As of today, I’m vowing to cease the use of glyphosate herbicide in my garden. Completely. This might sound drastic to some of you, but for those who’ve been following this column for years it won’t be a surprise. You’ll know that as a dedicated, but not certified organic gardener, I’ve been using less and less glyphosate over the years and have experimented with a range of chemical free techniques to control weeds on my property.
I can’t deny that the techniques, which include flame weeding, sheet mulching, manual weeding and commercial-grade vinegar don’t work as efficiently as the chemical does. They take more time, and are sometimes more expensive. But the evidence against herbicides such as glyphosate is mounting year on year and I’m no longer prepared to put my family’s health, not to mention the local environment, at risk of harm.
The catalyst for my decision to go cold turkey is a program that aired this week on ABC’s Four Corners. It wasn’t specifically about glyphosate, but dioxins. These are persistent environmental pollutants that sometimes occur naturally (as a result of forest fires, for example), but are more commonly created as a by-product of industrial processes. Dioxins are highly toxic. They accumulate in human fatty tissue and are capable of producing a roll call of adverse health effects, including cancer, skin conditions, respiratory problems, internal bleeding, immune system impairment, fertility issues and genetic abnormalities.
The Four Corners program highlighted the historic use in Australia of the chemicals 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. These plant killing chemicals were developed during the 1940′s and have an extensive history of use in controlling environmental and agricultural weeds. They also have the dubious distinction of being the ingredients of Agent Orange, the notorious chemical used during the Vietnam War as a defoliant.
Historically, both chemicals contained dioxins. In the case of 2,4,5-T, the dioxin present was regarded as the most toxic synthetic compound ever produced, and the chemical was phased out in the 1970′s and 80′s. The herbicide 2,4-D, however, is still widely available. It is found in more than 200 products approved for use in Australia, and is so widely available it can purchased over the internet without licence or restriction.
Manufacturers of the chemical claim that improved processes have eliminated dioxins from their products, but Four Corners presented evidence to the contrary. They highlighted research done at the University of Queensland that found dioxin present in all 23 products tested, despite the chemical being phased out more than a decade ago. The researchers’ conclusion was that the dioxin was lurking in the active ingredient of the products tested, and they noted that though a chemical may be manufactured in Australia, the active ingredients are routinely imported from countries such as China and India.
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) is the government agency tasked to regulate chemical use, but it does not regularly test for dioxins. In fact, after learning of the UQ research, the APVMA conducted its own tests, found dioxins in 2,4-D, but has stated that it will only conduct routine tests on the chemical every 7 to 15 years.
This is a disgrace. The half life of dioxin in the human body is seven to 11 years, and people heavily exposed to the chemical 30 years ago have either died, or suffer severe health problems. Their children and partners commonly suffer similar issues, and the Four Corners story centred on the cancer-riddled, 31-year-old son of a man who was employed to spray weeds in Western Australia during the 1970′s. In those days the chemical companies told people their products were safe enough to drink. Mega companies like Monsanto and Dow still hold all the aces in what is a dicey game of under-regulation and marketing hype.
I’ve yet to encounter someone who doesn’t want to live in a pollution free world. We all depend on clean air, water and food for our health, which begs the question: Why do we stupidly make a habit of defecating in our own nests? Why do we spray poisons on our farms and gardens without a second thought to our personal safety, or that of our children and neighbours? I understand that weeds and other pests cost billions of dollars a year in lost production, but the cost of chemical exposure to human health and well being is already inestimable.
So enough is enough. I’m swearing off the use of all synthetic chemicals in my garden. I pledge to go 100 percent organic. My garden might be messier and more time consuming as a consequence, but in the grand scheme of things, what’s a little time and mess compared to the health of my family. My ancestors managed it, organic farmers the world over manage it, and I will too. I implore you to take a similar stand.
First published in the Toowoomba Chronicle 27th July 2013.