hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues December 2019-January 2020


Advocates push to curb use of herbicide

State, towns weigh new limits on glyphosate


Bruce Winn and Elia del Molino of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team stand amid a large patch of hardy kiwi at Burbank Park in Pittsfield. The group has organized a volunteer effort to control the invasive species without the use of herbicides like glyphosate. Hardy kiwi’s vines are powerful enough to pull down trees, but the vines visible on the trees here have been clipped. Photo courtesy of Berkshire Environmental Action Team


Bruce Winn and Elia del Molino of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team stand amid a large patch of hardy kiwi at Burbank Park in Pittsfield. The group has organized a volunteer effort to control the invasive species without the use of herbicides like glyphosate. Hardy kiwi’s vines are powerful enough to pull down trees, but the vines visible on the trees here have been clipped. Photo courtesy of Berkshire Environmental Action Team


Contributing writer


A debate over whether and how to restrict the use of glyphosate, the weed-killer in the popular herbicide Roundup, has lately been heating up in the Berkshires and across Massachusetts.
In Boston, activists and some legislators are pushing to limit use of the chemical, which some fear is a carcinogen. Three bills now pending in the Legislature would restrict glyphosate’s use, including one proposal that would all but ban herbicides containing the chemical.

At the local level, activists in Great Barrington asked the town Board of Health last month to consider banning the use of glyphosate on town property. Supporters of a ban hope to put the issue before local voters at the annual town meeting in May.

The debate over use of the chemical also has been playing out in two local parks, 10 miles apart, that have been plagued by the spread of the invasive species hardy kiwi, a perennial vine powerful enough to pull down trees and smother native plant species.

At Kennedy Park in Lenox, caretakers have been using Roundup to get rid of hardy kiwi. But at Burbank Park in Pittsfield, teams of volunteers are instead using gardening tools and their hands to uproot the invasive species.

The volunteer effort at Burbank Park is being lead by the Berkshire Environmental Action Team, a group of ecological activists who have long opposed the use of Roundup and similar glyphosate-based products.

Elia del Molino, the group’s stewardship manager, has led the effort to use non-chemical methods to combat the spread of hardy kiwi. Over the last few years, dozens of volunteers have contributed to the effort, which includes clipping back the vines and pulling the roots out by hand.
Although del Molino is committed to avoiding the use of Roundup and other chemical pesticides, he said he well understands the temptation to use it. His group’s greener method of controlling hardy kiwi is extremely labor intensive.

“It’s definitely not the most efficient way to do it,” del Molino said. “We’re kind of putting our time where our mouth is.”


Push for state legislation
The Berkshire Environmental Action Team has opposed the use of glyphosate since the organization’s inception in 2003, said Jane Winn, the group’s executive director. The difference now is that the group is not alone in Massachusetts in advocating for its ban or restriction.
In the past, “we felt there was no point in trying to rally against its use, because nobody cared,” Winn said. “In the last two or three years, we’ve had people calling from all across the county and across the state.”

Marty Dagoberto, the policy director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts, said that although there have been many legislative proposals over the years to restrict the use of some pesticides or herbicides, some of these proposals now are drawing broader support on Beacon Hill than in past years.

“This is the first session where we’re seeing multiple bills with dozens of legislators signed on as co-sponsors,” Dagoberto said. “So it really does indicate an uptick in awareness … about the importance of this issue.”

In the Legislature, the stated goals of the bills to restrict or ban certain herbicides are to protect public health and also to protect bees and other pollinators. Two bills mention glyphosate by name. One, S.499, would ban the use of glyphosate-based herbicides on public lands unless authorized by special permit. The other, H.792, would go further and ban the sale, transfer and use of glyphosate in the state altogether.

A third bill, H.791, would update the list of herbicides and insecticides banned for outdoor use on the grounds of childcare centers and schools, and that updated list would include glyphosate-based herbicides.

Great Barrington is not the only municipality in Massachusetts to consider restrictions on glyphosate, even though current state law does not allow for local ordinances on pesticide use.
Two years ago, the town of Warwick, along the New Hampshire border in Franklin County, voted to ban glyphosate use on public and private land. The town’s ordinance has not been challenged in court, but the Massachusetts Pest Control Act of 1978 specifies that state regulations on pesticides and herbicides pre-empt any local rules.

According to a spreadsheet compiled by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Massachusetts, more than 20 municipalities across the state have passed some form of resolution or ordinance calling for curbs on pesticides or herbicides -- or for protection of bees and other pollinators from the effects of these chemicals.

Brad Mitchell, the deputy executive director of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, said the state’s pre-emptive law was needed because differing local ordinances on herbicide and pesticide use led to confusion among farmers and others who use the chemicals.

“We had farms that would straddle two towns with conflicting requirements on the same field,” Mitchell said. “We had lawn care people and exterminator people who had to have nine or ten registration numbers on their truck.”

But now, as public sentiment builds to re-evaluate herbicide and pesticide use, the terms of that 1978 law are being reconsidered. Two bills, one each in the state Senate and House, would again allow municipalities to set their own rules for herbicide and pesticide use.


Cancer-causing chemical?
Glyphosate has faced increasing scrutiny from activists and regulators in the last few years, thanks largely to the decision by an international health organization to list glyphosate as a “possible carcinogen” as well as a series of high-profile lawsuits alleging that use of Roundup has led to serious health problems.

In 2015, based on a review of available studies, a panel of experts at the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded glyphosate was “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” The agency is part of the World Health Organization of the United Nations. The panel’s conclusion was based on cases in which agricultural workers developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after exposure to glyphosate as well as “convincing evidence” that glyphosate is carcinogenic in laboratory animals. The agency also cited evidence that glyphosate exposure caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells.

Although the U.N. agency’s conclusions diverged from those of other health regulators about the possible cancer risks of glyphosate exposure, its experts pointed out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had originally labeled glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” in 1985, and that the EPA only changed that classification in 1991 after re-evaluation of a pivotal study involving mice exposed to the chemical.

Since the U.N. agency’s report, the Czech Republic has partially restricted glyphosate use for crops grown for human consumption, and Germany recently announced that it would phase out use of the herbicide.

The American agrochemical giant Monsanto developed glyphosate in the 1970s and made it the main ingredient in its herbicide Roundup. Later the company developed a series of genetically modified crops that were capable of withstanding large applications of the herbicide and became widely used in agriculture.

As the market-share for these genetically modified crops has grown, large-scale corn and soy farmers have increasingly turned to glyphosate-based herbicides. A U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the use of glyphosate on crops increased from 13.9 million pounds in 1992 to 287 million pounds in 2016.

Last year, the German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG acquired Monsanto. But Bayer now is facing some tens of thousands of lawsuits from farmers, gardeners and landscapers who say their use of Roundup caused them to develop cancer. The lawsuits include allegations that the company acted in bad faith to sideline concerns about the herbicide’s health risks.

Reuters reports that Bayer so far has lost three jury verdicts in lawsuits involving Roundup and has been ordered to pay significant damages. In one verdict in California, a jury ordered the company to pay a couple more than $2 billion, though the judgment was later reduced to $86 million.

Bayer’s stock has lost more than 35 percent of its value since it acquired Monsanto, and the company’s management received a no-confidence vote from angry shareholders.
Contacted for this report, Bayer provided a written statement that read in part: “The overwhelming weight of science and regulatory reviews by leading health authorities around the world for more than 40 years have determined that glyphosate can be used safely and is not carcinogenic.”


Farming and science
Among Massachusetts farmers, organic growers generally support banning or restricting the use of glyphosate, while conventional growers, who are more likely to use Roundup and related products, are generally opposed.

Mitchell, of the Farm Bureau, argued that Massachusetts already has a science-based process for determining the safety of herbicides and pesticides. The Massachusetts Pesticide Board brings together key stakeholders to evaluate the available science on the products being considered for use, and Mitchell says legislators and municipal leaders should allow this approach to guide their rule-making, especially during heated debates.

“The Legislature realized a long time ago that the pesticide activity is really a science-based activity, and they’re not scientists,” he said.

He also argued that the decision by the International Association for Research on Cancer to classify glyphosate as a possible carcinogen should be considered an outlier, as the EPA and other regulatory bodies have not followed suit.

Mitchell also raised the prospect that legislative action to restrict glyphosate could have the unintended consequence of increasing the use of other herbicides.

“My members would find alternatives, some of which wouldn’t be as good,” he said, adding that as a former state pesticide toxicologist, he’d have bigger concerns about some of the alternative herbicides.

Dagoberto disputed these arguments. He said there is evidence that EPA regulators and supposedly independent scientists colluded with Monsanto in an effort to ease regulation of glyphosate.

In 2017, a law firm representing plaintiffs who sued Monsanto over glyphosate exposure released a trove of e-mails that showed instances of Monsanto’s representatives helping to guide regulators and lawmakers in pushing back against health concerns related to glyphosate. Other documents revealed that the authors of a supposedly independent scientific review of glyphosate failed to disclose ties to Monsanto.

“The EPA has been operating in coordination with the chemical industry to suppress research for decades,” Dagoberto said. “We know we can’t trust the EPA when it comes to glyphosate.”
Dagoberto also pointed out that Mitchell previously worked for Monsanto.

But even advocates of restricting or banning glyphosate are aware of how ingrained the herbicide is in conventional agriculture.

The state organic farming association has put most of its lobbying weight behind the bill that would restrict glyphosate use outside of childcare centers and schools. That’s partly because Dagoberto and his colleagues believe that bill has the best chance of passage -- and partly because they understand that an outright ban on Roundup would be a big disruption to the state’s conventional farmers.

“If we were to tell the dairy farmers that they can’t use glyphosate, most of them would go out of business,” Dagoberto said. “We need to be sensitive and have an eye for justice when it comes to farmers who are already struggling.”

And at Burbank Park, del Molino said the ongoing volunteer effort to control hardy kiwi has been a great community-building project, but he said he understands why caretakers at Kennedy Park have chosen to use Roundup, as that park was facing a much worse infestation of the invasive species.

“I hope to never be in a situation where I have to use it, and I’m fortunate to be in that situation where I’m not a manager of fields, forests or farms which are preserving really unique biodiversity,” del Molino said. “I don’t have to put myself in that very tough situation, and I do recognize that it’s a very tough situation to be in.”