“When my father in law, Richard Hatherell, came to this farm in the Cotswolds in 1966, it all looked very different. You couldn’t make a living here from arable alone – yield was too poor and prices were low – so it was dairy, stock feed crops and some wheat and barley.
Grass weeds were everywhere so, to kill the growth, Richard relied on rotavating a field immediately after every harvest, and then repeating this every two or three weeks. This used up a lot of his time, and that of the two farmhands he relied on, and large amounts of fuel and machinery. Couch and onion couch were common problems and were never fully under control.
“I think of it as a miracle substance. The main thing is that in one pass it can kill the whole plant, roots and all.” Richard Hatherell, arable farmer, UK
A miracle cure
We first started using glyphosate in the 1980s. In one pass, Richard could now kill the weed and it would die down to the roots. They could then establish a crop without having to go over and over the field with heavy machinery. It made a huge difference. Weeds were completely killed (before they were only being partially controlled and reduced). Richard described it as a ‘miracle cure’.
Today, we use glyphosate relatively little. Our main use is ‘out of crop’ – between the past crop that’s harvested and before we plant the next crop. We don’t need to regularly plough or cultivate, we can even just spray and then with the right type of seed drill we could plant straight into old crop beds – hence the term ‘no-till’. The amount of glyphosate we tend to use here would be about 1.5 litres of product per hectare and that is diluted into a spraying machine with about 120 litres of water. So roughly: 1:80 parts.
Since the introduction of glyphosate, I’ve been able to enter into various schemes with the British government to provide wild areas throughout the farm for local bird life. Glyphosate has enabled me to kill off existing weed base and plant bird-friendly grasses and flowers. Local populations of linnets, buntings and finches have all benefitted hugely. The local hare population is flourishing, too.
But even more crucially for me, the organic matter of the soil has improved very much due to the reduction in ploughing.
Investing in the soil
Farming today isn’t about yield and a quick profit. I think of myself as a custodian of this land – I don’t own it but I look after it for future generations. I need this soil to provide a healthy crop this year, next year and 10 years hence. And future generations will depend on it for decades to come. I wouldn’t put anything on this land that I don’t trust 100%.
The pesticides industry is set up so that everything goes through such a rigorous regime of testing before they are actually allowed onto the market. We don’t use any chemicals, any pesticides on the farm unless they’re 100% necessary to produce a yield. They’re a cost to the business – so, believe me, I’m not interested in anything I don’t have to use and that I don’t fully trust.
“Future generations will depend on this land. I wouldn’t put anything on it that I don’t trust” James Cox, arable farmer, UK
Without access to glyphosate, the weed burden would be huge. There would be a much larger percentage of spraying within the crop to get the weeds that were not being controlled by spraying with glyphosate between crops. I would spend a lot more time in my tractor turning over the soil and a lot more money on new machinery and fuel.
The ground nesting birds would suffer because of that and all the wildlife that lives out there on the field would inevitably be disturbed. The organic matter content of the soil is likely to be detrimentally affected. Yields would decline again and increased ploughing would release more CO2 from the soil into the atmosphere. It would be a significant step backwards.
It is vital that while we’re trying to make a living out of the land while we’re here, that the environment and soil and everything else is ideally in a better situation when we leave so that people in the future can grow food. Let’s not forget the big picture here. Food demand is rising and a move like this could put farms and farming back decades.”