December 3, 2017 – Glyphosate: Why the Controversy Won’t Die


noun  ro·sar·i·an \r?-?zer-?-?n\

: a cultivator of roses

: Chris VanCleave

Chris VanCleave joined us on the show this past March, when we broadcast live from the Chicago Flower and Garden Show at Navy Pier. Chris presented a workshop titled “Which Rose is Right for You?” and talked with us about selecting a rose that will thrive in your particular garden space. By the way, Chris will be at the 2018 Chicago Flower and Garden Show as part of the Rose Kings Sustainability Tour with Brian Puckett, the curator of the nation’s only municipal Earth Kind Rose Trial.

A passionate gardener from Birmingham, Alabama, and a self-proclaimed “advocate for roses”, Chris has been nicknamed “The Redneck Rosarian” and tours the country speaking at events, local rose society gatherings and garden centers. Locally, he serves as Chairman of the Helena Alabama Beautification Board where he has spearheaded efforts to create a sustainable landscape in one of the top one hundred places to live in the United States, most recently helping to cultivate a partnership with Texas A & M to host the first municipal Earth Kind Rose Trial in the U.S. His website chronicles his gardening adventures and explores an intrinsic mix of life, faith and gardening.

And, Chris is officially running for Vice President of The American Rose Society.

This past October, Chris worked with the National Garden Bureau to publish Winter Roses, 10 Tips to Keep Your Roses Healthy, which provides to help gardeners make sure their roses are well-prepared for not just the winter, but next year’s growing season.  And with a couple of days of fall-like weather still left to wrap up the garden before winter hits the Chicago area, we thought it would be a great time to get some suggestions from Chris on how to get rose plants ready for winter.  In his introduction to the article, Chris writes:

“Fall is a great time to take stock of the gardening year behind us. What worked and what didn’t. What should be changed or should remain the same. I often make edits at this time, especially those underperforming shrubs. Here in zone 8a, my roses are beginning to wind down for the year in late October and we occasionally see blooms as late as Thanksgiving.”

While you’ll need to tune in this morning for all of Chris’s tips, here is a sneak preview to help you plan what you’ll be doing in the garden after today’s show:

  • With all the rain and flooding in July, powdery mildew and other fungal diseases may have developed and lingered through the season. Chris says now is the time to clear away diseased leaves and plant material to avoid problems next summer—just don’t toss diseased leaves into the compost bin. He also suggests that a dormant spray like lime sulfer may also help in reducing disease next season.
  • Trim back leggy rose stems by about one third. Harsh winter winds can whip the canes around and literally “rock” the rose bush at the roots and cause damage.
  • Remove any unhealthy rose plants that continue to take a lot of care and never seem to thrive. As Chris says, “you and your garden will be happier”.
  • Protect the plants from winter winds and cold. And that doesn’t mean rose cones, folks. Mulch, and lots of it.

Of course, you can always dream of next season’s rose garden. To help with that, you may want to listen to The Rose Chat Podcast, featuring Chris and master gardener and rosarian Teresa Byington. Their web-based program includes segments about new rose varieties, including this November 7 interview with rose hybridizer Christian Bedard from Weeks Roses about new introductions for 2018 (including Rosie the Riveter and Frida Kahlo).


Glyphosate: too many questions, too much unsettled science

On the east side of my backyard, there is a fence that runs from my house to the alley. Actually, there are two fences–one is a metal cyclone fence, but there is also an aging wooden picket fence that runs alongside the metal fence, leaving a mere inches between the two.

Anybody who knows anything about gardening realizes that a couple of inches of soil and space is all plants need to get a start. And they have certainly done that between my two fences. Most of the plants that have taken root are fairly benign–either annual weeds or perennials like daylilies that don’t bother me very much.

But towards the alley, a group of tree seedlings took root between the fences and have been a persistent nuisance for at least a decade. Various kinds of “junk” trees are represented, though it isn’t the exact species that matter. It is the fact that they have inserted themselves in a place where I can’t get in a shovel to dig them out, and pruning only makes them more vigorous each year. The real solution would be to cut the trunks at their thickest parts and paint them with glyphosate, an herbicide that was introduced to the world by the Monsanto Company and which most of the world knows by one of its trade names: Roundup.

Aye, there’s the rub.

I’m not a fan of the product. To be honest, I’m not a fan of most herbicides. Please note that I’m not anti-science. Herbicides have their place in the world. But that pendulum has swung much too far to the side of chemical use. We have, in my opinion, abdicated our relationship to nature in the name of profit and convenience. And that’s why I often try to steer gardeners away from “easy” solutions that are found in boxes and bottles on store shelves. For the most part, there’s no need to use any of that stuff in a home yard.

Yet, in terms of my own fences, that reluctance to rely on synthetic herbicides has led to a kind of paralysis. That is to say, I keep telling myself that I’ll eventually purchase the Roundup and get the dirty deed done, but I never get around to it, probably because I have such mixed feelings about using the product. Thus, each year the trees grow back, and each year I struggle to prune them between the two fences.

In a way, my own situation is a metaphor for the larger debate over Roundup. Over the years, it has become the “most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world.”

Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974. Worldwide, 9.4 million tons of the chemical have been sprayed onto fields. For comparison, that’s equivalent to the weight of water in more than 2,300 Olympic-size swimming pools. It’s also enough to spray nearly half a pound of Roundup on every cultivated acre of land in the world.

So it’s no wonder that a lot of agricultural heads exploded in 2015 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen:

For  the  herbicide glyphosate,  there  was  limited  evidence  of  carcinogenicity  in  humans  for  non-Hodgkin lymphoma.  The  evidence  in  humans  is  from  studies  of  exposures,  mostly  agricultural, in  the  USA,  Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.

While there had been doubts about the safety of glyphosate before that determination, the IARC statement seem to turn the debate into an all out war, with the reputations of science, journalism and corporate trust on the line.

One of the latest salvos in this conflict is Whitewash: The Story of Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science by Carey Gillam, who joins us this morning. Her background is that of a journalist–she is a former senior correspondent for Reuters’ international news service, is a member of both the Society of Environmental journalists and North American Agricultural Journalists, and has written for Huffington Post. She is also research director for the consumer group U.S. Right to Know.

In her book, Gillam starts by telling stories of people–mostly farmers–in this and other countries who have suffered debilitating and often fatal diseases that she believes are tied to the use of this ubiquitous chemical. And when I use the word “ubiquitous,” I mean that

Even U. S.-grown almonds, a common snack for health-conscious people, are treated annually on average with an estimated 2.1 million pounds of glyphosate. Likewise, producers of cherries use an estimated 200,000 pounds of the pesticide annually, according to the EPA’s analysis. About 3.2 million pounds are used annually for production of oranges; 1.5 million pounds for grapes 600,000 pounds for walnuts; 400,000 pounds for pecans; 200,000 pounds for lemons; 100,000 pounds for oats; and 80,000 pounds for avocados.

As a result, it shows up everywhere, too.

Testing…by both private and public researchers, has shown glyphosate residues not only in bagels, honey, and oatmeal but also in a wide array of products that commonly line grocery store shelves, including flour, eggs, cookies, cereal and cereal bars, soy sauce, beer, and infant formula. Indeed, glyphosate residues are so pervasive that they’ve been found in human urine.

Gillam walks her readers through the history of what seemed at the time like a “miracle” chemical, because it was so effective and seemed to have little downside. But there were hints from the very beginning that glyphosate might not be as benign as its manufacturer would have you believe. In fact, much of the book is about the continuing battle–more than 40 years after the release of the product–to determine whether the chemical is linked to cancer.

It’s no secret that Monsanto has fought long and hard to protect its cash cow from any connection to diseases like non-Hodgkin lymphoma. What is often a secret, however, is exactly who is on the Monsanto payroll and how the company has inserted itself into scientific toxicity studies about glyphosate. And if they view you as a threat, you might find yourself the target of an effort to have your work discredited–which is what happened to the IARC and has happened to scientists and journalists alike.

Gillam also explores the rise of “superweeds” as a result of glyphosate overuse (which was predicted by agronomists and ignored by Monsanto and farmers until there was a serious problem), the lost of milkweed leading to the loss of monarchs, the difference between using simple glyphosate and the Roundup product (there are added ingredients that could make it more dangerous) and much more.

Meanwhile, governments around the world attempt to sort out the science and enact policy. Just this week, the European Union voted to extend the authorization of glyphosate for five years, but even that was marked by disagreement between Germany and France.

The voting process was chaotic, The New York Times reports. Germany voted for approval, but only after overcoming a split within its government. France voted nay, and when the result came in, President Emmanuel Macron took to Twitter to vow to ban it in France within three years, spicing his statement with the Trump-trolling hashtag, “#MakeOurPlanetGreatAgain.”

That ugliness brings me back to the book. I’m not sure it was her intention, but Gillam’s book left me feeling disheartened about the state of scientific discourse today. Much like the “debate” over climate change, it seems to me that people have hunkered down into their own camps, from which they lob insults and attempt to discredit the other side.

Ultimately, is glyphosate safe to use? Some people think so. Me? Knowing what I now know, I wouldn’t use it if I were a farmer because of the intense exposure to the chemical. Would I use it as a gardener? Possibly, but only in very, very limited ways and with caution. But that’s the way you should treat any pesticide, so I’m not sure that I’ve changed my views all that much. I wasn’t a fan in the first place and I’m not a fan now.

I do think, however, that Carely Gillam raises a lot of questions about glyphosate in her book, which is part of the job of a journalist. Now we need some answers.

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