In my post Monday, I wrote about eliminating invasive shrubs and the use of Roundup as an essential tool. I’m sure that raised some eyebrows among you given the bad press Roundup has received in recent years and the emotion it elicits. So, I thought I would spend a little time and share my thoughts about Roundup.

The History of Roundup

The use of Roundup has generated a great deal of attention in recent years. The chemical was originally created by Monsanto to control weeds. As part of an ingenious product development effort, Monsanto concurrently developed genetically modified crops, particularly soybeans and corn, that could resist Roundup and not get killed by it. Prior to Roundup and Roundup ready crops, farmers had to till their fields in between the rows of crops to control weeds. This was time consuming and expensive. With the codevelopment of Roundup and Roundup resistant crops, farmers could spray their fields with Roundup thus reducing time, effort, and cost controlling weeds (and making Monsanto tons of money). Today, a majority of soybeans, corn, and other row crops are genetically modified.

Side Effects of Roundup

While a boon to farmers initially, there have been side effects. Unintended or not I cannot say and will leave that evaluation up to you. First, weeds have become Roundup resistant thus reducing the effectiveness of Roundup. Second, there have been numerous studies showing that trace amounts of Roundup have made it into the food chain with suspected negative health effects.

Third, Milkweeds, a persistent and troublesome “weed” for farmers, have been dramatically reduced. Between 1999 and 2010, 42% of Milkweeds have been eliminated in the Midwest overall and 90% of it has been eliminated from field margins in Iowa. Here’s the problem with this: Milkweed species are the only plants capable of supporting Monarchs along their migration path from Mexico to its summer grounds in the Midwest, Northeast, and Southern Canada, and back. The loss of Milkweed has reduced Monarch populations from an estimated 1 billion 20 years ago to 60 million in 2013-2014. That’s a 94% reduction in Monarchs! That’s huge!

While there has been a lot of focus and attention on Monarchs because they are such a charismatic species due to their beauty and amazing migration, this is happening to other species of insects as well whose host plants are also being wiped out by Roundup.

Why Roundup is Such an Effective Restoration Tool

Invasive species do not play by the rules in the ecosystems they invade. Being from other continents, they lack the predators (insects, fungi, bacteria) in their home range that keep them in check. As a result they spread quickly and can overtake natural areas by outcompeting native vegetation that is still subject to its predators. Thus, invasive species are able to monopolize water, space, light, and nutrients native plants need and this has had devastating effects on many of our ecosystems.

Roundup, and other herbicides using glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup), enable people who restore natural communities to have a tool to fight the battle. As I said in my Monday post, when killing invasive shrubs by cutting, they will just grow back if Roundup is not applied to the cambium layer. You could dig up the invasive shrubs or cut them back for many years to reduce root stores, but this is impractical.

Another use for Roundup includes being able to spray Garlic Mustard, an herbaceous invasive, during the winter months when temperatures are above 40 degrees and when native vegetation is still dormant and unaffected by Roundup. A reasonable alternative is to hand pick Garlic Mustard in the spring.

Another way I have used glyphosate based herbicides is to kill invasive grasses and flowers such as Reed Canary Grass and Purple Loosestrife that is co-mingled with native vegetation along a shoreline. I use the hand wick approach to selectively swipe invasive species while protecting native species. I know of no other way to do this kind of work in wetlands.

Villain or Useful Tool?

Here is my take on the Roundup controversy. First, I don’t necessarily believe the claims of Monsanto or the EPA that state that Roundup is safe. It is still a chemical and I always use proper precautions when using it such as wearing a long sleeved shirt, nitrile gloves, and other personal protective equipment as required by the particular application, regardless of how hot it might be. If you use it, you should always read the label and understand that the safety measures are minimums.

Regarding all the the studies on the negative effects of Roundup, understand that most of these are agricultural studies that follow repeated applications of Roundup, year after year. In these applications, large quantities of Roundup are sprayed. It wouldn’t be surprising if traces are found in the soil and are taken up into our food crops.

When we use Roundup for restoration activities, we are using Roundup very few times and selectively in small areas. I recently cleared 3 acres of Autumn Olive and probably used less than a quart of Roundup. That’s not very much.

In the end, it’s up to you to form your opinions. In my opinion, Roundup is one of the most benign chemicals used in landscaping and restoration today. It binds to the soil and thus does not wash away into surface or ground water supplies and degrades within a few days. Of course, I try to use as little as possible. The bottom line for me is it is an acceptable tradeoff to use a little Roundup for the positive outcomes it facilitates through the elimination of invasive species and the support for healthy native plants and the ecosystems of which they are a part.

Chime in. Post your comments and thoughts.