Glyphosate, also known by the brand name Roundup, is the most widely used herbicide in the world and it has been coming under increased scrutiny over the last several years. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. Other independent research has generated concerns about other potential human health effects like endocrine disruption, liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems. Even more research has flagged up environmental harms.
While we wait for more data to come in and inform us further of the consequences of using glyphosate based herbicides, many cities have decided that the potential risks (including that of liability due to lawsuits) are no longer worth it and have decided to ban glyphosate. But what does that mean exactly?
Certainly, it should be applauded that decision makers are starting to pay attention to the fact that pesticides like Roundup are not nearly as benign as they are advertised to be. Unfortunately, in many instances though, a ban on one herbicide just means that another chemical formula will take its place and status quo will remain essentially unchanged.
This has been the case in several cities. Glyphosate gets banned, and glufosinate, or diquat dibromide are now used. For pesticide reform campaigners, this means they are right back where they started.
For example, prior to passing an organic policy in one city, the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid was replaced with another chemical insecticide to be applied as a "preventative" grub treatment - whether there were grubs present or not. Now, with an organic policy and plan in place, grubs will be treated only if they are present above a tolerable threshold, and the product used will be an organic product that contains natural soil bacteria that target just the grubs.
Organic is not about swapping out conventional products for organic ones, but rather it is a soil-based approach that relies on cultural practices and mechanical and biological controls rather than just reaching for a product. When a product is needed, then the least toxic option is chosen.
This is why we advise groups to advocate for a comprehensive organic policy so that they may avoid what's known as regrettable substitution. In cities that have been successful like Irvine, California, they have implemented policies that exclude all toxic pesticides, and allow least toxic organic and EPA exempt options if needed.
In the case of weeds outside of a turf grass area, like on sidewalks, medians, roadsides or other areas where glyphosate is typically used - herbicides should not be the first choice. Dover, New Hampshire has just become the first city in the Northeast to purchase a steam weeding unit to manage vegetation along 30 miles of roadside, with plans to expand. This is a cost-effective and safe method that uses water to "cook" the weeds and can even reduce the amount of weeds that grow over time by exhausting the seed bank.
When looking to make changes in our communities, we are best served by looking at how to switch management strategies and look for organic compatible alternatives, rather than seek to ban single chemicals.