A herbicide and the active ingredient in most weed-killers (including Monsanto’s Roundup), glyphosate is used in vast quantities on both a commercial and domestic basis all over the world. It is used mainly in agriculture, but also on private land, gardens, and to clear weeds on an industrial scale.
It works by blocking a main enzyme pathway in plants and stopping growth, by disrupting their ability to make protein. Glyphosate is non-selective though, so it kills whatever it is sprayed onto. Most farmers use it before spring, to clear weeds before the crops’ growing season, but it has increasingly been used pre-harvest, to dry the drops out and make harvesting quicker and therefore cheaper.
Over the past few decades, the amount of glyphosate being used all over the world has increased rapidly. In the US alone, it is estimated that an extra 527 million pounds of the herbicide was used between 1996 and 2011, largely because of an increase in GM crops. These crops are designed to withstand exposure to glyphosate, which kills all other plant matter – the advantages of this being reduced costs, as farmers can just cover a crop completely, without damaging it. Or at least, that was the idea. In practice, weeds have adapted to resist glyphosate in many places, causing problems for farmers and incurring huge costs.
Why the concern?
Various studies have linked glyphosate exposure to a number of problems, finding that it acts as a hormone-disruptor and can cause birth defects and cancerous tumors. In 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO), conducted a wide-ranging analysis of a number of independent, peer-reviewed studies on glyphosate and its links to cancer. Having reviewed the evidence, they came to the conclusion that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”.
In recent years, glyphosate has become much more likely to end up in our food and water. Trace amounts of glyphosate are often found in topsoil, human urine, food and water, in amounts well above what is considered safe. A report by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, found that 30% of the foods they analyzed contained traces of glyphosate, and 4% of grain products contained more than the current recommended safe amount. Researchers from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that human exposure to glyphosate has increased approximately 500 percent since 1994. Ben & Jerrys are the latest company to react to consumer concern over the use of glyphosate, by introducing an organic “glyphosate-free” line of ice cream last year.
Even if the link between glyphosate and cancer isn’t confirmed, there is more than enough evidence of the damage it does to our environment and ecosystems to warrant serious questions about its use.
Glysophate around the world
Recently, the European Union came to a decision after a long, drawn-out process, to renew glyphosate’s license for 5 years. With only weeks to go until the license expired, and despite a petition signed by 1.3 million EU citizens requesting a ban on the herbicide, the EU sided with pressure from agricultural lobbying groups and Monsanto, and went ahead with the renewal. A review will be in launched in 2 years time, by the European Food Safety Authority, in preparation for the inevitable debate over re-authorization then.
Glysophate is banned in several countries across the world; Sri Lanka notably banned it after seeing a huge rise in Chronic Kidney Disease among farmers, which is said to have caused up to 20,000 deaths in the country’s rural northern region. Argentina, the Netherlands and Malta have banned glyphosate too. French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to ban it within 3 years, and urged that better, safer alternatives must be developed.
In July last year, the state of California added glyphosate to a list of cancer-causing chemicals, which means any product containing glyphosate will bear a warning sticker by July 2018. The decision was taken as a result of the IARC verdict, and despite pressure from Monsanto and lobbying groups, California has vowed to stick with its decision, stating that it has followed the correct legal procedures.
Is the EPA pandering to big business?
Despite the decision taken by California, supporters of glyphosate-use received a boost from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month, with an announcement that in their view, glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. In a move likely intended as a direct message to both California and the IARC, the EPA published a draft risk assessment, directly contradicting the WHO-associated body’s verdict on the herbicide.
The decision has been criticized by many, who fear that longstanding concerns over the EPA’s relationship with Monsanto and similar corporations, has a direct impact on the decisions it takes.
It’s been alleged that the EPA and Monsanto have known about a potential link between glyphosate and cancer since 1981, after documents were revealed which had been kept secret for decades. The documents detailed studies commissioned by Monsanto, carried out on animals – mostly rats – which in some cases demonstrated an increased risk of kidney cancer due to exposure to the herbicide. A further release of documents has raised yet more questions about Monsanto and the EPA’s history, showing what looks like collusion to misrepresent and manipulate scientific data.
It’s scary enough to think that a federal agency might have put aside potential concern over the heath of citizens in order to appease big business for years. But now, with Scott Pruitt at the head the agency, there is surely even more cause for concern.
Other voices on this pressing topic:
– Pesticide Action Network (PAN) North America works to create a just, thriving food system. They declare that for too long, pesticide and biotech corporations have dictated how we grow food, placing the health and economic burdens of pesticide use on farmers, farmworkers, and rural communities. PAN works with those on the frontlines to tackle the pesticide problem — and reclaim the future of food and farming. Take action via their online action center to help fair food & farming.
– Explore safer choice presented by “Beyond Pesticides”, a Washington DC-based nonprofit working with allies in protecting public health and the environment to lead the transition to a world free of toxic pesticides.
– Food Democracy Now! is a grassroots community dedicated to building a sustainable food system that protects our natural environment, sustains farmers and nourishes families. Learn more about Monsanto’s campaign of fear and intimidation against America’s farmers.