By Tom Wood
Editor’s note: Belchim sent this to Lawn & Landscape to give a non-vendor opinion on the growing attention being paid to glyphosate in the media, its impact on the industry and what chemical manufacturer’s can do to address the issues. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lawn & Landscape.
It’s no secret that glyphosate has come under considerable public scrutiny lately. While some distributors and retailers have suspended the sale of products containing this active ingredient, glyphosate is often recognized as among the most effective of weed mitigation agents – and, when used properly, among the safest.
Nonetheless, controversy in the industry is leading landscapers and their providers to turn toward more “natural” alternatives to not only avoid criticism but to reduce financial exposure from potential lawsuits.
The same interest in natural alternatives is also creating a ripple effect in the agribusiness market. Many companies in the marketplace offer products containing glyphosate, but now also are creating more natural-based solutions.
EPA works to calm consumer concerns
As is generally known, the concern about glyphosate stems from some high-profile jury awards to individuals who maintained in court trials that the chemical was responsible for non-Hodgkins lymphoma. The media also reported findings from public interest research groups that trace amounts of the chemical were detected in certain foods or beverages, including beer and wine.
The furor has caused a greater apprehension about glyphosate in general, despite government efforts to calm the public. At the end of May, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement noting, “there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label” and that “glyphosate is not a carcinogen.” EPA acknowledged ecological risks from the chemical, saying it would propose “management measures to help farmers target pesticide sprays and reduce glyphosate resistance in weeds.”
Nonetheless, some distributors have had little choice but to pull their products. The big box retailer Costco announced in March that it would remove glyphosate-based products from its shelves, and would look for options to stock instead.
Harrell’s, the Florida-based producer and distributor of agronomic solutions for the turf and landscape markets, also discontinued distribution of products containing glyphosate earlier this year. In an open letter in March, Harrell’s CEO Jack Harrell, Jr. clarified the decision, noting that it was not based on health concerns, but insurance issues. He explained that “our insurance company was no longer willing to provide coverage for claims related to glyphosate,” and that the company “could not buy adequate coverage for the risk we would be incurring.”
Concern about legal ramifications has become the elephant in the room when it comes to glyphosate. Distributors in particular have become particularly cautious about legal liability, and insurance companies are backing away from coverage. From a business perspective, it can be a difficult decision: Do we self-insure, and carry a cost multiple times greater than we currently pay, or do we take the path of least resistance and stop carrying the product?
Despite the EPA’s assurances of the safety of the product, media scrutiny has led to concerns, especially in the landscaping community, to find “safer” alternatives to glyphosate. That’s completely understandable. When consumers become apprehensive, it directly affects the bottom line for landscapers, because consumers are their customers.
The move to “softer” chemistry
Among manufacturers, strategies to diversify offerings beyond glyphosate have been developed for years. The trend toward “softer” chemistries, or naturally occurring herbicide treatments, has been extremely popular – driven in most cases by consumer demand.
Among the useful alternatives are so-called C9s, nine-carbon fatty acids such as pelargonic acid. This is a naturally-occurring substance – synthesized from chemicals or made from animal fat or plants such as sunflowers – that degrades into water and CO2. Pelargonic acid has been found to be safe for livestock and humans. Crop protection and pest mitigation products using pelargonic acid are also part of the USDA’s “BioPreferred Program," which looks at ways to increase the use of biobased renewable materials derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine, and forestry materials.
Lowering the chemical footprint for landscaping products has been a goal among manufacturers even when using more conventional chemistry. Industry experts are always on the hunt for chemicals with fewer residues, or ones that can be used in tank mixing, reducing chemical concentrations and thereby creating a safer environment for landscapers and the general public.
Mixing these chemicals may create an effective treatment regimen for pest control and mitigation in the landscaping community. Utilizing different modes of actions or translocation features may make these solutions comparably effective to glyphosate.
The media has focused on glyphosate as the current villain, which has created consumer backlash. To address the popular concern, we in the industry are creating alternatives that are more natural.
Meanwhile, industry observers have to shake their head at the glyphosate crisis. They know that there are still products such as organophosphates in the market that have considerable market share, with considerably greater possible risks in their use.
Perception is reality
But perception is reality. Consumer perception, guided more and more by the media, has focused on glyphosate as dangerous, and landscapers are right to respond to that public perception. It will be interesting to see where things will head in the next 12-18 months, and whether any other retailers will announce a position regarding products with this active ingredient.
From my perspective leading an agricultural distribution company, I have to agree with the EPA's assessment that glyphosate poses no health risks when used properly, and when following directions. For a significant segment of the population, who understand the safety precautions required when using any herbicide, this chemical works well and will continue to be the preferred choice.
We have to follow the lead of the EPA, while still recognizing the market phenomenon that is looking for safer alternatives. We can’t deny that conversations about glyphosate are being had at all levels in the agribusiness community. The companies that listen, and promote alternatives, will be the ones that weather the storm.
Tom Wood is GM of Belchim Crop Protection USA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org