In January, the Manchester Vermont Conservation Commission (MCC) voted to support a bill creating a statewide ban on glyphosate. H.301 is sponsored by Representative Mari Cordes (D-Addison 4).
In a letter to the Manchester Journal, the conservation commission noted that 9.4 million tons of glyphosate, better known as RoundUp, have been used to date, a half-pound for every cultivated acre on earth. Glyphosate, the active ingredient, has long been touted as safe and non-persistent in the environment. However, the scale of this experiment is unprecedented, and as usage increases, new effects are being found. Effects on soil micro-organisms are particularly disturbing, as scientists comes to a deeper understanding of how crucial these minute forms of life are to our climate, eco-system, and food supplies. There are also concerns about glyphosate’s effect on the gut micro-biomes of humans and honey bees. A new study conducted by University of California Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center and Chiba University Center for Forensic Mental Health in Japan showed that in rats, exposure to glyphosate during pregnancy and lactation caused autism-like behavior and abnormal gut biota in male offspring.
Use of glyphosate is part of a chemical-agricultural complex that has been consolidated under the ownership of chemical and now pharmaceutical giants. Bayer now owns Monsanto, the developer of RoundUp. Bayer stock dropped 47% after it acquired Monsanto, largely due to liability concerns triggered by losses of three lawsuits alleging that RoundUp had caused non-Hodgkins lymphoma in users. Bayer recently agreed to a $39.5 million settlement of a large number of these cases.
Problems are even greater for farmers, who face difficulties with seed accessibility, cost, and the inevitable super-weeds, which have developed resistance to glyphosate and now require treatment with increasingly complex cocktails of chemicals. As the MCC notes, “a growing number of independent studies in the U.S. and Europe show significant correlation between glyphosate and glyphosate-based formulations and major health and environmental dangers.” Formulations with added ingredients seem to be more hazardous.
Glyphosate’s safety selling points were that it did not persist or accumulate in soil, and that it worked through a nutrient pathway that exists only in plants, not in vertebrates or insects. Both ideas are being called into question. Glyphosate has been found to persist in soils between two and 900 days. It kills certain beneficial soil organisms, rendering soil dry, compacted, and subject to erosion. As long as it persists in soil, it is subject to leaching into groundwater, streams, and rivers. A neuro-disruptor, it has been shown to cause behavioral changes in mosquito larvae that make them less likely to survive, and to make bees more vulnerable to pathogens. Both types of insects are a vital base of the food chain.
Use of glyphosate has increased with the move toward no-till agriculture. No-till has the potential to decrease soil degradation, increase photosynthesis, and shift the carbon cycle back toward balance. But the unknown effects on algae, larvae, the gut micro-biome of bees and mammals, and on soil micro-organisms may be too high a price to pay.
There’s another way. Regenerative agriculture is a movement of farmers and advocates working to restore soil health and rural prosperity. One organization supporting the health of both the food chain and the farm community is Farmer’s Footprint, founded by Dr. Zach Bush. Studio Hill Farm in Shaftsbury, Vermont works with Farmer’s Footprint and with the Savory Institute. This 270-acre farm stopped using chemicals cold-turkey and experienced 2-1/2 years of failure. The soil was so depleted that it was absolutely dependent on chemical fertilizer inputs. The Studio Hill team brought in chickens, turkeys, and sheep. According to Studio Hill Farm’s website, “In a few seasons the hay bale count was back up to where it had been under conventional management, but the grass was greener, leafier, and more nutritious than ever before.” First the soil micro-organisms returned, then worms, birds, foxes, wild turkeys, deer, and coyotes. The farmers now dream of building a system of rural and urban food hubs, linking certified regenerative food from local farms with bigger markets through a network of electric trucks.
This type of transition is not simple, and it’s certainly disruptive. However, the pandemic may offer a (heavily) disguised opportunity. Things are already disrupted. Commodity farming is already in crisis. With organizations like Farmers Footprint ready to help and people newly appreciative of the importance of locally grown, healthful food, this could be a good time to make the switch.
https://bit.ly/3hJ6ksP (Manchester Journal)
https://bit.ly/3hJXivH (PNAS article)
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Vermont.