Full short-term ban on glyphosate could be counterproductive

AGRONOMIST field researchers from Wageningen University & Research (WUR) have warned in a memorandum prepared at the request of the Dutch parliament’s committee on Agriculture, Nature & Food Quality, that “A complete ban on the use of glyphosate in agriculture in the short term will lead to farmers more frequently using other pesticides and also non-chemical alternatives that, on balance, are not necessarily better for humans, the environment, soil life and the climate.”

The request from the Dutch parliament came as it considers the European Commission’s proposal to extend the authorisation of glyphosate by 10 years. EU member states must decide in the coming months whether to agree to this proposal.

The authors of the memorandum conduct a lot of practice-based research on making agriculture more sustainable and, together with colleagues from other disciplines, are also committed to reducing the use of glyphosate and other plant protection products.

In response to the question of whether or not to extend the authorisation of glyphosate within Europe, the committee on Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality asked them to explain the usefulness of glyphosate from an agricultural perspective. The committee also wanted to know which alternatives (chemical and non-chemical) were available and how WUR’s experts assessed the pros and cons of these alternatives.

The main message of the prepared memorandum is: glyphosate scores better from an agricultural point of view and in terms of feasibility of investments in money and manpower than the current alternatives. In addition, many of the existing chemical alternatives to glyphosate are not necessarily better for humans and the environment. Moreover, many of the current non-chemical alternatives (e.g. ploughing) are more unfavourable to soil life and climate change mitigation.

In their note, the experts emphasise that they are not advocating the widespread use of glyphosate, but that they fear that banning the herbicide completely in the short term may not necessarily be an improvement. Their expectation is that growers will initially switch to other existing chemical alternatives, which are agriculturally less effective and will therefore be used more intensively.

Pieter de Wolf is a senior field researcher and project leader of Farm of the Future, a project in Lelystad by WUR that aims to help arable farmers make their operations more sustainable. He said that “[If glyphosate is banned] we will achieve the opposite of what we want to achieve for society, namely less use of herbicides. At Farm of the Future, we do not exclude glyphosate and other crop protection products a priori, but only use them if there is no good alternative. In doing so, we prefer location- or plant-specific approaches using agents with the lowest environmental risks. In the process of application, we aim for minimal emissions. This strategy gives us a big reduction in resource inputs and environmental risks, although there are differences between years.”

De Wolf and his colleagues therefore outline that if we want to quickly and firmly reduce the use of herbicides such as glyphosate, deployment on targeted, location- or preferably plant-specific application is most effective. At the same time, they also note that the technology for this is not yet sufficiently developed nor widely available to farmers.

De Wolf said, “This therefore requires additional commitment to the development and application of technology that, for example, can use cameras, sensors and Artificial Intelligence. In doing so, it is crucial that a number of effective herbicides with relatively low environmental risk remain available for these applications, such as glyphosate. It is also important that non-chemical methods, whether mechanical, thermal, electrical or optical, are further developed and tested. However, a concern with those alternatives is the energy requirement and the impact on soil. ”


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