THE LEADER of one of Australia’s peak grain grower bodies has said if Australia were to follow the Brazilian lead and suspend the use of the herbicide glyphosate it would ‘send the industry back to the 1980s’.
Andrew Weidemann, Grain Producers Australia chairman, said a glyphosate ban could send total Australian grain production back to around 25 million tonnes.
Over the past 10 years, according to official Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) data the total Australian winter crop has averaged around 41 million tonnes.
“A ban on glyphosate would be a disaster agronomically,” Mr Weidemann said.
“Our conditions suit the use of glyphosate perfectly, it allows us to conserve moisture in our long hot summers without the need for cultivation.
“We know that cultivation degrades our soils but without glyphosate we’ll have to go back to it as a form of weed control.”
LaTrobe University farming systems researcher James Hunt said the environmental costs of a glyphosate ban would be huge.
“We’ve improved our soil structures so much over the past 30 years and that is because of no-till and conservation farming, and glyphosate has played a huge role in powering those systems.”
Dr Hunt said glyphosate played a key role in two parts of a no-till farming system.
“Firstly it is the major component of our summer sprays, which have been critical in controlling moisture-sucking summer weeds while allowing stubble to be retained and help prevent evaporation,” he said.
“Secondly, glyphosate is a very important part of our pre-sowing knockdowns.
“Obviously there needs to be a mix of chemistry used to prevent weed resistance to glyphosate but it is still very much part of the ongoing chemical rotation.”
Dr Hunt said that should there be a ban on glyphosate it could lead to an increase in more toxic chemicals.
“The logical replacement to glyphosate as a broad spectrum herbicide is paraquat and that brings into plays more serious user safety issues, while other products have issues with drift or volatility.”
Dr Hunt said the environmental ramifications of a return to cultivation were huge.
“Soil erosion is a huge threat over Australian summers and autumns if there is widespread cultivation.”
Herbicide specialist Chris Preston, of the University of Adelaide, said glyphosate had a number of key advantages in terms of its impact on the environment.
“There is no soil activity or residuals so it is very flexible, you can use it in diverse applications,” Dr Preston said.
“The replacement herbicides are more toxic and glyphosate has been brilliant in helping protect our soils through allowing no-till systems, so it is very important to keep it as an option.”
He said industry as a whole needed to demonstrate sound stewardship with herbicide products.
“We need to show we are using herbicides as safely as possible, whether that be through the use of personal protection equipment or reducing spray drift or through sound herbicide application record keeping.”
Mr Weidemann said while he was satisfied with the safety of glyphosate it was concerning to see the precedents in the legal systems in Brazil, where a judge suspended the use of the product, and the US, where a jury ordered Monsanto make a massive payout to a cancer victim, saying the cancer was caused by Roundup.
“From my perspective you’ve got strong science based regulatory system in place that have all concluded glyphosate can be safely used but there is the problem with legal systems ruling on product safety, which is not their remit.”