Ban glyphosate for the health of our cities

Glyphosate is used as a weedkiller in many urban spaces but evidence suggests it is having a harmful effect on the workers that spray it and the already depleted nature that exists in our cities. Green London Assembly Member Caroline Russell, who had a motion passed in the London Assembly to cease the application of glyphosate on city land, explains how banning the powerful herbicide in the UK can improve the health of our cities.

Caroline Russell
Caroline Russell
Caroline Russell

More and more Londoners, like other Britons and indeed people around the world, are showing their concern about the use of the herbicide glyphosate, particularly in public spaces like streets, parks and estates.  

Its use is banned or restricted in a number of cities and provinces across Europe, and, most recently, in Austria. 

The concerns are twofold. 

The World Health Organisation has stated glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”, while high-profile cases brought by workers in the US have sparked international debate on the harmful effects of glyphosate exposure on workers who carry out spraying as part of their weed-control work. 

Then, in our dreadfully nature-depleted nation, there’s the indiscriminate nature of the chemical. Glyphosate kills any plant that it comes in contact with (except, often, some of the most difficult weeds, which are developing resistance). 

What I’m doing about it  

Last week I put a motion to the London Assembly to cease the spraying of glyphosate on Greater London Authority (GLA) land and the Transport for London (TfL) estate. The motion was unanimously agreed, which means that the Mayor of London must respond to the Assembly’s call to cease spraying glyphosate on land he controls and call upon the London boroughs to cease its use in their council operations. He has already included a line in the draft London Plan committing to reducing the use of pesticides, so I’m hopeful he will respond constructively. 

Following concern from residents about the use of glyphosate around their homes, I took a motion to Islington Council three years ago, calling for a ban on glyphosate on streets and estates in the borough. Many Labour councillors challenged the health concerns and spoke up in favour of using the herbicide. All 47 of them voted against my motion. 

The fact that last week my Assembly motion was agreed unanimously by all parties shows how far mainstream opinion has been shifted by community advocacy and the determined work of organisations like the Pesticide Action Network

What we’re seeing across the UK  

Councils around the UK are taking action to regulate the control of glyphosate weed killers in public spaces that will mean less risk to our environment and to the workers who spray them.  

Typically, councils that are considering bans have a number of active Green councillors. Bristol has trialled vinegar as an alternative with limited success, but strongly recognises the risks of using glyphosate and is currently piloting other alternatives. 

Parks in North Somerset have banned glyphosate. Lewes, Glastonbury and Wadebridge have also stopped the use of glyphosate weed killers in public spaces and are trialling other options.   

Green Party councillor Jonathan Essex in Surrey is hoping to get other council members to back a motion boycotting toxic weed killers this week. 

What we need to see happen in London 

Now we have a real opportunity to build on the work that is being done across the country and start to find much needed alternatives in London. 

The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is trialling the use of hot foam instead, which means no more toxic chemicals in the soil. 

Hackney and Croydon are exploring safer alternatives and Hackney has deleted a quarter of the locations where they used to spray and are looking to reduce the list further.  

My motion called on the Mayor to sort out TfL trackside locations and work with the boroughs on removing glyphosate and other harmful herbicides.

It also provided a get-out-of-jail-free card for councils worried about the duty to eradicate invasive species such as Japanese knotweed, by providing a rider that glyphosate may be used until an acceptable non-chemical alternative becomes available. But it also specified that use of glyphosate should be limited to stem injection rather than spraying as this method poses less risk to health than spraying. 

The Mayor needs to show the way with best practice on GLA land and the TfL estate. And we need other councils to be brave and recognise that business as usual won’t do.

We need to make our cities far more friendly to pollinators and other wildlife, to be richer in vegetation, particularly native flowers and plants, something that excellent evidence demonstrates is good for human health.

Yes, that might make them look a little less like some people’s idea of “tidy”. But all of us will be healthier and richer.