Would you like glyphosate with that?

I’ve visited the Kettering Starbucks a couple of time in the last two months as it’s a pleasanter place to hang around, if one has to, than the Kettering Hospital car park. On my first visit there was a guy cutting the grass with whom I got into conversation as I drank my coffee outside. I’d noticed that he wasn’t just cutting the grass but was also spraying something around some of the edges and, slightly bizarrely I thought at the time, around the bases of lamp posts.

I asked, in a friendly, chatty way, what he was doing and he immediately said ‘It’s perfectly safe‘ which is an interesting reaction, and then he said ‘It’s glyphosate‘. So I said that I knew a little about that and that some people disagree with that assessment and think it has impacts on both human and environmental health. The man, and he was a very nice man as best as I could tell from our conversation, said something like ‘It’s perfectly safe. I’ve been using it for over 30 years and it’s never done me any harm‘ which immediately took me back to many conversations with shooters, red in the face shooters very often, who have said the same to me about consuming lead with their game meat.

My friendly grass maintenance contractor then did add ‘Well, I think there is some evidence it causes cancer’ which was an interesting definition of safe, I thought. The picture above was taken more recently, and shows the circle of burned-off vegetation that resulted from the spraying weeks earlier. Now, do you look at that brown patch and think ‘I’m glad someone did that. Phew, what would have happened to that lampost if its base hadn’t been sprayed? I chill at the thought!‘ or do you think ‘Why?‘?

There must be an awful of patches of grass, owned by organisations, maybe a bit like Starbucks (I can’t speak for them), which are of little interest to the business or local authority that own them and they just want them to be ‘tidy’. And there must be lots of nice blokes and women who are contracted to keep them tidy, who do a bit of spraying of powerful herbicides.

Wild Justice has been investigating glyphosate use by local authorities and has found a very large range of customs and practices which differ widely across different local authorities even though they operate under exactly the same regulatory framework – see the Wild Justice blog and subscribe to the Wild Justice newsletter to get updates on this and other work.

I see that the wise Prof Dave Goulson, whose book, Silent Earth, I will review here tomorrow, has an active petition which seeks to ban pesticide use in built up areas – click here to see what it says. I wonder what his conversation would have been with the nice grass maintenance man.


24 Replies to “Would you like glyphosate with that?”

  1. Well said Mark. Wild Justice’s actions to investigate the use of Glyphosate by local authorities is excellent. Some poisons show up almost immediately and some take years and years to manifest their effect. It is these that are much more difficult on which to make a judgement. However the Precautionary principle must always be applied and a lot of organisations are not applying it as far as glyphosate is concerned.
    It is important to recognise that although it is regarded as a herbicide it will also indirectly kill most if not all insects and invertebrates by virtue of killing all what they eat. This in turn leaves much less food for birds and wildlife.
    It’s use must therefore be drastically reduced not just in towns but I need the countryside as well, for the benefit of humans and nature.
    Like most things, give humans a new tool and they will drastically over use it. The use of glyphosate or any other poison around the base of the lamp post is a very good example.

  2. One of our local sheep farmers has just sprayed two reseeded fields with glyphosate one of which has now been under sown with a new and” better” grass mix, the other has been ploughed and will be sown. Interestingly a week after spraying he put some of this year’s lambs on the fields for 10 days. In conversation, he too is a very friendly chap, he said they could eat any surviving grass and the “roundup” had gone into the roots and was harmless anyway, one wonders how common this view is amongst users.

  3. The main reason it’s done in places like your picture is to save work. A little more effort and it could be avoided altogether. Not a good reason to spray poisonous stuff around.
    Very useful for removing invasive alien plants though. Try and get rid of deep-rooted laurel, rhododendron and Japanese knotweed without it.

    1. I assume the damage to the base of the pole is from strimmers. Maybe someone complained. It wouldn’t take a genius to design a metal collar to cover the grass in the sprayed area as a permanent solution though.

      1. Sorry, that should be:
        I don’t know about Japanese Knotweed, but for the Rhodies if you put pigs or wild boar into the field containing them then they do a grand job of ripping them up. https://www.conservationpigs.co.uk/Conservation

        I accidentally deleted the first couple of words while hitting send. Oh, for an edit button.

  4. If I was just looking at the picture I would have assumed the local dogs were responsible.
    My local authority pays a man to ride a quad bike around the town to spray roadside weeds. He sprays on the move, which apparently doesn’t constitute driving without due care and attention, and mounts the kerbs if he needs to get closer to the plants. Most of the spray lands on bare tarmac and misses the plants anyway. Our road drains lead directly into the stream so runoff when it rains is a problem. The operators are also generally oblivious to overspray going near my plants. I appreciate that the work needs doing but they could massively cut the amount of chemical they use by applying it with more care.

  5. My friend signed up for an allotment and was then advised by the head of the allotment association to spray the entire patch with glyphosate to get rid off the weeds.
    My pal even said it’s perfectly safe when he saw the horrified look on my face.
    People generally trust the information they are given by authorities such as their local council.
    Why? I’ve no idea? I’ve always questioned pretty much everything.

    1. Daniel – I’m with you. For one thing, questioning someone is the best way to find out whether they know what they are talking about or are just repeating something that someone told them, isn’t it? the questions in one’s mind should include ‘Does this person have a vested interest in saying what they have said?’ and ‘Does this person really know anything about this subject?’.

      1. If you are able to evaluate the the responses within that framework you probably know enough not to have needed to ask the questions

  6. After working in horticulture for a South West local authority for a considerable time, I can attest to using a lot of what is now known overall as pesticides, that would include fungicides/insecticides and herbicides. These ranged from having to wear almost a full hazardous material suit to apply granular insecticide (seriously dangerous stuff) to glasshouse pot plants, to ‘spraying’ weedkiller on park paths by using the ‘non mixable’ system that leaves tiny white dots of herbicide on the leaves, were the protective gear was a white suit, wellington boots etc, to using those once common blue slug pellets, protective gloves only.
    I’d like to think that my local authority are slowly changing, no need for the haz-mat suits now as the council run nurseries are no more, but I still see the herbicide quad bikes in the streets and it’s been 5 years since I’ve seen a blue pellet , a few more Song Thrushes around though but nowhere near as many as 20 years ago

  7. I’ve seen common reed growing out of the Union canal with ‘scorch’ marks on it that were reminiscent of what I’d seen on the Suffolk farm I’d worked on after Scythe had been sprayed. When I checked the label it turned out Scythe was effectively paraquat. Yes contractors had been putting a powerful herbicide like paraquat directly on to plants growing in water. I emailed a complaint to the canals people, no reply ever came of it. The use of biocides for supposedly ‘aesthetic’ purposes is complete lunacy and given the potential threat to human as well as environmental health should never have been allowed in the first place and needs to be banned now.

    This antipathy to anything natural in public spaces means we are spending an absolute fortune suppressing wildlife value by not just spaying herbicide, but also mowing vast expanses to near death for what purpose beyond looking at a tedious expanse of monotonous green I’m not sure. This is why I laugh when I hear someone say that conservation costs money – it’s reducing educational and recreational capabilities to conform to an ‘aesthetic’ that does that.
    The tide may be turning re gaining acceptance for a bit more wildness, but I still IMHO consider that a huge failure given how very long it’s taken to make such a small step when the case has so very much been on our side. Hopefully this petition indicates we’re getting a bit more spine and ‘in your face’ at last rather than wringing our hands in the corner when the anti wild faction are foaming at the mouth because a bit of long grass means they had to pick a few seeds out of their spaniel’s coat. Guess who councils comply with?

    1. Paraquat has been banned for use in the UK since 2007 (although apparently that is not a reason for us to stop making the stuff here and exporting it to other countries). It has a very different chemical formula and molecular structure to Scythe which is based on pelargonic acid. Paraquat was banned because of its very high acute toxicity to mammals (which has lead to it being commonly used as a method for suicide and murder in countries where it was or is still available). As far as I understand it, Scythe is not nearly as toxic to mammals as paraquat. This does not of course mean that Scythe is a healthy thing for people or other species to be exposed to – as we are seeing with glyphosate, chronic exposure to some herbicides can lead to adverse long-term health impacts such as cancer – and with any pesticide it would be wise to minimise human exposure as far as possible.
      As Filbert notes below, whatever means we use to kill other species will have an impact on wildlife beyond the target species. The weeds we kill were potentially food for caterpillars, nectar sources for bees and moths and so on. There are circumstances where controlling weeds, by some method or another, is justified (even organic food producers have to take steps to prevent other plant species from out-competing their crops) but to my mind a civic obsession with creating ‘weed-free’ towns and suburbs is not one of them and, in particular, does not justify the spraying of chemicals such as glyphosate. We need to welcome wild flowers into our townscapes.

      1. It was way back in 1996 that I was involved in that spraying. I didn’t take any chances what so ever and remember reading the label and the word paraquat being there – having known of stories re suicide via paraquat and general nasty accidents I mentioned this to the farmer’s cousin who I was working with. He snapped back at me that it wasn’t then I pointed out the word on the label and his face fell as he was never good at making apologies. It’s possible I misread a word and that through suggestion he saw paraquat too when it wasn’t there – but I believed I saw paraquat on the label, two of us did. Has the brand name shifted perhaps?

        I hope I am wrong and you’re right about Scythe because in spite of all my fear based precautions I still somehow managed to get diluted plashes of the bloody stuff down my back. Urgently trying to get it off without getting into a full blown panic wasn’t my most graceful moment on this good earth. The herbicide didn’t remove the need for hand weeding and TBH if the hand weeding regime had been better organised I’m sure we could have done away with a lot of work and use of lots of weed killer. I got the impression on the farm chemicals were used to try to make up for sloppy planning and management, which they never really did.

        1. Scythe is a brand name, not a chemical name so I suppose it is conceivable that the formulation has been changed since 1996 though that would seem surprising. Paraquat was best known under the name ‘gramoxone’, I think.

          I, too, sincerely hope that you have suffered no long term consequence from your contact with Scythe (or any other agrichemicals), Les. Whatever the active molecule in it I would certainly never suggest that exposure to any pesticide whether by skin contact, inhalation or ingestion was a matter of no concern. All pesticides should be treated with robust precautions to prevent exposure – starting with avoiding their use wherever possible. It is certainly possible to avoid using them for the ‘tidying up’ of urban environments.

          From your own account, you had a healthy awareness of the hazards associated with pesticides and also have subsequently moved to other areas of employment and hopefully those factors will have protected your health. One cannot help worrying about all those people who have spent their entire working lives agriculture, horticulture and related occupations and who have been less well informed about the risks that they faced. Attitudes such as the ‘no more harmful than Head and Shoulders’ mantra that Sphagnum Morose encountered (see below) were and probably still are very common. I recall many years ago having occasion to visit the premises of an aerial crop-spraying company in Australia. I remarked to the manager about the considerable evidence of chemical spillage in the form of stains on the concrete apron where the aircraft were loaded. His response was to rub his fingers over the concrete and then touch them to his tongue as a demonstration of his confidence in the safety of the products in use! It has to be doubted that he inculcated his employees with a proper respect for the hazards associated with the materials they were handling.

  8. Killing stuff deprives other stuff of food whether or not you kill it with a poison or a hoe so a question that has to be asked is: “What is point killing – what is point?” You could enquire further – what is point lampost? What is point grass? What is point Starbucks?

    Anyroad up, any killing disrupts populations to some extent whether or not a poison is used whether or not it affects bystanders or is persistent or not. I think it was Professor Ian Boyd who published something to that effect not too long ago but Copernicus can’t find it in my PC so maybe I dreamt it but excellent food for thought about pesticides – imho – is in “An inside view on pesticide policy” Ian L. Boyd, April 2018 Nature Ecology and Evolution
    DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0557-8.

  9. “When mixed up it’s no more harmful than Head & Shoulders”. That was what I was told repeatedly while on a course for the use of pesticides and herbicides in agriculture years ago. The bloke doing the training was evidently embittered about the nanny state making rules & regulations. I wish I could remember whether he had a good head of hair or not, indicating whether he had maybe tested his theory the other way around.

  10. From memory glyphosate wasn’t created as a herbicide. That purpose was discovered after. I think (but could be wrong – the brain has minor malfunctions occasionally) it was created as a pH modifier.

    The other thing to bear in mind is the other chemicals that are part of the mix that glyphosate is sold with. Very commonly there will be a surfactant in the mix (which aids the spread, especially on some plants e.g. horsetail). Most surfactants are soaps. Most soaps are (not by design) insecticides.

    1. You are not wrong – synthesised in the 1950s as a chelating agent for use in water-softening.

      Glyphosate as an active ingredient is a component of branded mixtures together with wetters, adjuvants et al, some of which, like polyethoxylated tallow amine have been found to be harmful – more so than glyphosate, which is known to cause eye irritation as does “Head and Shoulders” in my experience. Household chemicals are a can of worms that are mostly used without concern and then dumped into drainage in squillions of acts of casual everyday pollution.

      1. Did some bloke ( an American i would imagine ) once use to drink Glyphosate ( correctly diluted of course),to demonstrate its safety, or was that for something else ?.

        1. In the version that did the rounds in Cheshire in the ’70s it was an agchem salesman in North Wales

        2. There have been one or two USians that have eaten DDT in the past to prove how safe it was.

  11. It is hopefully not my imagination, but I dare to think that the combination of Covid plus stretched Council budgets has tempered some of the worst excesses of cut/tidy/spray over the last 18 months or so. There are still vocal parties out there filling up column inches in local papers with shouty demands for the Council to get on with cutting everything, but I also detect a groundswell of acceptance that unkempt verges buzzing with insects are a ‘good thing’. If this trend (if it is one) reaches the judging panel of the ‘Best Kept Village’ awards or their equivalents, we might really see some progress made towards embracing biodiversity as part of the urban fabric rather than wasting millions on obliterating it, and then spending further ££ on silly tokenistic gestures. In Oxford, we recently had the Broad Street “Meadow” – as if planters with wildflower mixes in them constitue any such thing. But at the sasme time, the gully channels at the sides of the residential streets in my part of Oxford have over the last eighteen months become a massive botanical distraction on any walk to the shops or pub. I am sure this is a new phenomenon which must mean that they were sprayed in previous years. I am even contemplating doing some sort of study on these green channels and their inhabitants. But the point here is why not celebrate this uninvited and uncontrolled incursion of green into our streets, save the money otherwise spent on spraying it, add that to the pot reserved for contrived, controlled and short-term gestures such as ‘Broad Street Meadow’ and put the whole towards something else. A full time Council ecologist maybe?

Comments are closed.