Cheating to Win- Herbicides

A rising movement has focused on the dangers of glyphosate. The concerns seem to have settled primarily on the toxicity of the particular chemical, with a galaxy of various alleged health effects linked to this evil molecule. This modern obsession with contamination and ill health is really bemusing to me. It comes from a society which has enjoyed longer and safer lives than any in recorded history, with even ordinary people living in material comfort that would make a medieval king envious. Yet these people feel like they are entitled to cheat death and avoid getting cancer at 70 and instead continue to live it up until 90 without skipping a beat. To some degree cancer is the monster on everyone’s mind due to a generation of over screening and over-diagnosis making it appear that cancer rates were exploding, especially for breast and prostate cancer as these were the easiest to do mass screening on. Such efforts are now known to have led to diagnosis and treatment of mostly benign tumors that were unlikely to cause any issues, but because we lack the ability to discern dangerous from benign tumors reliably this screening led to aggressive over-treatment. Cancer is still mostly a disease of old age, so our aging populations also make cancer seem to become more common over time. Yet despite this age adjusted cancer death rates are steadily falling.

People know about the dramatic drop in lung cancer rates as people gave up smoking, yet lung cancer is still a common type and mostly caused by widespread air pollution that everyone breathes daily. If you point out all the other common and totally uncontroversial carcinogenic compounds in their everyday life, such as alcohol, processed meat, benzene in petrol and diesel, aflatoxin in the peanuts they eat, and you get a blank stare at best. Mention the even more potent carcinogens that people in the developing world are exposed to, such as the children that mine the cobalt in their phone batteries or the Chinese factory workers exposed to high levels of benzene to keep the prices of their products slightly lower, or even the many mothers of the world who cook over open fires and breath the smoke every day, and they will quickly change the subject. From their entitled perspective only their health and longevity matters, and chemicals like glyphosate are the real enemy.

The evidence of glyphosate causing cancer or any other significant health impact is pretty weak. Research is of course always incomplete and I love seeing better studies coming out over time, but if it was as bad as any of the other everyday substances listed above it would have been widely known by now. Focusing the argument on the supposed toxicity of glyphosate is counter-productive since it is the weakest angle to take, and misses a much wider range of more serious issues. Hypothetically the evil villain of the story, Monsanto (now Bayer) could develop a new herbicide that is unquestionably 100 % safe for people, meaning it can be sprayed with even more abandon and everyone lives happily ever after to a ripe old age. In reality the obsession with glyphosate means that in the short term farmers are likely to return to older herbicides with well-established toxicity issues. 2.4-D is often contaminated with highly carcinogenic dioxin. Atrazine is toxic and readily contaminates groundwater. Clopyralid is environmentally stable and often contaminates manure and mulch, tainting soil for years. Paraquat is strongly linked to Parkinson’s disease. Dicamba tends to evaporate and drift over large distances. Glyphosate has no such glaring toxicity issues yet it gets all the attention. Such pressure also encourages the development of new herbicides, which will undoubtedly be marketed as “safe” but will lack the decades of research scrutiny heaped on glyphosate and so may contain hidden surprises with large scale use.

Instead of glyphosate (and herbicides in general) being a problem because they are strong I would like to make the argument that they are a problem because they are weak. Modern industrial agriculture has become highly dependent on herbicides, especially glyphosate, since the shift to roundup resistant crops. These crops contain inserted genes that allow them to survive glyphosate applications, greatly simplifying weed control in large scale operations. That is until herbicide resistant weeds emerge, a process that happened with astonishing speed around the world. In response to that failure agribusiness quickly developed dicamba resistant crops, with resistant weeds emerging even more rapidly than with glyphosate. Just like plain penicillin that started as a magic bullet drug but is now close to useless due to antibiotic resistance it is likely that in the near future glyphosate will be abandoned due to widespread resistance in weeds. In the absence of viable herbicide/resistant crop combinations farmers either return to higher rates of mechanical tillage, which damages soil structure and contributes to erosion, or rely on using older and more toxic herbicides to clear fields of all vegetation between crops, again greatly accelerating erosion. Much of the worlds farming land is predicted to have about 60 more years of cultivation before erosion makes them useless, which is a slightly bigger problem than an almost undetectable rise in the cancer risk of rich westerners.

Another major weakness of glyphosate is where it comes from. When the patents for this chemical expired in 2000 and much of its production shifted to cheaper Chinese factories, along with the majority of other herbicides. In a world drifting into economic chaos and growing tension between China and its trade partners it seems unwise for such a critical component of industrial agriculture to come from so far away (along with the fuel to run everything and the machinery and parts). In the absence of a reliable and cheap supply of these inputs from Chinese factories industrial agriculture would fail overnight in many industrialised countries around the world, including Australia.

For small farm settings glyphosate and herbicides in general are also pretty weak tools. While they can kill targeted plants as advertised that doesn’t really count for much in the long run. Weeds that are problematic are normally common in the wider area, so even if your population is eliminated they will tend to return sooner or later. Weeds with significant seed banks in the soil will come back almost immediately, meaning that if you start spraying herbicide then you will be signing up for an eternity of that chore. Spray hard enough and you might get resistance emerge and at least there will be no point wasting your time and money spraying anymore. That said I do believe that herbicides can be a good example of a tool that can be used to cheat to win, that is utilised in a way that opens a path to systems that no longer require their use. The biggest potential positive use of herbicides is in ecosystem in transformation that permanently resets the system into a better form.

One place I have used glyphosate successfully is in reclaiming my waterways. When I started on my run down cattle pasture there were several seasonally damp gullies that had been colonised by giant Setaria grass. This fairly unpalatable species grows to about 2 m tall, produces abundant seed, and forms root balls about 40 cm in diameter. Physical removal would cause so much soil disturbance that it would quickly cause the seed bank to resprout and cause erosion in the event of water flow through the spaces. Burning the Setaria would produce smoke more carcinogenic than glyphosate, and would need to be done during a dry spell which means risking the fire getting out of control. Instead I waited for a drought so there was no moving surface water then sprayed the dense stands back. This left a thick surface mulch that suppressed seed germination, and left the root balls to hold the soil in place. I started at the most upstream point possible to avoid fresh seed being washed downstream into disturbed spots and only sprayed out about 10-20 m sections at a time so flowing water could not easily gain momentum. Once the Setaria was dead I replanted the area with better perennial species that established through the killed mulch. Once any Setaria seedlings got to a moderate size I hand hoed them out before they developed a large root ball, though occasionally they got away from me and were sprayed as they reached flowering to prevent seed set. With this approach I transformed these useless monocultures into some of the loveliest and most productive parts of my farm. I am currently pushing out a few final stands of para grass in these areas as well. It doesn’t produce as much seed, instead spreading by runners, making it an even better candidate for elimination. My waterways are also very isolated from other waterways so reinfestation is unlikely.

I also had a small patch of monoculture Setaria in one corner of my orchard. It was so dense it provided a habitat for rats that would destroy trees planted in the space. The stand was also sprayed out, with a very light application that was applied when it was commencing active growth in spring. This resulted in a 60-70% kill, with even lighter spot spraying taking out the remainder. The killed mulch rapidly flattened, making the space hostile to rats and allowing trees to establish. I periodically hand hoe the smaller regrowing Setaria, but now that the trees are well established along with more diverse understory weeds I am not as obsessed with rapidly eliminating the last of the Setaria. This grass needs full sunlight coupled with cattle grazing to form dense monocultures like I inherited. Once those monocultures are broken up and other species establish they never seem to regain their former vigour. Even long periods of no grazing seems to be weakening stands in other areas that were never sprayed. I have also sprayed narrow strips through some other Setaria stands to allow for direct seeding of fast growing wattles, which are now well above the Setaria that has closed around them. As the wattles reach maturity their shade will establish Setaria free zones where more wattle seedlings can grow on the edges, gradually pushing back the Setaria. That initial single minimal glyphosate application opened the door a crack and allowed the process of succession to get off to a much faster start.

Another useful situation for glyphosate and herbicide is in the control of woody weeds. For example I planted a decent number of Tithonia shrubs in my orchard. This is one of my best goat fodder shrubs but is a bit too rambunctious to leave in my orchard since it tends to layer and self-seed more than I like. Recently I have cut all these Tithonia shrubs down to the ground. If left they would rapidly regrow to 2-3 m tall within a year. I could potentially revisit all the root stocks every few weeks and carefully knock off every shoot until the root systems were exhausted, a fairly easy but very time consuming task. Instead I will wait for a modest clump of shoots to form and will spray them with glyphosate. My time then can be better invested in planting other trees all over the farm. Removing all the top growth and waiting for reshooting means a much smaller amount of herbicide will do the job since the plant has a compact and tender mass of shoots which efficiently absorb the chemical, and the plant is heavily reliant on new growth to avoid exhausting its root reserves.

In the long run we cannot rely on herbicides being available or affordable, a situation familiar to subsistence farmers around the world today. As such we must remain competent in methods of weed control and management that do not rely on such unreliable inputs. Physical removal is often the most tempting but human bodies are very limited in what they can do, especially when restricted to hand tools. Subsistence farmers need to be very conscious of maintaining their bodies since everything stops without physical capacity. Machinery is usually powered with fuels that are more toxic than glyphosate and poses its own risks of causing injuries. Plastic sheet mulching has become common for weed control but is another industrial product with an uncertain future. Organic matter mulching is usually also an output of oil powered machinery, though with forethought appropriate mulch that can be processed with hand tools can be grown where it is to be used such as in Inga alley cropping systems. Livestock probably represents the greatest untapped resource for weed control and management in a post-industrial future, though using it effectively is one of the more complex and demanding approaches. Fire also has great potential, especially in systems that produce surplus woody biomass. In a diverse system with trees of varying ages the woody branches from some trees can be concentrated around the base of plants that are removed by burning. Gathering wood this way can reduce the chance of the fire spreading uncontrolled.

Hopefully this journey has caused you to stop and wonder if you need to follow the herd and feel fear and loathing for glyphosate. I suspect many of us alive today will live to see its disappearance from everyday life, not because it was banned to save humanity from itself but because it was just one of many complicated, costly and ineffective tools that we were forced to abandon as the industrial age reached its inevitable end.

My largest Para grass patch after a minimal spraying that gave a 70-80% kill rate. I will spot spray shortly once the weather is warm enough to cause active growth.

A section of orchard that was dense Setaria grass monoculture a few years ago. Now that fruit and support trees are established and the understory is diverse the few remaining Setaria plants aren’t a major issue. I am hopeful the kid goats can become a yearly factor impacting weeds in the orchards but need to do extra experiments to figure out the details.
Tithonia shrubs in the orchard after cutting back. Once the stumps resprout they will be sprayed to finish them off. The kid goats were great company while cutting down but will be moved elsewhere before spraying begins.

9 thoughts on “Cheating to Win- Herbicides

  1. Really interesting article. Thank you, Shane. I enjoy reading your posts which are always stimulating and thought provoking.


  2. Nice to see a non-negative approach to glyphosate for once. I’ve used it all along in the cleared and disturbed area of my bush block where non-native grassy weeds have taken over. The bush itself is no problem as it doesn’t foster weeds if not disturbed. When weeds are wall-to-wall, a light spray over the top with half strength glyphosate is enough to make them sick enough to prevent flowering and then I can toss in some native grass seed. The following year usually means a lot less weeds, so that I can hand-weed effectively as the native grasses take hold. Like you say, it’s also good for the regrowth on woody weeds that have been cut back, to save digging out the root ball and with no time to keep knocking off shoots. I expect it to be banned eventually, but by then I hope to have weeds in the regenerating area controllable by hand. 80% of my one hectare block is stable bush and the rest cleared and disturbed ground so I think I will eventually be able to mange it without glyphosate. I’m already using much less of it than I did 20 years ago when we moved in.


    1. I’ve been here for about a decade. The places I have focused on using round up took about 3 seasons to transform, with the vast majority of the treatment coming in the first year. The ones I started first now need no glyphosate for maintenance now that the species composition has changed. If I was still spraying after five years I would take the hint that it was a never ending treadmill and not working and try something else.


      1. I agree completely with a few tries or bust, I was actually asking Bev why the 20 years? Personally I only use the stuff on the hardest to remove weeds we have, native tobacco being the worst offender, which tends to be at the edges of our land anyway. Blackberries are removed enthusiastically by goats, others I will crowd or shade out, others like fireweed we have to pull by hand.

        I use the stuff conservatively (cut and dab application) and with extra care to reduce contact.

        Do not assume ‘nothing found all is well’ in science. Having a biomedical major I can tell you, even scientific finds
        should be viewed through a critical lens (NB: proof only exists in maths, physics and organic chemistry, other sciences find evidence only). Seems to be a lot of fallacious assumptions around this topic.

        Money is involved, assume skewed motivations (you mentioned asbestos cover ups despite knowledge of danger). Further, the reason glysophate is not banned is because there is no current replacement and we rely on it for current levels of food production. This issue is not 2 dimensional, do not assume others have the same priorities as you while researching.

        Lastly do not assume no conclusive proof = no proof. Correlation fallacy is difficult to overcome, especially with anecdotal cases of cancer. Personally I err on the side of caution, Id rather assume the snake is venomous and act as such. Don’t assume age makes you safe unless your well past retirement age, age increases the rate of cancer cell formation, add accelerant at your own risk, and toxicity/cancer may incapacitate you just as quick as physical injury.

        Also like PFOA foams, think about environmental spread, or persistence of compounds in reservoirs (including plants) similar to mercury build up in fish.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think your approach is definitely unique, interesting, and thought provoking and enjoy reading your stuff. However, I think you’ve made some big leaps of assumption in your line of thinking here. First is that you say glyphosate is relatively safe looking at the date available. The majority of data available on glyphosate is self funded by the industry who profits from it, pedaled by the usda which is notoriously captured by monsanto as well, with many of their employees moving through the two companies “revolving door.” My point is, are you really so sure to assume that glyphosate is worth your work saved? What if you are wrong in that assumption? You could be right, but we learn new things all of the time about harmful pesticides, foods, etc that we were told were safe for us. Monsanto/Bayer lost a lawsuit in California recently, with the jury concluding roundup causes an increase of cases lymphoma and certain cancers in people. Your theory about cancer is also interesting, but that is also a big leap to assume. I doubt anyone can really know whats going on in the world with increasing cancer cases based on how far we are collectively living outside of natural law. And furthermore, there are many other mystery other auto immune diseases that are increasing at unprecendented rate in ‘developed’ western culutures today.

    One of my main values as a being on this earth is to first ask myself if I am doing any harm to life in my daily actions. Your line of thinking is only validated if your assumptions that glyphosate is safe, and the increase of cancer cases isn’t real. Are you so sure? What if you are wrong?

    Thanks for reading


    1. I broadly agree with all your points, especially in the US context. The EU however is quite happy to ban glyphosate in various locations and does its own high quality research into environmental toxins (which is why many chemicals are banned in the EU long before they are in the US or Australia). Those EU researchers havent found anything especially compelling about glyphosate toxicity, and it is on the basis of their research that I conclude that the personal health risks of using it a couple of times a year is a non-issue.

      I also figure I am balancing a number of different threats and opportunities on my farm. With managing a particularly badly overgrown section of weeds I have to weigh the very slight possibility of an increased risk of a normally very rare cancer that might take me down when I am close to the end of my life anyway, versus the absolute certainty of wrecking my joints if I try to manage the weeds using physical methods. If I push myself too hard and cause serious injury then the entire farm project grinds to a halt. If it is a permanent injury I might be forced to sell up since it is just me doing the majority of the work.

      I also need to balance the risks from time spent developing productive spaces versus the risks that either myself, my family, or my descendents (whether by blood or not) find themselves in a world where food is no longer available. We already live in a world where adequate nutrition in terms of quality fruits and vegetables is out of reach for a large proportion of our population. A generation from now with the decline of industrial civilisation picking up steam we might start finding lack of access to basic calories starts becoming a problem as well. I make my land management choices with this in mind, and the recent economic chaos unleashed by the pandemic has sharpened by mind in this regard. What good will it do if I live to 85 instead of 75 because I avoided getting lymphoma if my village doesn’t even have the crops and systems on hand to feed itself?


    2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      I totally agree about the long history of regulatory capture not just for glyphosate and not just in the USA. The recently revealed history of Dupont knowingly poisoning workers and townsfolk with PFOA while keeping secret medical files on the unfolding disaster, plus the burying of fatal side effects in the Vioxx clinical trials show if anything the situation has gotten worse since the historic golden era of environmental toxins in the 1950s. The Californian case is interesting but to my understand mostly revolves around Monsanto not labeling glyphosate as having any possible risks. There are loads of other products on the shelf that are absolutely carcinogenic (not just well known ones like cigarettes) but provided they carry a warning label reflecting the current state of knowledge about risk then in many places people are free to choose for themselves what risks they want to take. California is especially “progressive” in these labeling laws so it is not surprising the civil case happened there. They recently pushed for a wide range of baked goods to carry carcinogen warning labels when lab tests showed they contained acrylamide, despite no epidemiological evidence of any link to actual health outcomes. I don’t doubt the real possibility that there is a measurable increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma associated with occupational exposure to glyphosate (especially people like the key witness who was regularly drenched in it due to faulty spray equipment). If he went swimming in asian pickles every day it would probably increase his risk of stomach cancer as well. Non-Hodgkins lymphoma makes up only 4 % of cancers with half those cases in the elderly like most cancers (this form is somewhat more common in younger people compared to other types). Cancer accounts for 20% of deaths in the USA. So heavy glyphosate exposure causes a barely measurable increase in risk of death from something with an otherwise 0.8 % chance of getting anyone in particular. That doesn’t seem like something worth an individual worrying about to me, especially if they aren’t heavily exposed. If toxicity of glyphosate was more of an issue then agencies in the EU would have found more compelling data by now, and they commonly do good studies on other chemicals and ban or control them long before the USA does.

      A big hint for me that the glyphosate story in the common consciousness is mostly a witch hunt is the long list of things it is supposed to do, with none of them having especially compelling evidence. It is a tactic for ruining someones reputation with gossip by putting out such a long list of accusations that even without any wrong doing suspicion will always remain since it is impossible to refute all of them to everyone’s satisfaction. A good counter example is asbestos. It causes lung damage and lung cancer. End of story. There was no need to propose a laundry list of obscure health impacts because the first one was real and easy to generate compelling data about. No one needed to argue that asbestos was causing autism or restless leg syndrome. That didn’t stop asbestos making companies conspiring to suppress evidence about its health impacts.

      There are no perfect choices in life. In the short term I am weighing up the risks, costs and benefits of different strategies to developing my farm. Glyphosate use carries at most an extremely small risk of cancer (as does being outside on a sunny day). Alternative approaches carry their own risks and costs. Using a brush cutter means being exposed to unfiltered exhaust, a known potent carcinogen that contributes to lung cancer, a much more common and deadly condition than lymphoma. Attempting to do the work manually means I will almost certainly wear our and injure myself since the scale is beyond what most suburban home gardeners can comprehend. In the long term I also have to judge the short term risks of tackling the management of the spaces, versus the risk of finding myself, my family and my community in a world of rapidly falling availability of food. Saving a few years in these early embryonic stages may mean the difference between having proven food resources that can be produced without industrial inputs or having nothing to offer other than interesting hopes and dreams. People in the developing world today often are forced to make choices to put themselves in harms way to put food on the table for their families and survive another day, often in ways much more dangerous than spraying roundup a couple of times a year. I suspect I will live to see the people I know put in similar situations in the future and hope I am ready to offer better alternatives when that time comes.


  4. Cheating- yes, I cheat also. Just a little bit.

    When planting trees from bare root dormant seedlings, I use wood chip mulch when close to the house, but some areas are too far to haul mulch. I use tree tubes to protect from deer, and then a light spritz of Glyphosate around the tube to suppress the annuals. I only do this till the tree has gotten better roots established and has grown enough to get its head above the grasses and other annuals. I don’t irrigate or till, so these trees need just a bit of help to get started.

    A couple times for the first two years is a minimal use, and I agree with your general concept that while the technology is here and available, some prudent use can really speed up the succession, and prevent my early physical decline. I’m not getting any younger either.

    In general, I try to improve the land and create food sources as though I’m already in a fossil fuel free world, but there are limits!

    Like so much of technology, it’s how it has been misused and overused that is the real problem.

    Liked by 1 person

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