Campus herbicide use works against UC’s sustainable mission

Illustration of person spraying field with herbicides
Nishali Naik/Staff

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We, students within the UC system, are writing to express our support for the temporary glyphosate suspension. This suspension encourages continued reflection on the impacts of our reliance on synthetic herbicides and emboldens the UC system to assert responsible behavior in campus management without the use of synthetic herbicides.

The current national dialogue surrounding glyphosate is heated. There are recent court settlements allegedly linking the herbicide to cancer, more than 19,000 pending lawsuits against Monsanto’s Roundup and an inconclusive scientific consensus on glyphosate’s toxicity for occupational use. We are proud to be a part of an institution that has recognized this complex issue and has chosen to take a step back to formulate a thoughtful, informed plan to proceed.

As students, our concern stems from the lack of scientific evidence that discusses the broader implications of using an herbicide such as glyphosate. Glyphosate may have been registered for more than 40 years in the U.S., but other chemicals, such as dioxin and DDT, had also been justified for many years. Thus, our country’s regulations seem less concerned with the cost of human lives and ecological harm. Nevertheless, the UC system’s investigation into glyphosate illustrates its determination to be a leader in scientific inquiry.

In addition to its scientific leadership, the UC system also serves as a moral leader, stretching back to the Free Speech Movement. We can’t hope that this chemical isn’t carcinogenic because of a lack of conclusive evidence on the severity of glyphosate’s toxicity. We shouldn’t pit the quality of human life against a chemical that, under the exemptions of the temporary suspension, is utilized most often to maintain a certain lawn aesthetic. We can’t continue to spray this broad-spectrum herbicide on highly populated student areas on campus at the detriment of our students’ health. What message does it send for a world-class education system, such as the UC system, to be spraying a harmful chemical?

As moral leaders, the UC system should advocate for the discontinuation of glyphosate and similar chemicals, regardless of whether the glyphosate debate is resolved or until another lawsuit is won. There is no need to jeopardize the safety of our campuses when there are models and systems of herbicide reduction and elimination already in place that are proven to be safe and effective. Instead, like hundreds of U.S. cities and several proactive campuses, such as Harvard University, the University of Colorado Boulder, Willamette University and Pepperdine University, we should prioritize alternative weed management practices.

In fact, this cultural shift has already begun on several of the UC campuses. UC Berkeley has halted herbicide use on four of its largest green spaces through a collaboration between students and grounds staff. It is also working to implement a natural turf management plan for the campus that eliminates the input of synthetic and chemical inputs.

This change is possible. It requires a bold culture shift — one that people are willing to make, as shown by the initiatives taken by these campuses and the support from the thousands of students, faculty and local community members who have stood in solidarity with the Herbicide Free Campus campaign.

Banning glyphosate and herbicides requires more than determining the toxicity of a chemical. There needs to be a cultural shift regarding our use and dependence on herbicides. The universities and campuses that constitute the UC system foster an environment of education, creative growth and innovation for the future. We, as students and the future of this country, using the skills, ideas and values learned on the UC campuses, are advocating for a safer, healthier, more sustainable future by transitioning away from the use of herbicides.

Bridget Gustafson is a senior studying molecular environmental biology. Annapurna Holtzapple is a senior studying society and environment. Star Beltman is a junior studying conservation and resource studies. Morgan Lamberti is a junior studying molecular and cell biology.