Glyphosate's big threat is litigation, not regulation

BIG WORRIES: The Australian crop protection industry is nervous about the legal risks posed by glyphosate.

BIG WORRIES: The Australian crop protection industry is nervous about the legal risks posed by glyphosate.

FOR years, the Australian agriculture sector has been quietly confident of the ongoing availability of glyphosate.

In spite of some sporadic negative press, such as the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labelling the herbicide a "probable" carcinogen, there was the overwhelming opinion that regulatory approval would be there, given the various scientific studies that have shown the product's safety.

On that front, nothing has changed. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) remains in line with the vast majority of international regulators and scores of studies that continue to say glyphosate, when it is used in accordance to the label directions, is indeed safe to use.

But there is growing concern that the product's downfall may well come not from a government ban but due to worries about legal liability.

Global giant Bayer has been hit with huge legal fines in the United States as a result of three successful lawsuits in California, where juries found that the glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide owned by Bayer had contributed to the plaintiffs' non-Hogdkins' lymphoma.

In recent weeks, news has filtered through the first Australian lawsuit against the company on similar grounds have been launched.

The legal firm behind the Australian court action, Carbone Lawyers, says that there is significant interest among the community that could lead to further cases being lodged.

This has the Aussie crop protection sector spooked.

Nufarm issued a release to the ASX commenting on the significant legal risks faced around glyphosate at present, even though it did not manufacture the product but simply used it in its own formulations.

A global giant like Bayer may be able to withstand some legal pain, to an extent.

But for smaller crop protection businesses, it would not take much to force them to the wall. And while the actions thus far are limited to Bayer, there is nervousness it could spread to others involved with the chemical.

A global giant like Bayer may be able to withstand some legal pain, to an extent. But for smaller crop protection businesses, it would not take much to force them to the wall. And while the actions thus far are limited to Bayer, there is nervousness it could spread to others involved with the chemical.

It has some farmers worried that while, legally, it is fine to continue to use glyphosate, companies will choose not to make glyphosate-based due to the legal risks involved.

That may sound like a long bow to draw at present. But should other legal jurisdictions outside famously liberal California find in favour of plaintiffs and the legal costs pile up, then investors are not going to continue to give the companies a mandate to lose money hand over fist just because farmers want the product.

There's been a lot of talk from the farm sector about the infallibility of the science and the unfairness of having livelihoods and environments negatively impacted by laymen juries without the capacity to fully understand the background and easily swayed by emotive arguments. It's true that it is not fair - nor have the arguments surrounding animal welfare or the use of genetically modified crops, but the cruel fact is that public perception is all.

The key is going to be getting the message out to the people.

But the sobering point is that this is a lot easier said than done and previous attempts to improve the glyphosate brand have failed to cut through in urban areas in any way, shape or form.

Here's hoping concerted campaigns on educating consumers, such as the one currently being pushed by the National Farmers Federation (NFF), will gain traction.

Public perception will be equally as important as scientific fact in keeping glyphosate in the toolbox for Aussie farmers.

One thing is for sure, lobbing out broadsides at people for being unscientific and expecting Joe Public to miraculously acknowledge glyphosate's role in our farming systems is simply equivalent to fiddling while Rome burns.

Gregor Heard is an ACM journalist