Flindt on Friday: Glyphosate inconvenient truths need outing

When I’ve perfected my time machine, I’ll be loading it up with glyphosate haters, and travelling back to the mid-1980s.

We’ll visit a heavy Hampshire field, where a Ford 7600 is struggling to tow a Bamlett CD4 through couch-infested clay.

The tightly spaced Suffolk coulters can barely manage half a furlong before the bow wave of rhizomes forces the long-suffering tractor driver to reach under the seat for the spool valve (no wonder his hips are knackered), jack the drill up and do a huge loop on the sown ground, hoping to shake off the sticky mess.

Perhaps we’ll leap forward a few months to the early summer, and watch a 3m cultivator hard at work doing couch control on a fallow field.

See also: Read more of Charlie Flindt’s columns

Every time it reaches the headland, the driver leaps out to clean the spring tines, and gather the sinewy lengths of couch in little heaps to be burned at a later date. If we were to hang around for a couple of weeks, the whole laborious process would be repeated.

All that diesel, all that compaction; would our glyphosate hater be shuddering at the concept of “cultural control”?

Now we’ll twist the dial on the time machine’s dashboard forward a couple of years, and watch the Allman mounted sprayer, with its state-of-the-art 30ft boom weaving its way across the field, applying paraquat.

Unsophisticated guidance system

The theory was to burn off the above-ground greenery, and eventually “exhaust” those pesky rhizomes. The practice was carnage in the fields, and in more than one farmhouse. Certainly not agriculture’s finest moment.

Along comes glyphosate. You’d think it would be the eco-warriors’ dream. No more damaging soil cultivation (although back in the 1980s, soil erosion wasn’t the bogeyman it is today). And glyphosate was safe.

One early product was labelled with a hare as some sort of tacit acknowledgement of paraquat’s disastrous legacy. “You could drink this,” assured Ernie, the farm’s first sprayer man, as I helped him load up the Allman for a bit of pre-harvest couch control.

We didn’t of course, but the harvest student and I had the dubious task of waving fertiliser bags on long sticks to guide Ernie from one end of the field to the other in those far-off pre-tramline days – so thank goodness it was safe. And it worked.

Except, it appears, glyphosate is no longer safe. It has become even more of a farm evil than the poor old humble plough, and no eco-activist’s rant is complete without hyperbolic hatred of glyphosate and its inventors and manufacturers.

Cue the eco-wailing

And their number one go-to piece of scientific evidence is a report by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency – the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – issued in March 2015.

Their verdict? Glyphosate is Group 2a carcinogen, a substance that probably causes cancer in people. Let the eco-wailing commence.

But then Reuters managed to get a sneaky peek at early versions of the IARC’s report, and found that the early verdicts differed somewhat from the final.

In the original, noted Reuters, multiple scientists concluded their studies and had found “no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals.”

This and other equally significant bit of news somehow failed to make it to the WHO’s final publication. Google “WHO Reuters glyphosate” for the full, and frankly astonishing, story.

It’ll make you cross. It sure made me cross. If my farm is going to be forced to succumb to the eco-lobby’s infatuation with winding agriculture back in time to those horrible pre-glyphosate years, then I want to see straight, clear, honest evidence; not reports with inconvenient truths removed.