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Guest Column: Up and Down on Roundup

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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

I’ve changed my mind about Roundup more than once. When I first began learning about the production of food and the use of pesticides and herbicides, I had what can only be described as a knee-jerk reaction against “chemicals.” After returning to school to study plant biology and biochemistry, I began to question this reaction. Roundup breaks down in most soil quickly, and has not been shown to have toxic effects on animals. I have even used Roundup on poison ivy in my yard when I had small children. I’ve never used it where I grow food and I never will.

When I heard that the City of Northampton was planning to spray the future Florence athletic fields with Roundup, I was not particularly concerned. Farmers and homeowners use Roundup all over the Valley; the city uses it to maintain parts of many of Northampton’s parks. In this case, the city will spray the fields once to kill the current mix of plants so that it can seed turf grass and give it a chance to get established without competition. There will be fewer weeds to deal with later if the turf is well established.

But land carefully tended by Grow Food Northampton (GFN) nearly encircles the future athletic fields. GFN and their supporters believe that, with various techniques broadly thought of as organic, they can make their land much more fertile. It’s certainly a laudable goal, and I can understand why spraying nearby might irritate them. Roundup is toxic to plants, if nothing else, and they don’t want it on or near their land.

Those who oppose the spraying claim that Roundup has, or might have, many other effects on the environment that are unknown. The active ingredient is glyphosate, a molecule that directly interferes with the production of certain amino acids in organisms that have a particular metabolic pathway. Animals don’t make this amino acid, so glyphosate doesn’t have this effect on us. But glyphosate isn’t the only thing in Roundup: there are other ingredients that increase its potency, such as surfactants, which help to break down the waxy cuticle of plants to help the glyphosate get in. All of our detergents contain surfactants, and whether they are “natural” or not, they are already dumped into the environment in enormous quantities.

Roundup might cause trouble, but managing athletic fields organically is unusual. The city would have to reimagine installation and maintenance. This means money: consultants and contractors don’t work for free. It also might not work. Athletic fields aren’t like an organic garden. It’s a mono-culture trampled flat. That’s what allows our youth to barrel around on it without risking twisted ankles from uneven spots.

While the city seems ready to proceed with its plan to use Roundup, perhaps the folks at GFN should raise the money to hire consultants with experience installing and maintaining organic athletic turf. (I gave money to GFN the first time they came knocking, and I’d do it again.)This would mean delay, and it might not work, but if it does, it will make everyone happy. And how often does that happen?•

Biologist Caleb Rounds is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts and a Northampton resident.

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