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agriculture

Farming without glyphosate — how would that work?

EU member states have again put off a decision on renewing the controversial weed killer glyphosate. Could Europe really be close to banning glyphosate — and what would a possible ban mean for farmers and consumers?

At an expert committee of members of the European Union on Wednesday, debate raged over whether or not to extent the European license for the herbicide glyphosate — the vote was postponed because the committee could not reach a majority. The next meeting is likely to take place at the beginning of November.

Without a majority vote by the EU member states on the license renewal by December 15, glyphosate will be banned in the EU starting in 2018.

EU branches have been divided over the future of the controversial weed killer. While some segments of the public argue that glyphosate causes cancer, the agriculture lobby says this isn't so — and that anyway, agriculture without glyphosate is too much of a hardship.

The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, previously recommended a renewal of 10 years — but walked this back when the European Parliament on Tuesday called in a non-binding decision for glyphosate to be phased out by 2022.

The commission is now seeking a five to seven year renewal for the glyphosate license.

Observers say the outstanding decision by the EU members' expert committee could go either way. But if it decides to ban glyphosate in the long run, what would this mean for farmers — and for consumers?

Landwirt versprüht Pflanzenschutzmittel Pestizide (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Pleul)

Before planting new crops, farmers kill weed with herbicides so they don't need to plough up the fields

Read more - EU fails to agree on glyphosate license renewal

Less work with glyphosate

Glyphosate is the world's most widely used herbicide. In Germany alone, farmers treat about 40 percent of arable land with it.

The herbicide, marketed by Monsanto under the brand name RoundUp, is a powerful tool in modern agriculture — it's very effective in killing weeds, thus saving farmers a lot of time.

Before sowing, farmers spray glyphosate on their fields to kill unwanted vegetation. Plants absorb the poison via their stems and leaves, and then die.

Especially controversial is when farmers apply the herbicide in preparation for harvesting. This kills all weeds, allowing only the crops to survive. This makes the harvesting process simpler.

Without glyphosate, farmers would need to manually till their land to remove weeds. That would catapult them back into agricultural methods of the 1970s and 1980s, said Michael Lohse, a spokesman of the German Farming Association.

"Glyphosate enabled the revolutionary step to non-plough tillage — which saves time, protects the groundwater and avoids soil erosion," Lohse told DW. "A ban would mean a competitive disadvantage for European farmers compared to farmers in, let's say, South America who are still allowed to use it."

Deformed piglet at Danish farm (Andreas Rummel)

A Danish farmer alleged that glyphosate caused his piglets to be born with deformities

Yet, the German Farming Association is aware of fears that glyphosate may cause cancer, and says it's also in the farmers' interest to clarify possible health threats.

A 2015 study from the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer found that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic." But the next year, the European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemicals Agency said the substance was not likely to cause cancer in humans

The studies used two different approaches, and their results — and sources — continue to be debated.

But right now, Lohse doesn't see any alternative. "There's no other herbicide that is as effective as glyphosate. Farmers would need to use a mix of other herbicides — and who knows whether that would be any better," he added.

Mechanical weed killing more expensive

Researchers agree that no herbicide currently available on the market could replace glyphosate — but some believe that farmers can do fine without it.

"Fundamentally, agriculture can manage without glyphosate," said Hella Kehlenbeck from the Julius Kühn Institute in Germany.

In her research, she estimated the possible costs of a glyphosate ban for German agriculture and found that farming without herbicides "doesn't have to be more expensive in all cases." If the field conditions aren't ideal, however, the costs could be higher than they currently are.

Agricultural economists at the University of Göttingen found that without glyphosate, farmers could lose 4 to 15 percent of crop yield per hectare. The researchers analyzed a crop rotation of rapeseed, wheat and barley.

Among the public, worry over the pervasive substance runs high. A recent citizen's initiative turned in 1.3 million signatures demanding a full ban on glyphosate to the European Commission — enough to require an official response.

But would these consumers also be willing to pay higher prices for non-glyphosate produce?

The German Farming Association is doubtful. "I cannot imagine that supermarkets would pay more for field crops," said Katja Börgermann, a pesticide expert at the association.

But conventional farmers could learn from organic farming. Organic produce is farmed without chemical herbicides, products are branded as organic, and higher costs are passed along to the end consumer.

In places like Germany, the organic sector has been booming.

Bildergalerie Artenvielfalt Deutschland (imago/R. Lueger)

Although more time consuming, weed control without herbicides secures habitat for wild herbs

Can a glyphosate ban boost the economy?

Biodiversity has decreased massively over past decades — in regions such as Germany, this is due largely to modern agricultural practices, including overuse of pesticides and herbicides. "Plants, insects and birds have their natural habitat on farmland. This diversity has been strongly affected by the use of herbicides such as glyphosate," said Jörn Wogram from the German Environment Agency.

This loss of biodiversity amounts to a large sum, ecologically and economically.

Beyond that, authorities regularly control compliance with limits on herbicide and pesticide residues in groundwater, rivers and lakes. Herbicides often contaminate groundwater, resulting in higher costs for water treatment.

If all those costs are considered, it "can be said that a ban of glyphosate and other herbicides could overall be cheaper," said Wogram.

The environment agency is currently analyzing all so-called external costs of chemical herbicides, including costs for farmers and consumers becoming ill as a result of exposure.

The results of the study will be published next year. "Then we will see the overall picture of chemical herbicides, and be able to draw conclusions on where we can save money," Wogram concluded.

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