersmith & Fulham and Brighton & Hove are moving towards this. Edinburgh Council have agreed to phase out glyphosate WHEN an alternative weed control strategy is identified. Bristol City Council conducted a survey in a pilot area and were shocked to discover that many residents knew nothing about the use of pesticides or their potential dangers. The hope to jointly purchase a FoamSteam machine which although having a costly initial outlay, should prove to be a more economical weed control method. Some Councils have had difficulties in developing toxic free strategies, unsurprising given decades of reliance on chemicals and agro-chemical industry pressure, but a few teething problems is not a reason for giving up.
What you can do:
"propose to Member States a ban on glyphosate exposure which has been linked to cancer in humans and ecosystems degradation, reform the pesticide approval procedure and set EU-wide mandatory reduction targets for pesticide use….
They were particularly keen that the scientific evaluation of pesticides for EU regulatory approval be based only on published studies commissioned by competent public authorities instead of the pesticide industry. The petition goes live on 7th February 2017. http://www.banglyphosate.eu/
This is a public health issue and not party political. If we use the precautionary principle, we have a duty to take action and to protect both people and our environment. Neglect of this can be both costly and damaging. However, nothing will move forward without public concern combined with determined and conscientious activists – and Councillors. Effective communication will be key and the community must be engaged from the outset i.e. when the transition is being discussed and action plans are being prepared. This link provides European examples of this.
Councils going pesticide free is a start, but it represents a positive step towards being pesticide free including pesticide free food and farming.