Glyphosate has been a key tool for many of Europe’s farmers for over 40 years. As an effective broad-spectrum weedkiller, its ability to help growers increase yields while reducing machinery use and soil erosion has helped it become the world’s most widely-used herbicide.
Some NGOs have been attempting to restrict or ban the use of glyphosate in the EU, with farming groups saying that this method of weed control is vital to their farming practices, and that losing it would hit yields, increase costs of production, and cause food prices to rise significantly.
The European Crop Protection Association points to research that shows EU farmer profitability increases by up to 25% when they use glyphosate to control weeds on their farms. This represents €11bn of a total €44bn profit and a drop in income this significant could lead to a drastic rise in the cost of a multitude of staple crops.
On average in the EU, 16% of household expenditure goes on food, with a further 4% on alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Of the food spend, bread represents 17% and cereals 24%, meaning the cost of staple crops has a significant impact on household food spending.
For cereal producers, the main drivers of increased spend are mostly explained by fertilisers, machinery, seeds and crop protection. Removal of glyphosate as a weed control method would mean increased ploughing and machinery use, as well switching to alternative crop protection methods. These are generally more labour and fuel intensive and would have an accompanying increase in costs.
Glyphosate’s role in European food production
Glyphosate has helped transform Europe’s farming systems, as growers can control weeds without ploughing the land and plant seeds directly into stubble. This encourages zero tillage farming that can help reduce soil erosion, substantially minimise soil disturbance, reduce CO2 emissions from soil churn and reduce machinery use.
Depending on the weed population, applying glyphosate before a new crop is planted also has the potential to increase harvest by 30-60% for many of Europe’s major crops, helping limit the need for expensive imports.
If countries were to ban the use of glyphosate, farming groups warn that the effect on European farmers’ ability to grow food will be severely damaged. Studies in Germany suggest that without it, oilseed rape yields will fall by 5%, while as much as 10% of the country’s maize yields will be lost.
In northern and eastern regions, where 75% of land is treated with glyphosate, sugar beet yield losses would be up to 40%, researchers say.
Meanwhile in the UK, a recent study by Oxford Economics reported that a glyphosate ban would reduce agriculture’s contribution to the UK economy by an estimated £930 million.
This is due to a projected fall in overall yield, with a 20% projected fall in wheat production and a 37% fall in oil seed rape production.
With such a marked fall in production and demand set to rise steadily to meet a growing national and global population, price rises would seem almost certain.