Pissing Contest! My correspondence with MEP Bart Staes on testing urine for glyphosate

Tomorrow (Monday) MEPs arriving in Strasbourg for the beginning of their plenary sessions will be given the opportunity to have their urine tested for trace levels of glyphosate. This is a clever stunt in the lead-up to the non-binding but highly symbolic vote in the European Parliament on Wednesday protesting the European Commission’s plans to extend the authorisation of glyphosate, a widely-used herbicide.

Now I experienced this scaremongering approach during anti-chemical REACH campaigning a decade ago, so I know the game. The point is that our chromotographs and spectrometers can find traces of targeted substances at the part per trillion level – meaning that a substance is detectable but it does not in any way reflect the level of risk such a low exposure may have on human health. We find ourselves in the ridiculous situation of being afraid of cancer from low glyphosate traces in our beer or wine, but being OK with our exposure to the much higher risks from alcohol.

So I did what any concerned European citizen should do – I wrote my MEP, Bart Staes (who is organising the sampling), to express my views! Please find the exchanges below that he had asked me to publish – with my analyses at the end. We have a unique opportunity to see the different poles of the debate about the role of glyphosate in modern agriculture and I appreciate Mr Staes for engaging. I look forward to pushing this debate forward, not with scare stories but with arguments about what type of agriculture we want.

My letter to MEP Staes:

Dear Mr Staes,

I understand you are organising urine tests for MEPs to measure trace levels of glyphosate. Looking at the costs, I could see lab costs coming in at around 66,000€ plus distribution costs. My first question is who is paying for this stunt? As a Belgian citizen and taxpayer, I would like to know if this is coming out of a private foundation or NGO (and please specify whom?) or from a European Parliament budget (and please specify which?).

Furthermore, and we have been having a bit of fun on social media at the expense of your intellect, we would like you to also test these samples for trace levels of cocaine and alcohol. Alcohol because, according to IARC it is a far higher risk for cancer than glyphosate, and cocaine (well, it is probably not carcinogenic) because I suspect most of the Greens and Socialists behind this pathetic stunt need a little something to keep up their relentless obsession against conventional farmers.

I would be happy to share in the costs for the added analyses, but I suspect you are not interested in facts or a rational debate but rather a political gimmick. Because you are pushing this fearmongering for political gain, at a cost to farmers across Europe, I hope you don’t mind that I share your response on my blog called the Risk-Monger. You can reply in Dutch if you trust my subjectivity in translating it for my article.

Are you also aware that the trace levels of glyphosate are so low as to be insignificant, and the fact that it is being expelled in urine is actually good news (as opposed to cocaine and alcohol). Ok, I suppose you really don’t care about facts … maybe your voters will!

Kind regards and good luck frightening Europe for petty reasons while choking agriculture.

David Zaruk

(personal address redacted)

PS – I thought you might like an image that has been widely shared on social media to put your logic into context:

wine

Credit: Kevin Folta (Facebook)

Mr Staes sent me this reply (quite quickly – which I must admit I was pleasantly surprised about). I am not sure whether I should accept his kind offer for some of his urine (perhaps we could test it for exposure to natural chemicals that have far higher risks of cancer). I am publishing his letter in full (as requested) and then would like to discuss some of the points.

Mister Zaruk,

The total cost of what you call a “stunt” is even more than 66 euro. Prepacked sample kits (including printouts of questionnaire and instruction leaflet) are 2,– EUR net each;  analysis 72,– EUR net each (incl. 19% VAT = 85,68 EUR).

The agreement with the MEP’s that participate is that they get an invoice and that they pay the test out of their private money. So no NGO’s involved, nor public or tax payer money at risk.

This action is linked to the debate about glyphosate, so we did not think about offering an alcohol or cocaine test. Anyway the difference is that if we tested also on alcohol or cocaine the tested people knew they had drunk alcohol or taken cocaine on a voluntary basis. 

I am not aware of ordering glyphosate in my food, my ( belgian) beer or my glass of nice french, south-african or latin-american wine…

I can choose for alcohol and cocaine, not for glyphosate. I get it anyway …

I am always prepared to offer you a sample of urine. You might test it on the presence of alcohol or cocaine. I am even prepared to pay the cost of the test, out of my own financial means. I am sure that I will test negatively. On the glyphosate test I am not so sure …

So let’s make an appointment oi that I can deliver my urine to you.
As a MEP I am for the last 17 years very active to fight for another kind of agriculture. For me and the the Greens, glyphosate is the very incarnation of “modern agriculture”, a model that is  not sustainable at all:

  1. It stands for reckless monoculture: a non-selective herbicide – a broad band killer which kills all plants, algae, bacteria and fungi – is used to deal with a few pests, thereby creating massive effects on non-target organisms and biodiversity,
  2. It is strongly linked to GMOs (56% of global use is for glyphosate resistant crops) – killing everything but the genetically engineered crop,
  3. It stands for economic gains at all costs:

▪ it has replaced traditional agricultural practices such as tilling because spraying glyphosate is cheaper(“chemical plough”)

▪ it is used not only to kill unwanted weed, but also the crop itself prior to harvest to accelerate ripening and facilitate harvest (“desiccation”).

So what I do is far from a political gimmick.

expect you will share my reponse on your blog called the Risk-Monger. 

Regards,
Bart Staes, MEP Greens

Some comments on the exchange

There are some valuable points here and I appreciate the opportunity to debate them as it is important for European farmers that these elements are discussed.

MEP Staes: The agreement with the MEP’s that participate is that they get an invoice and that they pay the test out of their private money. So no NGO’s involved, nor public or tax payer money at risk.

Risk-Monger: I am pleased to hear this although I am not sure whether some MEPs won’t still pass this onto their expense accounts since it will be related to a parliamentary debate (call it research).

MEP Staes: I am not aware of ordering glyphosate in my food, my (Belgian) beer or my glass of nice french, south-african or latin-american wine…

I can choose for alcohol and cocaine, not for glyphosate. I get it anyway …

Risk-Monger: I understand this argument and in the risk world, I refer to it as the agency conundrum – that if I do not choose or participate in an event or situation that affects me, trust is lost. This is a trust argument rather than an exposure or health argument and it is very effective in undermining trust not only with industry but also with political establishments. The only reply I have to this is an appeal to reasonableness. I did not choose for the particulates in the air that enter my bloodstream with each breath I take, or the billion+ parasites that are feeding off of my gut but so long as exposure or negative effects are kept as low as reasonably achievable and toxicity is limited, then I should try to be reasonable.

MEP Staes: I am always prepared to offer you a sample of urine. You might test it on the presence of alcohol or cocaine. I am even prepared to pay the cost of the test, out of my own financial means. I am sure that I will test negatively. On the glyphosate test I am not so sure …
So let’s make an appointment so that I can deliver my urine to you.

Risk-Monger: Thank you for the kind offer … I am not sure that is necessary. I fear that you gathered from my request that you felt I was accusing you of drug or alcohol abuse. Far from it – I was making the point that we ingest far more dangerous, more toxic substances than glyphosate, a substance less toxic than chemicals found in biscuits, coffee and chocolate. God knows what enters my body from that famous Belgian Bicky Burger!

MEP Staes: As a MEP I am for the last 17 years very active to fight for another kind of agriculture. For me and the the Greens, glyphosate is the very incarnation of “modern agriculture”, a model that is not sustainable at all:

  1. It stands for reckless monoculture: a non-selective herbicide – a broad band killer which kills all plants, algae, bacteria and fungi – is used to deal with a few pests, thereby creating massive effects on non-target organisms and biodiversity,

Risk-Monger: This is where the debate gets interesting. I feel we have to get out of an organic v conventional farming polarisation. Having myself spent 21 years on a farm, I think all farmers want to be sustainable – they are not interested in damaging their soil, wasting water or resources or willingly using chemicals if they did not have to. To say that organic farming is good and conventional farming is bad is not the way forward. Often people are driven by this good v evil distinction rather than finding the best ways to get good returns from the land while continuously improving farming methods through research and technology.

For your first bullet point on glyphosate, it is not used to treat pests but for use on broadleaf weeds and unwanted herbs that steal nutrients from the soil and lead to lower yields. Better yields means less demand on land which can mean more meadows left untilled and improving conditions for biodiversity.

MEP Staes: 2. It is strongly linked to GMOs (56% of global use is for glyphosate resistant crops) – killing everything but the genetically engineered crop,

Risk-Monger: This is, I feel, a common misperception. First, the debate in Europe is not about GMOs so we have to watch how the international NGOs have allowed this to creep into our local discussion on glyphosate as a sustainable herbicide. Also, the data that shows glyphosate use increasing with GMOs is inaccurate and does not bring in greater yields and larger land area being farmed. Finally, even if we did not use GMOs on a global level, we would still need to use the same amount of herbicides (probably more) – the problem is about the weeds that need to be controlled. Glyphosate resistant plants (Roundup Ready) allow the herbicides to be used later and thus less frequently which is better for the environment.

MEP Staes: 3. It stands for economic gains at all costs:
▪ it has replaced traditional agricultural practices such as tilling because spraying glyphosate is cheaper(“chemical plough”)
▪ it is used not only to kill unwanted weed, but also the crop itself prior to harvest to accelerate ripening and facilitate harvest (“desiccation”).

Risk-Monger: Since the 1960s, modern agriculture has allowed us to grow far more on the same land with far fewer farmers. The technology of the green agricultural revolution (which includes the introduction of herbicides) has been, I believe, one of the greatest drivers of economic development in the post-war era, whether it has been the great leap in production in the Americas or the rise of Asia (the World Bank invested heavily in agricultural technologies in Asia in the 60s and 70s, but not in Africa – what many say is the problem facing that continent today).

The economic gains that we have had from a more readily available food supply and a more efficient agricultural sector are economic gains that all society has enjoyed. We know very well that the Flemish economic miracle has been driven by our generation of farmers from West and East Flanders who have been able to come off of the farm (due to technologies) and start their own businesses.

As for this “chemical plough”, perhaps plough is a word you might want to avoid using. Glyphosate has allowed farmers to lower or avoid tillage – this is extremely important for sustainable farming in that it allows for weed control without disrupting the soil regeneration, avoiding erosion issues that tillage causes (as well as raising dust) and, importantly, reducing diesel emissions (making farming more climate-friendly) – organic farmers on average need to till the land five times in a year to control weeds (conventional no-till farming with glyphosate does not till). Organic is simply not environmentally sustainable compared to the proper use of benign herbicides like glyphosate.

There are also the social benefits – I grew up pulling weeds as a child as did most children from rural areas in our generation. In an earlier blog, I quoted statistics that showed, without herbicides in the USA, there would be a demand for an extra 55 million teenagers to pull weeds during their summer holidays (there are presently fewer than 55 million teenagers in the USA). This drain on a good economic use of human resources, if we were to go organic, would send our economy back decades. This is not about Monsanto, this is about allowing farmers to produce enough food while allowing human resources to be put to better use!

As for desiccation, I have heard this argument a lot, I just have not met, or know anyone who has met such a farmer who would waste time and money on applying glyphosate to wheat which naturally ripens in any case. Maybe it is a last resort in a farmer’s toolbox in late harvests under very wet conditions where losing the crop is the other option. Given the remarkably low toxicity of glyphosate, I don’t believe it is a bad alternative to have in a worst case scenario. Point is, I know of activists who talk a lot about desiccation, but please show me a farmer who willingly spends money for no reason.

Thank you for your time and willingness to engage Mr Staes – I look forward to continuing the conversation. But I hope you don’t mind, I’ll pass on coming by to pick up a sample of your urine … but we can always have a coffee!!!

David

2 Comments Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s