I’ve gotten involved in quite a few glyphosate debates recently, in very different contexts (online, with colleagues, regulators, industry representatives, friends, etc.). It’s certainly an interesting and relevant subject. But I wonder why the discussions derail so often. Some thoughts below.
A debate can of course be held just pro forma, in order to represent an opinion, a particular organization or a special interest. It makes a huge difference on whether one participates in e.g. a panel discussion for the sake of an audience, or in a real debate. For the sake of this post, I’m assuming the latter.
First of all: everybody should read Bret Stephen’s brilliant text on the dying art of disagreement. In essence: you don’t have to agree – but you have to respect your opponent. Who should perhaps be better perceived as a discussion partner anyway. I started to end discussions if people enjoy mudslinging or dropping pseudo-intellectual snidy remarks more than a fact-oriented debate. And I’ll continue to do so. I left Kindergarten already quite a while ago.
Bret makes one crucial point: in order to be able to disagree, one needs to actually understand the other side’s argument. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. People often seem to follow their knee-jerk reflex. If you’re not with me, you’re against me. And therefore stupid / an incompetent “activist” / a paid industry shill (take your pick).
Another interesting strategy: broad, sweeping statements, presented with utter conviction but without any factual backing. And then leaving it to your opponent to do the heavy lifting and disprove it. Which is either simple intellectual laziness, or using the bullshit asymmetry principle in order to wear down an opponent.
Don’t get me wrong, honest questions and statements that are put forward for discussion are obviously core elements of any debate. But, again, both imply the willingness to take your opponent serious and to examine (perhaps even change) your own opinion.
Discussions about Glyphosate seem especially challenging. Not only because people get emotionally invested, but also because of the complexity of the issue. I’ve seen people intensely discussing, without realizing that they talk past each other. Completely. Like two players trying to win a tennis-match by hitting balls from the ends of two separate tennis courts (thanks to Tim Minchin for the metaphor).
Issues include at least (without any guarantee for completeness):
- The toxicity (or lack thereof) of glyphosate, as a pure chemical, to humans. This especially relates to the question whether glyphosate residues found in food items are putting consumers at risk.
- The toxicity (or lack thereof) of glyphosate, as a pure chemical, to the environment. This relates to the question whether the glyphosate residues found in soil and water might have an impact on soil fertility and on non-target organisms at the edge-of-field (herbs, other plants, microbes, animals, etc).
- The toxicity (or lack thereof) of glyphosate-containing fully formulated herbicidal products to humans. RoundUp might be the globally most prominent example of such a product, but there are dozens of others. This issue relates to the question whether farmers, professional spray-operators, bystanders and non-professional users are put at risk while the product is applied (sprayed).
- The toxicity of glyphosate-containing fully formulated herbicidal products to the environment. (Listed only for the sake of completeness. This issue does not play a role in the real world, as the product de-formulates quickly, i.e. it is disentangled into its chemical components.)
- The toxicity (or lack thereof) of any other ingredient included in the fully formulated product to humans and the environment. POEA (polyethoxylated tallow amine) might be the most heavily debated of these ingredients, but, again, there are dozens more.
- The role of glyphosate-containing products as enablers of what we often call “conventional” farming. A discussion of this issue cannot consider glyphosate alone. This type of agriculture uses a whole collection of agrochemicals, including herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, growth regulators, fertilizers, etc.
- The role of glyphosate-containing products as enablers of growing GMO (RoundUp-ready) crops.
- Glyphosate as a litmus test on whether our chemical management system works, or not.
An additional layer of complexity comes from the fact, that herbicidal use is highly different between countries and crops. POEA, for example, is not allowed in any of the glyphosate-containing products on the Swedish market.
Each topics warrants attention. But we need to make damned sure that we are not wildly hopping between the different issues during a debate. Switching issues seems to become especially tempting when arguments are running out. Or, of course, one could go back to the good, old ad hominem attacks.
Again: read Bret Stephen’s essay.
Which I’ll do now, again. And then I need a mirror… 😉