Rethinking Roundup? Here are some safer alternatives

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For gardeners, there’s no escaping the need to control pests and weeds. But how do you do it safely?

On the one hand, the shelves at Home Depot and other hardware stores are stuffed with Roundup, Monsanto’s weed killer. There’s an animated advertisement for the chemical on TV. You can buy it online, no problem.

On the other hand, a jury in Alameda just awarded a couple more than $2 billion in a verdict against Monsanto, ruling that they contracted cancer because of the use of the popular herbicide. In March, a federal jury in San Francisco awarded $80 million to Edwin Hardeman, a 70-year-old Sonoma man who claimed Roundup caused his non-Hodgkins lymphoma. More than 13,000 more Roundup lawsuits against Monsanto await adjudication. Four years ago, a UN-sponsored scientific agency declared that Roundup probably causes cancer. On July 7, 2017, California declared Roundup to be cancer-causing. Just recently, researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine found a link between glyphosate — Roundup’s active ingredient — in blood and fatty liver disease.

The German company Bayer, which owns Monsanto, has lost 44 percent of its value since it merged with Monsanto in the summer of 2018, mostly the result of fears that the lawsuits might bankrupt the company. Bayer launched a fierce campaign to convince the public that Roundup is safe, but to little avail, and evidence to the contrary keeps piling up.

There’s more in Roundup than glyphosate. Its “inert ingredients” include a chemical called POE-15. According to a scientific paper published in the journal Toxicology, POE-15 “appears to be the most toxic principle against human cells,” and kills them on contact, while glyphosate “is known to promote endocrine disrupting effects.” The endocrine system controls the body’s production of hormones, messenger compounds that tell the body’s crucial systems what to do.

There’s no escaping Roundup. It’s been found in waterways worldwide, in our grains, in our beer and wines, food supply and even in the rain. It’s the most heavily used agricultural chemical in history. Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of it since 1974. Worldwide 9.4 million tons have been used. This mass spraying has caused nature to fight back by evolving Roundup-resistant weeds. Monsanto fought back by creating genetically modified (GMO) “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans that are resistant to the herbicide, which resulted in much more Roundup being used. It’s a downward spiral that leads to more toxic chemicals and more resistant weeds.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has relaxed its rules on what it considers a safe level of glyphosate. As of now, 50 times more glyphosate is allowed on corn grain than in 1996. The EPA’s “safe level” of glyphosate is 17 times higher than the 1996 level. The EPA has dismissed studies on contamination levels and toxicology done by independent scientists, and instead used studies produced by Monsanto that claim it’s safe.

And still the shelves are packed with Roundup, as well as dozens upon dozens of insecticides and fungicides that have their own set of problems. So what’s a gardener to do?

First, and most important, is to perceive the big picture. Here’s the big picture:

Biodiversity is the key to natural health; that is, a strong web of life filled with myriad creatures that interact with one another in a system of checks and balances. This deters any one creature from multiplying out of control and causing wholesale damage or disease.

So the gardener’s first job, therefore, is to protect the wide range of critters that inhabit the garden. That includes insects that pollinate our crops, insects that prey on plant-eating bugs and even plant-eating bugs themselves, for they are food for our beneficial helpers. Instead of killing life with insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, the gardener must provide a place that’s safe and non-toxic for all creatures. That alone will go a long way to solving pest problems.

But not weed problems. There are ways to control weeds without poisoning them and the soil they grow in. You can buy weed-barrier cloth at the garden stores. Lay it down, slice open a few inches of the cloth and pop a started seedling where the slice gives you access to the soil. Or even better, use a thick mulch of old leaves or compost or any organic matter to smother weed seedlings. The organic matter will decay and improve the texture and fertility of the soil. Tillage is another way to fight weeds — turning over the soil — although too much tillage can quickly deplete the soil of organic matter. And if your raised bed is small, go ahead and pull weeds by hand.

There is a system for dealing with pests in a safe and rational way, and it’s called Integrated Pest Management (IPM). It was developed in the 1970s by, among others, Dr. Miguel Altieri, currently a professor of agroecology at UC Berkeley. IPM aims to suppress pest populations below the economic injury level — not eliminate them. If the pests are eliminated, so will be the beneficial insects that feed on them.

It comes down to the idea that you use the least toxic control method first. If that doesn’t work, move up a notch to the next least toxic control, and so on. If you reach the level of needing to bring out the big guns — toxic chemicals — it may be a sign that you have the wrong crop in the wrong place. Remember rule one: protect the ecology.

For an example, let’s say you have aphids on your new rose shoots. If they aren’t causing a lot of damage, consider yourself lucky as they will attract aphid-eating beneficials like ladybugs, parasitic wasps and green lacewing larvae.

If that doesn’t work, focus your hose nozzle to a strong jet and spray the aphids off the rose shoots. Very few will come back. If that still doesn’t work, make an aphid-repelling tea from garlic and tomato leaves, strain, then spray the roses with it. If that doesn’t work, drench the plant with an insecticidal soap solution. If that doesn’t work, think about planting aphid-resistant varieties of roses, of which there are many.

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