By Alfredo Gutierrez: Pachuca, Hidalgo, Mexico
The Mexican government’s decision last week to block a shipment of safe crop-protection products took farmers like me by surprise.
We’ve used glyphosate on our farm in central Mexico for as long as I can remember—and yet I had to learn about this ban from an internet news alert.
Nobody had warned us about this reckless move. Nobody had encouraged us to get ready for a policy that threatens the way we produce food. Nobody had even tried to make the case for what I believe is a wrong decision from our government.
It just came out of nowhere: In a press release on November 25, my country’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretary (SEMARNAT) announced that Mexico had turned away a 1,000-ton cargo of glyphosate, claiming that the popular herbicide violates “the precautionary principle of risk prevention.”
The irony is that risk prevention is a major part of the reason why farmers like me use glyphosate. When we plant crops, we face risks from weather, disease, weeds and pests. Each one holds the power to destroy what we strive to grow.
Weeds pose one of the biggest risks of all. By robbing the soil of moisture and nutrients, they threaten to choke the life out of our crops.
That’s one risk we simply can’t afford to take.
Glyphosate offers an excellent solution. Few crop protection tools are so effective at controlling weeds. Better yet, scientists and regulators around the world have studied glyphosate and support its use.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration says that glyphosate “has a low toxicity for people.” The Environmental Protection Agency also approves glyphosate use, reporting that it “continues to find that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used in accordance with its current label and the glyphosate is not a carcinogen.” Regulatory panels in Canada, Europe, and elsewhere have reached similar conclusions.
On our farm, we handle glyphosate with great care. Because its handling requires care doesn’t make is a risky product, however.
Farmers who use this agricultural crop protection tool for its intended purpose of weed control and follow the manufacturer’s instructions can enjoy a safe and effective product.
By citing the “precautionary principle,” the Mexican government says that we can’t take advantage of any product without absolute certainty that it won’t ever cause a health concern. While that may sound reasonable on first glance, it’s actually a radical proposal that would stifle innovation, making it impossible to develop and adopt the technologies that improve our lives everyday.
We’d lose our mobile phones because there are some people who think they cause brain cancer. Our childhood vaccinations would disappear because others insist that they cause autism. We’d condemn ourselves to living in the 19th century. All advances in technology would be useless if we cannot access them or if governments and politicians forbid them.
Likewise, the precautionary principle is deadly to agriculture.
If we didn’t have access to glyphosate, we’d have to replace it with several other herbicides to get the same effect. That will make it more expensive and provide a higher risk to farmers who will have to handle more chemicals. And it’s possible a higher cost of production will raise the cost of the final product to the consumer.
The only other alternative is to get rid of weeds manually, which is not viable because the labor costs would be so prohibitive as to imperil basic food production. Some farmers might even turn to fire. In Mexico, this is in fact a traditional form of weed control. But that increases contamination of the environment and raises the risk of wildfires.
Without modern crop-protection products, prices would skyrocket, and we simply wouldn’t produce enough food for everybody. In addition, in my region it is already more difficult to produce crops every year due to more extreme temperatures, lack of water, more resistant weeds and more complicated pest control. It would set us back decades, devastating agriculture the way a ban on cars would devastate transportation.
That may sound extreme—but then so does the rhetoric of Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretary, Victor M. Toledo. In blocking the shipment of glyphosate, he also called for “the immediate prohibition of 111 cataloged pesticides.”
This doesn’t look to me like risk prevention. It looks like a recipe for disaster.
Alfredo Gutierrez is an agronomist and fifth-generation dairy farmer in the central region of Mexico, where he is in charge of animal health and nutrition, equipment, technology, and crop production that includes a rotation of corn, triticale, barley, peas & rye grass. Alfredo is a guest author for the Global Farmer Network www.globalfarmernetwork.org, where this column originates.