The lone voice of horticultural reason

“Glyphosate is the Agent Orange of our time”

– anonymous World Wildlife Federation executive, quoted by Mike Wallace on CBS TV’s 60 Minutes

Ah, that’s just what any fact-based, fair-minded discussion on chemicals and the environment needs scare tactics, cloaked in deceit and unwarranted innuendo.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, a product used by many gardeners to kill weeds. The 60 Mintues news story broadcast over the winter pertained to our government’s current efforts to hinder cocaine production by spraying Columbian coca fields with a highly concentrated solution of glyphosate. The story delivered pretty strong evidence that this practice was affecting the health of nearby villagers, and attributed to the spraying a wide range of skin problems and other health concerns. Noting the inaccuracy on the part of the pilots flying the helicopters, combined with wind drift, it was fairly obvious to me (even after processing the information through my CBS News filter) that these health problems are indeed a result of the villagers being sprayed.

Proving what Monsanto, the largest manufacturer of glyphosate-based herbicides, has always announced in a clear, loud voice: don’t get the stuff on your skin, in your eyes, your hair, don’t inhale it, smoke it, or mix it with vodka. If you follow the label directions when using Roundup rubber gloves, long sleeves, safety goggles if you’re a clutz your health, and the health of the planet, is not at risk.

But wait a minute rubber gloves, long sleeves, warnings on the label doesn’t that mean that the glyphosate in Roundup is a dangerous chemical? Of course it does, but in a fair discussion, one needs to consider the relativity of the word “dangerous.”

Pour an ounce of Roundup in one fish pond, an ounce of Palmolive dish soap in another, then see which one kills the fish. Those evil scientists at Colgate-Palmolive will win every time. So is liquid soap a dangerous chemical? In a pond it is, and to fish, it’s toxic. Or consider how one can’t go more than a few weeks in the fall without coming across a story about a college student dying of alcohol poisoning. Are you supposed to not drink the stuff? No, but to be safe, you need to drink alcohol within certain guidelines.

Roundup kills weeds because glyphosate (a salt compound) inhibits enzyme pathways, preventing plants from synthesizing amino acids necessary for growth. It basically stops plants from eating, so they die. When used according to label directions there is no carryover into the soil or groundwater. You may seed an area sprayed with Roundup seven days later, and your dogs and children can walk in any area sprayed with Roundup after waiting just 24 hours. Yes, glyphosate typically has a half-life in the soil of around 30 days. (Half-life is how long it takes a compound to break down halfway.) Well, everything has a half-life in soil. A 30-day half-life is amazing, to be so brief. Registering a half-life is a bad thing if the compound, during the half-life, adversely affects the soil, or groundwater, or plants to come, and it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t. Glyphosate doesn’t.

Agent Orange is a completely different, unbelievably more powerful toxin. It’s pretty well understood now that just whiffing it can cause a wide range of diseases, and that living in areas that were sprayed can cause birth defects in humans. It remains in the soil indefinitely. Over in Vietnam right now, areas that were sprayed in the ’60s are still not suitable for growing crops. Disturb that soil today and the chemical is released once again, causing major harm to humans, wildlife, flora, and the environment in general.

I work to protect the environment. My attitudes about chemicals have changed over the years. One of my goals as a gardener is to use as few chemical compounds as possible. Most seasons I don’t use any. So please don’t think I’m pro-chemical, because I’m not. But rest assured that I am, and forever will be, anti-deceit.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener