The local authority official from Ballaghaderreen wrote to the Department of Agriculture to advise that regional councillors had voted to call for a ban on the use of a controversial chemical, but what he got back was a lecture on semantics.
Denis Kelly, acting director of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, fell foul of the department’s linguistic police by using the term ‘weedkiller’ in his letter.
“Your note refers to the term ‘weed killer’ which is not an accurate or indeed a helpful descriptor of the type of PPP [plant protection product],” came the reply.
“In fact the term only invokes an immediate negative and emotive response. Consequently, we refer to such products as “desiccants” and/or “herbicides” which merely mean that they are used to eradicate or destroy unwanted vegetation.”
So that was Mr Kelly put in his place. Whatever about the ban on the use of the chemical, he was banned from calling it a weedkiller.
The plant protection product, desiccant, herbicide or, to be mischievous, weedkiller, in question was glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup, one of the most familiar chemical sprays you’ll see in your local garden centre and one of the most commonly used by farmers around the world.
What this brief exchange of letters reveals is the level of sensitivity around it. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a cancer-causing evil or the greatest, and safest, biochemical breakthrough since penicillin.
And it’s not just the usual suspects lining up on either side of the argument — organic growers versus traditional farmers, environmentalists versus big business. Two giants of public health are also at odds over it.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is one arm of the World Health Organisation, following a review of various studies, published findings in March 2015 that classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”.