Roundup herbicide creates dilemma, amid cancer cases

Necessary Evil: Suzanne Pritchard wonders whether the use of Roundup is a case of "better the devil you know".
Necessary Evil: Suzanne Pritchard wonders whether the use of Roundup is a case of "better the devil you know".

An experienced bush regenerator says the "baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater" over concerns about the herbicide glyphosate.

Suzanne Pritchard, president of Coal Point Progress Association's Landcare group, said there needs to be "an informed discussion" about use of the contentious chemical.

"It is an extremely important tool for control of weeds," said Ms Pritchard, who has been in Landcare for more than 20 years.

A ban on glyphosate would affect weed control that enables biodiversity to survive.

"The pool of plants would be diminished. We'd end up with a lot of weeds in future. We become a lesser society if we can't care for native plants and the animals that depend on them."

The glyphosate brand and weedkiller Roundup has been making world headlines over lawsuits in the US.

In May, a Californian jury ordered chemical giant Monsanto to pay $2.8 billion to a couple who say they contracted cancer from using Roundup on their garden for more than 30 years.

A lawyer for the couple, Michael Miller, said homeowners were more at risk than professional gardeners because they were never told to wear any protective gloves or clothing.

It was the third case the company had lost. In all three cases, the victims asserted that long-term use of Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The other two cases involved a school groundskeeper and a gardener on an acreage.

The corporate giant Bayer, which owns Monsanto, is facing more than 11,000 similar cases in the US.

It has repeatedly declared that the chemical is safe.

On the Shelf: Roundup on sale at a Coles supermarket.

On the Shelf: Roundup on sale at a Coles supermarket.

Councils across Australia have been reassessing their use of glyphosate.

A City of Newcastle spokesperson said the council had begun assessing its weed-control needs to "determine the most effective alternative to glyphosate".

This covered maintenance of roads and parks.

The spokesperson said councillors had approved a move to "phase out use of the herbicide".

The council was seeking further information to "determine the best way forward" and would "keep the public informed on the phase out as it takes place."

A Maitland council spokesperson said the council uses glyphosate products "as per the label".

It ensures protective equipment is worn and does "health testing on staff using these products".

The spokesperson said there were other options to treat weeds in some circumstances.

"However, there are some weeds that need glyphosate-based products for effective treatment," it said.

Some councils, including Byron Shire, are trialling "steam weeding" to reduce their chemical use. It involves pressurising water to boiling point and then targeting weeds with an applicator.

Glyphosate has been in use for 40 years.

If it ends up being banned, Ms Pritchard believes another product will fill the void.

"Is it better the devil you know and you manage that?

"Or do you get a new kid on the block and go through the whole cycle again to see what happens."

Some Landcare groups have been cautious with glyphosate. For example, instead of spraying the weedkiller, some groups were advised to cut plants at their base and paint it on the remaining part.

As well as bushcare and gardening, glyphosate is widely used in farming - including in the Hunter - to kill weeds and grasses that compete with crops.

Comment was sought from the state agency, Local Land Services, which runs the Hunter Regional Weed Committee.

A spokeswoman referred the Newcastle Herald to the federal Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority.

The authority said it was actively monitoring any new scientific information about glyphosate.

It remained satisfied that the products it had approved containing glyphosate "can continue to be used safely according to label directions".

It said this position was "aligned with other international regulators".

Australian Association of Bush Regenerators president Tein McDonald said concern had been increasing about glyphosate use since 2016.

This was when the International Agency for Research on Cancer reclassified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans".

"This concern has only increased after successful litigation in the US by cancer patients," she said.

"It is essential, indeed legally mandatory, for employers to take all reasonable steps to protect the health of workers," she said.

"However, we also need to ask ourselves whether consideration of withdrawing from the use of glyphosate is based more on fear of litigation than sound evidence of glyphosate toxicology."

She said this was particularly so, if juries were "influenced by anti-Monsanto campaigning".

"This campaigning, while well-intentioned and partly correct, unfortunately conflates criticism of Monsanto's genetic modification of food crops to ensure they are 'Roundup ready' with criticism of the chemical itself.

"Such conflation does not progress our journey towards finding out the truth about glyphosate toxicology for users involved in ecological restoration."

She said bush regenerators "do not want to discard a highly important tool from our conservation toolbox without sound justification".