Previously in this column I have written about how readily available glyphosate was locally, suggesting that access to it should be restricted.
I contrasted the efforts by government agencies and others in reducing our exposure to risks in many other areas of our daily lives to their blind spot in relation to the regulation and control of the use of pesticides such as glyphosate.
Recently there has been a major development which should be cause for questioning this attitude.
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Two months ago, a California jury found Monsanto liable in a lawsuit brought by Dewayne Johnson, a school groundskeeper who claimed the company's weed killers, notably the glyphosate-based Roundup, caused his cancer. Mr Johnson was awarded US $280 million (NZ $433 million) in damages that Monsanto has been ordered to pay. Even if it only further confirms what many have long suspected, it is nevertheless a landmark case.
Despite long standing concerns about Roundup and other glyphosate-based weed killing products, this is the first such lawsuit to go to trial. In the verdict Monsanto was found to have "acted with malice", knew or should have known its chemical was dangerous, and failed to warn consumers about the risks. Monsanto, recently acquired by Bayer, now faces the prospect of an avalanche of similar lawsuits in the United States and elsewhere.
Monsanto has appealed but faces an uphill battle in overturning the verdict. The potential repercussions are huge. This widely reported case should be the harbinger for change.
What has been the local reaction to this case so far? Not a lot…when one sees the widespread glyphosate spraying going on – "sprays" being a euphemism for dangerous poisons. Spring has arrived and the war on unwanted weeds has stepped up a gear.
Spring growth has to be contained at all costs – ignoring the possible risk of cancers - on road verges, berms, railway lines, playgrounds, sports grounds, in parks, home gardens, etc. And this doesn't include agriculture which is by far the biggest user of glyphosate.
Our obsession with a certain idea of order and tidiness – which some consider a collective madness that has gripped our society - means that this is a war that is never going to be won without the extensive use of glyphosate-based sprays. The other day I saw a home gardener in T-shirt, shorts and jandals spraying his driveway! At least the professionals I have seen spraying have all appeared slightly better protected…whether sufficiently so being another matter. And these are only individuals directly involved in the handling of these dangerous products. I shudder when I think of the broader impact to the environment by the sustained assault from pesticides. Given the findings of the California case, we as a society need to ask ourselves if we should continue to take these risks in the pursuit of an ideal of how we wish to see our environment.
The recent development should be the trigger for a wide-ranging review of how glyphosate and other pesticides are handled and used. Such a review is long overdue. It should consider inter alia:
+the withdrawal of glyphosate from sale to the public - it is currently widely available in hardware stores, garden centres and supermarkets
+for only licensed operators to be authorised to use glyphosate products with detailed records kept of their use and the areas sprayed,
+an end to the use of glyphosate in public spaces in our towns and cities,
+a timely phase out of glyphosate use in agriculture with support to farmers to adopt alternative and safer practices in the management of weeds.