UC system suspends glyphosate herbicide use in light of student campaign

Mackenzie Feldman/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley alumna and former Cal beach volleyball player Mackenzie Feldman and her former teammate and campus senior Bridget Gustafson spoke out against the use of glyphosate-based herbicides on campus in fall 2017. Almost two years later, on May 14, UC President Janet Napolitano issued a temporary suspension, with several exceptions, on the use of glyphosate-based herbicides at all UC locations because of health concerns and ecological hazards.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, website, glyphosate is a widely used herbicide that controls weeds and grasses. Though the EPA fact sheet classifies glyphosate as having “low oral and dermal acute toxicity” and places it in Toxicity Category III — the second-lowest toxicity level — according to Feldman, lawsuits against Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer product indicate that the product has harmful health effects, including cancer.

A society and environment major with a minor in food systems, Feldman was first alerted to the possible harmful effects of glyphosate at her home in Hawaii, where she said it was used as part of the prevalent industrial agriculture.

“It goes into the groundwater; it’s now found in the rain and in women’s breast milk. It’s everywhere,” Feldman said.

Health risks, in addition to ecological hazards and potential “legal and reputational risks” associated with glyphosate, were cited as reasons for the UC-wide suspension in Napolitano’s May 14 memo, which said the suspension will go into effect June 1.

According to the memo, the university is considering longer-term approaches to the use of the herbicide and other pesticides, and this suspension may be changed or terminated after “expert review.”

“UC staff applying these herbicides shall either possess a valid license or certificate (applicable to the operation in question) from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation or receive appropriate training and/or direct supervision by a person thus licensed or certified,” the memo said.

The memo went on to include that UC staff members who apply the herbicides will have to follow all applicable protection recommendations from the herbicide manufacturer, the UC location and the health and safety department.

According to the memo, the exceptions to the suspension include agricultural operations, fuel-load management programs to reduce wildfire risk, native habitat preservation or restoration activities, and research that requires glyphosate-based herbicides.

“We are encouraged that the UC President and Regents have made the decision to stop using glyphosate on UC campuses, but there is no need to wait for more research to make the ban permanent,” Feldman said in a press release from Food & Water Watch.

Feldman’s journey began in 2017, when she and Gustafson approached Casey Cox, the athletics fields and turf supervisor, about the use of herbicide at the beach volleyball facility at Clark Kerr Campus. According to Cox, after gaining an understanding of their concerns, the decision was made to permanently discontinue using it at the beach volleyball facility.

Head beach volleyball coach Meagan Owusu said she fully supported the girls’ decision to go to the administration about the issue. Owusu said part of the issue in stopping glyphosate use was that there were not enough staff members to pull out the weeds manually.

“So then Bridget and Mackenzie came back to me and reported how the meeting went, and they said they would take full responsibility and have the team go out and pull weeds on their spare time,” Owusu said. “I supported it, but they took full responsibility and full ownership of the execution.”

Feldman is now continuing her work to stop the use of herbicides through her leadership with the Herbicide-Free UC campaign. According to Feldman, her goal is to expand this project to every college in the nation.

Although it was not her plan to expand the campaign after graduation, Feldman said she realized it was necessary.

“It’s not just about the bees and the environment. It’s about the people who are most exposed. The issue is very connected and has a lot to do with environmental justice,” Feldman said.

Sabrina Dong is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Sabrina_Dong_.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Mackenzie Feldman said, “The issue is very connected and has a lot to do with environmental practice.” In fact, she said “The issue is very connected and has a lot to do with environmental justice.”