Guest Column: Up and Down on Roundup

Comments (7)
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.

Comments (7)
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Once Roundup has done it killing job where does it go and what are the long term effects of that substance? Round-up is a chemical toxin that will eventually become run off and enter the streams, creeks and rivers with untold effects. There are other less damaging products on the market that are biodegradable such as common household bleach which breaks down into oxygen, salt and water. Monsanto, the manufacturer of Roundup does not claim that the product is biodegradable.

The city should weigh all the options before spreading a toxic substance on such a large surface for the minor purpose of controlling weeds.

Read more:

Posted by Blackthorn on 9.5.13 at 5:39


I appreciate your readership of my regular column, but I think you've misunderstood the main thrust of my article. While it is true that there is some evidence that round-up might have effects on animals, the results are far from conclusive. The first link you list is to an annotated bibliography of scientific papers linked to glyphosate. It does not list any of the papers that don't find dangers in round-up. Furthermore the papers I looked at on the list were either in vitro or showed very small statistical correlations.

But this isn't really the point, I didn't claim that it was harmless, I said the active ingredient shouldn't affect animals. The assertion that glyphosate hurts our gut bacteria has not been substantiated. Moreover I argued that the other ingredients could in fact be harmful -- especially the surfactants.

Finally I argued that organic turf management is unusual, and it is, Connecticut may recommend it but it is not the norm. What I claimed is that it would cost more money and someone needed to pay for it.

It is true that I believe the anti-monsanto folks sometimes over play their hand. Everything is toxic at some dosage, so calling somethin a toxin is not necessarily meaningful. I do think that people were making a big deal over something that is common, but I suggested a way to solve it. That's what I'd like to see.

The spraying has happened, it's done. Now it's time to figure out a way to better manage the fields and I think GFN could do that by helping to raise money to pay for it.

Posted by on 9.10.13 at 17:04

Grow Food Northampton has shone a spotlight on the issue of pesticide use in Northampton, especially adjacent to organic food production, awakening dormant public concern. Encouragingly, the Mayor and heads of the Public Works and Recreation Department are now studying how to manage turf at the Florence Fields Recreation Area organically. Thanks to the pro bono expert consultation of Bernadette Giblin (founder of Safeground Organic Landcare) and Chip Osborne (owner of Osborne Organics), the City is learning how other communities like Marblehead and Newton, MA have made a cost-effective switch to maintaining healthy turf without the use of chemical amendments. That is an excellent first step.

In response to Caleb Rounds’ recent opinion piece urging Grow Food Northampton (GFN) to fund the effort to help the City of Northampton create organically managed turf on Florence Fields, GFN has, in fact, been investing considerable staff time and resources in this issue for the past year.

In Fall 2012, GFN initiated and organized an informational conference call between the turf experts at the UMass Extension Service, Grow Food Northampton, and the heads of the Northampton’s departments directly involved in the creation and future management of Florence Fields (Planning, Recreation and Public Works) to discuss minimizing chemical applications to this site. While recommending an “Integrated Pest Management” approach, the UMass turf experts readily acknowledged that their cost-benefit analysis does not factor in external considerations beyond the goal of healthy turf, such as storm water run-off, drift and run-off to abutting crops & gardens, economic loss to neighboring organic farmers, and the potential negative health effects of chemical applications on children.

Firmly believing that the true costs of conventional turf management at this site are greater than those typically considered, last winter GFN offered to cover the costs of enrolling a Northampton DPW staff person in an all-day training on organic turf management specifically designed for managers of municipal land. Unfortunately our offer was declined.

In early 2013, GFN also met with Northampton’s Energy and Sustainability Officer to discuss grant possibilities for managing Florence Fields as a model site for organic turf management. GFN enthusiastically offered to collaborate in grant seeking.

Finally, GFN has been working closely with Bernadette Giblin who has, over many years, offered pro bono her organic land care consulting services and training to the Department of Public Works, and garnered funding to transition portions of Look Park to organic management.

So, we would like to reassure Caleb and others that contributions to GFN are actively working to advance an organically managed Florence Fields. With a shoestring annual operational budget of $80,000, Grow Food Northampton welcomes additional support. We will continue to collaborate with the City of Northampton with the full recognition that management of municipal land is not merely our “pet issue”. It is a much broader public health, water quality and sustainability issue that, we believe, our community is ready to tackle.


Lilly Lombard, Executive Director of Grow Food Northampton

Posted by Elizabeth Lombard on 9.12.13 at 11:35

A question, Caleb...who is removing my two posts here? You? Someone else? And on on what grounds? Did I violate the Advocate blogs' terms of use?

Removing posts is not very supportive of either public discussion or the First Amendment, particularly for a newspaper... A reporter for another local paper covering the Roundup issue contacted me about the disapperance of my posts and has asked for a response from me. Before I respond to this reporter's inquiry, I want to make sure I give you and the Advocate an opportunity to explain to me who removed my posts and why.

Posted by lannit on 9.14.13 at 9:08


I did not remove your comment -- I do not know who did. I did respond to you. Sorry about that.


Posted by crounds on 9.17.13 at 11:06

OK, Caleb...I'll take you at your word and repost my original comment in response to your guest column:

I enjoy Caleb Rounds' weekly musings about his garden, but his guest column on Roundup was very disturbing, as was the failure of the Advocate's editors to vet it adequately. His column makes a number of assertions about Roundup and its effects that are inaccurate, misleading or both. I'll mention just three:

That Roundup or glyphosate doesn't affect humans because our metabolic pathway is different than plants. Guess what? Our gut bacteria (and that of livestock) have the same metabolic pathway as plants and thus Roundup exposures can create very harmful health effects as demonstrated by many studies. Birth defects in humans, especially farmworkers, have also been linked to Roundup.

That "managing athletic fields organically is unusual." Really? Connecticut state government, in an effort to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides on lawns and playing fields, actually promotes moving from conventional to organic turf management. See the following website:

That "Roundup breaks down in most soil quickly, and has not been shown to have toxic effects on animals." Depending on soil types, Roundup residues can accumulate in soils to the point of depleting them and lowering crop yields. Roundup residues currently contaminate our rivers and ground water, and can even be found in the urine and blood of urban dwellers. Roundup is very toxic to invertebrates, and livestock given feed with Roundup residues can suffer a number of diseases, particularly regarding their digestive and reproductive systems.

In short, Caleb Rounds makes Roundup sound like a benign herbicide when many studies show that it clearly is not. For readers of the Advocate who want to learn more about Roundup and its negative impacts on our health, livestock and the environment, I'd suggest the following web sites:

Posted by lannit on 9.18.13 at 14:07

This a re-creation of a second post of mine that was deleted previously:

The passage of state laws in Massachusetts and many other states prohibiting or strictly limiting pesticide and herbicide use on school grounds has accelerated the adoption of organic management of athletic fields and other school grounds over the past decade. Along similar lines, a growing number of Massachusetts towns and cities like Marblehead and Wellesley have both moved toward organic management of all public lands in addition to athletic fields. A few quick google searches reveal many other towns and cities, colleges and universities, and other institutions that both practice and promote organic management of lawns and athletic fields. Regional examples include:

Practices at Tufts since 2004:

The towns of Wellesley:‎ and

Furthermore, the following report that shows how organic approaches to management of athletic fields can actually cost less on an average annual basis than conventional approaches using chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers:

Posted by lannit on 9.18.13 at 15:28



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