Agriculture

Claims popular herbicide causes cancer

New research has sparked debate over the safety of a common herbicide that is used by Australian farmers.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recently released a report classifying glyphosate as being “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

But the Australian Pests and Veterinary Medicines Association assessed the report and concluded “glyphosate does not pose a cancer risk to humans”.

Plan Farm agronomist Pete Newman said the finding that it was probably carcinogenic was “pretty much rubbish”.

“It’s a very safe herbicide. It’s very, very safe for the user. It’s one of the safest herbicides that we have,” he said.

“You get millions and millions of dollars spent making sure that it’s not going to be harmful to people and then one small study comes along and they said this is a carcinogen.”

Monsanto’s Rowcrop Marketing and Stewardship lead Keryn McLean said the herbicide appeared very safe.

“In terms of safe use in a human and environment perspective, it’s second to none,” she said.

The Australian Pests and Veterinary Medicines Association found following safety instructions and reading the label ensured the herbicide was safe to use.

Mr Newman said a lot of effort went into developing the educational labels.

“They spend a lot of money developing the label so that they make sure herbicides are safe for everyone, for the user and the consumer,” he said.

“There’s been enormous amounts of money spent on tox studies to make sure that if you abide by the label then you don’t end up with any residues in the grain or you end up below the accepted level.

“It is effective. It definitely picks up problems.”

The latest National Residue Survey in 2014 revealed 99.21 per cent of grains tested complied with relevant Australian standards.

Herbicide Resistance Initiative centre manager Lisa Mayer said effective guidelines and tests were in place.

“Our farmers are really good at following the very strict chemical spray guidelines and there is strict testing of the grain at the collection points, however the consumer doesn’t know any of this,” she said.

“Consumers are now worried about eating food that has been recently sprayed with chemicals, hence the push to organic.”

Mr Newman said organic farming wasn’t a realistic prospect for such a large population.

“If all our food were organic we’d only be about to feed about a quarter of the world’s population and the other three quarters would have to starve to death,” he said.

“The reason we’ve got seven billion people is because of the agriculture and because of all the modern farming.”

In 2013, Deloitte Access Economics released the Economic Activity Attributable to Crop Protection Products report, which found the overall value of Australian crop production would be reduced by 68 per cent without the use of glyphosate and similar herbicides.

It also estimated that up to $17.6 billion of Australian agricultural output resulted from using crop protection products.

Ms McLean said there seemed to be a lack of understanding about the reasons for the use of herbicides.

“I’m not sure that people understand the differences in the chemistry that are used in farming and that herbicides are only used to help ensure that there is a high yield and a quality yield at the end of the season,” she said.

“As the Australian Regulator states, glyphosate is safe for humans, animals and the environment when used in accordance with label instructions.”