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The Bristol Cable

A toxic chemical is being sprayed in Bristol despite pledges, but progress is being made

Investigations

That circle of dead grass or shrivelled weeds surrounding a bench in a park is probably caused by a weed killer at the centre of a long-running controversy.

Developed initially to strip mineral deposits from pipes and boilers in commercial hot-water systems, glyphosate was repurposed as a weed-killing herbicide by Monsanto, the notorious corporate agricultural giant. It hit the headlines in 2015 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that sustained exposure is ‘probably carcinogenic’ to humans, in addition to other illnesses it is linked to. 

Though the chemical was within the same broad category as red meat and wood smoke, and Monsanto deployed a mighty lobbying effort to rubbish the report, the cancer connection ignited a wave of campaigns to ban it.

Now, years after efforts to ban the herbicide glyphosate in Bristol, and pledges by politicians to phase it out, the Cable can reveal that while progress is being made, the toxic chemical is still being used in significant quantities across the city. It is widely understood to have harmful effects on humans and the environment, including indiscriminate damage to plants, insects and vital pollinators, such as bees. 

“The council are trying, and there is of course a cost implication to non-pesticide alternatives, and we need to have an honest conversation”

Sara Venn, founder of Edible Bristol and anti-glyphosate campaigner

“It is a postcode lottery as to whether or not your family will be directly exposed to these chemicals” were the words of mayoral hopeful Marvin Rees in April 2016, a year after the WHO classification. Rees was commenting on a council-led trial underway in Cotham of using vinegar instead of glyphosate to effectively control weeds. 

Local campaigners criticised the trial as ‘destined to fail’ for excluding more effective alternatives like mechanical removal or thermal treatments, citing European cities that had all but ditched glyphosate as a result. A campaigner involved at the time said “quite frankly it was bullshit”.

Within a month, Rees was elected mayor, backed by a manifesto that vowed to “stop using harmful pesticides” and “eliminate the use of the most harmful substances and ensure proper safety for employees and contractors using pesticides” (herbicides are a type of pesticide).

But, in 2017, the council reported on the results of the vinegar trial. The report stated that while the vinegar was partially effective, a total move away from glyphosate could not be justified. It would cost significantly more, not be efficient and impact the council’s legal duty to maintain the city’s land and infrastructure.

Like weeds, glyphosate keeps cropping up. In 2018, amid a flurry of litigation, a court in San Francisco awarded damages of $289m to a school’s groundskeeper who claimed Monsanto’s popular Roundup glyphosate weed killer contributed to his terminal cancer, and that the company had failed to adequately warn of the risks of the product. Though the compensation was significantly reduced following a Monsanto appeal, the ruling and others that followed prompted a closer look at the chemical globally. In the UK, the trade union GMB, that represents workers who may use the product, called for a ban, while councils all over the country began talking about phasing out usage.

Going through the motions

Prompted by a growing local campaign and petition signed by thousands of residents in Bristol, in January 2019, all councillors and the mayor voted in favour of an anti-glyphosate council motion. The motion requested the mayor to conduct more extensive trials, report on the human and environmental effects of the chemical and to set up a task force to phase out glyphosate totally within three years; by January 2022. 

It would be fair to say that glyphosate might not be a top priority. But five years after the mayor’s election, over a year since the declaration of an ecological emergency and six months before the council’s target date for total phase out, hundreds of litres of glyphosate are being used in Bristol’s green spaces, parks, pavements and other land the council owns and manages. 

Data obtained by the Cable does show a major reduction in glyphosate-based supplies spending by the council, from a peak of £19,000 in 2017/18 to £9,000, in 2020/21. However, this does not account for the significant usage by the private contractors employed by the council to deliver the bulk of weed control. Information on this is not publicly available. 

When asked in July 2021 whether the actions agreed in the council motion were being delivered, the council declined to answer directly. A spokesperson said: “The 10 year One City Ecological Emergency Strategy, formed by organisations throughout the city including the council, has committed to targets to see pesticide use reduced by 50% by 2030.”

They added they aim to go further than the target, while trialling cost-effective and safer alternatives as part of a broader and ambitious plan to improve ecological health and biodiversity in the city, for example a recent announcement to scale back grass and verge cutting. 

However, Sara Venn, a horticulturist, founder of Edible Bristol and anti-glyphosate campaigner, told the Cable: “I was deeply disappointed that the ecological strategy had such a weak commitment to pesticide use.”

The council emphasises that glyphosate is officially considered safe. The carcinogenic effects are also disputed, especially with the relatively low levels of exposure experienced in parks, compared to agricultural settings for example. 

However, in July 2021 research by scientists at the University of Vienna cast doubt on this. The research found that almost all of the corporate-backed scientific studies that found glyphosate to be safe, and that informed official licensing decisions, did not meet basic standards of scientific rigour and lacked the types of tests most able to detect cancer risks. The EU is currently considering a renewal of a license amid furious lobbying and campaigning by interested parties.

Rees stated in 2016 that “cities such as Edinburgh, Brighton, Glastonbury, Hamburg, Rennes, and Livorno have taken the initiative based on this knowledge [of environmental and health impacts] to ban the use of glyphosate in public spaces”. Rees asked, “Why haven’t we?”

In the absence of official action in Bristol, some residents and organisations have taken it upon themselves. Many have made ‘no spray’ pledges, and the community around the estate in High Kingsdown have come to an agreement with the council to take care of the weeds themselves through sustainable means. 

Venn concluded by saying, “The council are trying, and there is of course a cost implication to non-pesticide alternatives, and we need to have an honest conversation. The reality is without glyphosate we will have weedier streets, and some more pests.” 

“But you can also call them wild plants and flowers and insects and pollinators. Because a misplaced obsession with ‘tidy’ will not save the world.” 

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  • James B says:

    Strange that emphasis is put on ‘progress is being made’ when it’s not clear that any progress at all is being made at all since the Council won’t answer your questions and there isn’t data to show whether glyphosate usage is being reduced.

    Why does the Cable keep weirdly pulling its punches like this when it comes to reporting on Bristol Council?

    • Adam Cantwell-Corn says:

      Hi James. Thanks for your comment. I am the author of the piece. The reason that I have stated that progress is being made is that the council have at least committed to some targets and FOI data shows that council direct purchase of glyphosate has halved in recent years.
      Best,
      Adam

  • Charles Qualmann says:

    More on this please! Public health is, in my opinion, the most important thing one can report one, and one of the major reasons we organise into societies!

  • Amy says:

    Why do we expect the council to keep weeds down in our streets? It wouldn’t take much for people who didn’t want them outside their front doors to pull them out by hand.

  • John Calver says:

    I agree more debate is needed, after many years looking at this I haven’t found a safe alternative ( when the product is wet) . Leaving weeds to grow is not the answer , it creates a hazardous environment on paths . “ Thermal treatment “ actually means burning with gas burners . Hardly the answer in today’s world , especially as it must be done regularly.
    It’s no good just moaning about it . What is the viable alternative to Glyphosate?

  • Alison Griffies says:

    Glyphosphate is still used in agriculture to dry crops before harvest. Potentially a far more serious issue than”weed” control. See this petition https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/ban-weed-killer-glyphosate-sprayed-on-wheat-just-before-it-is-harvested?source=rawlink&utm_medium=socialshare&utm_source=rawlink&share=1355d5a7-9d4e-4dab-b94d-0e7343407197

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