Glyphosate -- Safe Pesticide or Dangerous Chemical?

Glyphosate -- Safe Pesticide or Dangerous Chemical?

Glyphosate, best known as the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup brand of herbicide, is an important application for amines and has long been a target of environmental concern.  While most regulatory groups worldwide have found the chemical to be safe, activists have continued to pressure the EPA as well as regulators in Europe and other areas to restrict the chemical or even ban it outright. 

These concerns were reinforced last year when the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a report claiming glyphosate is a likely carcinogen in humans.  However, regulators in Europe and the US remain unconvinced.  Both the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the US EPA concluded in 2016 that glyphosate is probably safe.  Last week, the EPA convened a Scientific Advisory Panel to comment on the Issue Paper it published in September.  According to media reports, the scientists gathered generally supported the EPA’s stance, although there was less than a complete consensus.

Most Used Pesticide Globally

Glyphosate is the world’s most used pesticide and arguably the most important herbicidal chemical ever invented.  It is used heavily in the US, Brazil, and Argentina, and to a lesser extent in Canada, India, and China, among other countries worldwide.  Although China is a major glyphosate producer, the domestic market is relatively small. 

By planting genetically modified crops that are resistant to the effects of glyphosate, farmers can spray the pesticide in the critical post emergence period, killing weeds while leaving crops unharmed.  Glyphosate and Roundup Ready crops -- such as soybeans, cotton, and corn -- have been key contributors to agricultural productivity in the US, improving yields and reducing reliance on more dangerous pesticides. 

The Role of Amines

Manufacturing glyphosate is one of the most significant uses for amines worldwide.  Diethanolamine (DEA) is a key raw material in one important route to glyphosate synthesis.  Several other amines -- such as isopropylamine and some fatty amines -- are also used in some types of Roundup and other formulated glyphosate products.  The amines that end up in these pesticides are supplied by a combination of captive production and purchase on the merchant market.  As a result, any heavy restrictions on glyphosate use could have a serious impact on the global market for amines.

Looking Forward

While concern about glyphosate is likely to persist, it doesn’t seem likely that it will be banned in the US any time soon.  In fact, according to Freedonia Group analyst Emily Park, “glyphosate volumes will continue to rise in the US, although more slowly than they have over the past decade.”  The outlook is less certain in Europe.  Despite the EFSA’s findings, EU member countries are moving to restrict glyphosate use, and the chemical will again be reviewed in 2018.  However, there may be stronger growth opportunities in China and other emerging markets.  As the domestic markets in these countries expand, this could help make up for falling demand in Europe.

Learn More

For more insight into the outlook for amines used in glyphosate and other applications, see Global Amines Market, by The Freedonia Group.  For information on glyphosate and other pesticides, refer to the new report Agricultural Pesticides Market in the US.  These comprehensive studies provide:

  • Historical demand data and forecasts
  • Market environment factors
  • Industry structure
  • Company market share

About the author

Jason Carnovale is an analyst at The Freedonia Group covering US and global chemicals and energy topics.

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