Whether you’ve heard of the chemical glyphosate or not, you’ve almost definitely heard of the brand name it’s most commonly associated with: Monsanto. Glyphosate, the main active ingredient in Monsanto’s GM Roundup line (and many other agricultural products), kills plants by stopping them from creating proteins responsible for growth.
Monsanto is no stranger to controversy; ever since the early 2000s, when the agribusiness giant was fined for falsely advertising their products as non-toxic, they’ve been at the hub of an ever-expanding set of issues surrounding the safety of their glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs). And just in this past year or so, the swirl of controversy has intensified. To date, over 2 million people have signed this Avaaz petition which was created last year after a 2015 WHO announcement that GBHs may have carcinogenic properties.
Meanwhile, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) and European Food Safety Authority recently confirmed that glyphosate “did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction.” The same document also states that the substance “causes serious eye damage” and is “toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects;” points originally acknowledged by the EU some 15 years ago.
When asked what his foremost health/environmental concern is about glyphosate, Bruce Lanphear, professor of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University and co-author of this commentary in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health (2017), responded:
My foremost concern is that, despite the placations of Monsanto and the EPA, glyphosate has not been shown to be safe. When Monsanto or EPA claim it is safe, it often means the studies necessary to prove it is toxic haven’t been done yet. Do you remember past attempts to placate us about other toxic chemicals, like asbestos, lead, benzene, mercury, PCBs, and so on? Those all were considered “safe” until independent studies were done showing that they were toxic.
GBHs are the most popular forms of herbicides worldwide, and their use is only expected to increase. According to Newsweek, “Americans have applied 1.8 million tons of glyphosate since its introduction in 1974.” And there seems to be constantly conflicting opinions and “facts” about just how harmful it is. So how’s the average person supposed to come to their own conclusions given the level of political salience and biological complexities behind the use of glyphosate?
Here’s a (hopefully understandable) breakdown of some reasons why we should approach this chemical with caution, if not avoid it all together.
This product is specifically designed to kill any plant it touches, even trees. While users are instructed specifically to spray in contained areas, herbicides and pesticides can easily blow and leach into other areas. In general, degraded ecological biomass and a loss of biodiversity can be expected in areas exposed to widespread GBH spraying.
2. Known Toxin To Aquatic Species
To date, there have been several comprehensive, peer reviewed studies showing that the reproductive and developmental systems of various species of fish, frogs, and other aquatic organisms are disrupted by even low levels of GBH exposure.
Frogs are keystone species, which means that when they are threatened or go extinct, the rest of the surrounding ecosystem will follow. When aquatic systems become polluted, this can have far reaching effects on other aquatic systems and affect our drinking water.
3. Compound And Cumulative Effects Remain Unknown, But Could Be Severe
Glyphosate on its own is not considered to be harmful … at least, by some accounts.
But what many policy-makers are failing to incorporate into safety claims are longer term and cumulative effects of these chemicals on both ecosystems and human health.
Unpredictable environmental factors can change the properties of a given compound or mixture, thus potentially increasing its toxicity. For instance, increased pH levels caused by runoff and sediment level changes can change the properties and increase toxicity of GBHs.
As Lanphear points out:
Monsanto argues glyphosate is safe, but the types of studies necessary to prove human safety or toxicity haven’t been done. We don’t know much about human exposure, for example, despite the fact that the use of glyphosate is escalating with the development of weed resistance. Moreover, the combination of glyphosate and other herbicides to try to get around weed resistance creates a new type of untested hazard: the potential toxicity of chemical mixtures.
The cumulative, synergistic and indirect effects of the widespread spraying of herbicides are unpredictable. Add to this the fact that exposure rates aren’t typically incorporated into safety regulation policies, and you’ve got yourself a whole lot of unanswered questions.
4. Inert Ingredients Can Be Toxic
A big part of the ongoing debate surrounding glyphosates is that many GBHs are comprised of a list of so-called “inert” ingredients, extra substances are added to herbicide formulations (such as solvents and preservatives) to make them more effective. But manufacturers are not legally required to reveal details about the herbicide formulations as they are considered trade secrets.
Many safety regulations have been developed based on experiments involving just glyphosate, which some policy makers claim is harmless. But scientists know that it is the combination of glyphosate with these other ingredients that creates the potential for these herbicides to be highly toxic.
One specific inert ingredient, polyethoxylated tallowamine, or POEA, was more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than the herbicide itself – a finding the researchers call ‘astonishing.’
It is inaccurate for agricultural companies and policy-makers to conclude that GBHs are safe based on studies designed to assess glyphosate alone; nonetheless, this keeps happening.
5. Banned Or Restricted In Several Countries
Glyphosate has already been banned in Malta, the Netherlands, Argentina, and Bermuda, primarily due to health concerns linked to widespread spraying. In Sri Lanka, glyphosate use was suspended due to a specific connection with an increase in kidney disease in agricultural workers. Sales were also suspended in Columbia in 2015 after the WHO announcement about it being a possible carcinogen. That suspension has since been lifted on the grounds that the chemical must be used manually rather than being sprayed aerially.
6. Glyphosate Causes Kidney, Liver, And Eye Damage
Glyphosate has been linked to an unusually high number of incidences of kidney disease in agricultural workers in Sri Lanka, which led to its subsequent ban. Several studies on rats and other animals indicate the propensity for such herbicides to lead to various types of kidney and liver damage, even in doses considered to be safe. And it has been established that people exposed to GBHs on a regular basis are at higher risk of eye damage.
7. Messes With Hormone Production
There are many indications that GBHs have the capacity to disrupt the balance of male and female hormones, as well as disrupt reproductive systems in various ways. Several studies have now shown the capacity for glyphosate and/or GBHs to upset the reproductive system. A 2017 study notes the presence of “severe degenerative testicular architectural lesions” in rats exposed to Roundup.
8. Current Safety Standards Are Based On Outdated Evidence
Most of the safety regulations and standards developed in reference to the use of glyphosate are based on outdated studies. As the paper co-authored by Lanphear states:
In the U.S., EPA’s 1993 registration review of GBHs, six for example, 73 percent of the almost 300 citations were published [before] 1985; importantly, only 11 were peer reviewed … It is incongruous that safety assessments of the most widely used herbicide on the planet rely largely on fewer than 300 unpublished, non-peer-reviewed studies while excluding the vast, modern literature on glyphosate effects.
9. Glyphosate May Be Carcinogenic
In a 2015 public announcement, the World Health Organization (WHO) did link glyphosate to cancer. A year later, “the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and World Health Organization found that the chemical was ‘unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.’”
But several studies exist that link glyphosate to tumor growth in rodents, and there’s even an indication that it could induce breast cancer. Many scientists have noted a strong association between GBHs and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
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10. Inconsistent Reporting
The different regulatory agencies are often looking at different factors. Here’s an example of how:
IARC evaluates the hazard of a chemical — in this case, whether it could cause cancer. It does not ask how likely that is to happen, or in how many people. Regulatory agencies like EFSA also evaluate the risk of harm, depending on factors such as the toxicity and the way people are exposed to a chemical. Given the trace amounts of glyphosate that people typically ingest, EPA and other regulators have concluded that glyphosate is not likely to cause cancer or other harm.
It seems as though different regulatory bodies are busy passing the buck, and, especially in the U.S., there are no clear guideline as to where the burden of proof should lie.
11. Fetal Health And Development
Tests on a variety of species have come up positive for birth defects, low birth rates, and early births after fetal exposure to glyphosate-based products. One Danish study linked an array of serious birth defects in a group of baby piglets to glyphosate exposure.
12. May Harm Our Brains And Guts
Repeated exposure to GBHs may affect our nerve cells and brain functioning. There are links between glyphosate and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Autism, and ADHD. Glyphosate has also been linked to colitis and celiac disease.
13. Glyphosate Use Expected To Increase
Dominant corporations like Monsanto like to push the continued production of large-scale GM foods and associated pesticides as a solution to worldwide hunger, but in fact could not be further from the truth. As Lanphear explains:
Hunger persists because of resource maldistribution. Conventional agricultural practices dominate because we have failed to support organic practices; we let lobbying practices of Big Ag dictate policies. There may be some instance where we need herbicides, but they should be used sparingly for emergency or when other options don’t exist; resistance is inevitable. This is no different [from] what Rachel Carson wrote over 50 years ago in Silent Spring.
Because Big Ag is so highly dependent on these herbicides, a further increase in use, and therefore exposure to all types of organisms, including humans, is expected. This is also expected because of increasing levels of herbicide-resistant strains of weeds.
What You Can Do About Glyphosate
There’s a lot of conflicting information where glyphosate is concerned. Scientists have weighed in on the suspected dangers of this substance, and we should listen. But what are we, as consumers, to do? Here are a few ideas:
- Choose organic and local whenever possible
- Visit local farmer’s markets, and get to know your source
- Sign the Avaaz Petition
- Promote the use of alternative/natural and small-scale farming practices whenever possible
Lanphear agrees supporting and promoting alternative agriculture is a sound solution:
Alternative farming practices that don’t rely on GMO or herbicides or synthetic fertilizers are viable. For too long, we blindly accepted the claim that pesticides and GMOs are necessary to ‘feed the world.’ But this claim is not true.
People should remain skeptical about claims of Big Ag. Whenever possible, people should choose organic, un-packaged foods and sustainable foods, join a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), or grow their own foods.
Renée Picard is a freelance writer and editor. She prefers real conversation over small talk, red over pink, ocean over mountains. She leads life with a soft-but-fierce heart. For her, writing has always been an instinct, a craft, a heart-thing. For more, visit her Facebook page, her website, and follow her on Twitter.
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