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Glypho-satiated: America’s #1 herbicide comes under scrutiny

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 January Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

This week, after months of delay, a team of expert scientists is meeting to review whether glyphosate, the active ingredient in common weedkillers like Roundup, can be categorized as a carcinogen. This is a tall task for this scientific advisory panel, as they’re being asked to decide whether the most economically successful pesticide in human history will continue its overwhelming dominance in our agricultural systems.

Glyphosate’s rise to dominance began in the 1990’s with the introduction of the first transgenic crops. The Roundup-Ready gene is what initially gave glyphosate a leg up in the market, and its popularity has continued to grow for the past 20 years. We now use approximately 280 million pounds of glyphosate every year in the U.S., about seven times more than we were using just twenty years ago.

Given this unprecedented dominance, glyphosate has come under intensified scrutiny for its human health impacts recently. However, not until the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) deemed glyphosate to be a “probable carcinogen” in March of 2015 had the general public (or the government regulators) looked at it deeply.

Although glyphosate’s status as a probable carcinogen is now widely discussed, it’s not the only health concern that’s been shadowing glyphosate’s rise in agricultural prominence. Multiple studies have linked glyphosate with endocrine disruption, nutrient chelation, gut bacteria changes, and other health issues. Given that Monsanto had once touted that Roundup is “safer than table salt,” it’s worth doing an analysis of recent scientific literature to determine just how serious the threat is.

The bad news

What is without question is that glyphosate affects much more than its target plants. Monsanto itself has acknowledged that glyphosate has certain anti-microbial properties and has even been issued a patent for this use.

One of the more well documented effects of glyphosate on the human body is as a mineral chelator. Glyphosate was originally “patented in 1964 by Stauffer Chemical Company in Westport, Connecticut as a chelator, for removing unwanted mineral deposits from metal pipes[, a product] like Drano.” What effect, does this chelation have on the human body? It’s likely that since glyphosate lowers mineral concentration in plants, then as that food makes its way up the chain, that mineral deficiency results in nutrient-poor foods and associated health outcomes.

More concerning are the dozens of peer-reviewed studies connecting glyphosate with hormonal shifts, or, what’s known as endocrine disruption. Changes in our normal hormonal levels can lead to a wide array of health issues, including reproductive problems, cancer, and developmental irregularities.

What’s troubling about endocrine disruptors is that they “do not function like normal poisons, where a higher dose gives greater toxicity. Often, endocrine disruptive effects are seen at lower doses but not at higher doses.” So even the low doses that most of us get in our foods (since most conventional grains and beans have glyphosate residue) are concerning. 

The even worse news

What we do know about glyphosate still pales in comparison to what we don’t know about the proprietary products that it is found in. Products like Roundup are only required to divulge their “active ingredients”, but are allowed to keep the “inert” ingredients proprietary. In chemical jargon, inerts are any chemical not directly involved in performing the task of that chemical. In the case of something like Roundup, there may be dozens of inerts, but none of them are listed on the package and companies rarely publish which ones they use.

Some of these inerts have turned out to be more toxic than glyphosate, but it is the combination of these myriad chemicals with glyphosate that is most troubling.

Unfortunately, when the EPA goes through the process of registering an herbicide, they generally do so using only the active ingredient and not the full formulation. Although the individual inerts do have to go through a review process with the EPA, no one tests how those inerts interact with each other, either immediately or over time.

One of the inerts in Roundup, polyethoxylated tallowamine (POEA), which is used to help glyphosate penetrate the waxy surface of plants, has come under severe scrutiny in Europe recently. Pesticide formulations using POEA have been banned in France but are still used in the US.

Strategies for a poison-free world

Regardless of what the EPA’s scientific advisory panel review of glyphosate decides, the overwhelming number of studies on glyphosate’s potential health impacts, coupled with concern over inerts, should give us pause. Even if the final verdict is still out, the precautionary principle states that any possibility for human or environmental harm warrants a halt to the practice.

But ridding our lives of glyphosate-based herbicides isn’t that easy. It’s in the vast majority of conventional processed foods, even those that are not genetically engineered. In fact, according to random testing done on over 30 common food products, the highest residue levels were found on non-GMO foods like Cheerios. The likely reason is that some grains and beans are treated with a pre-harvest dose of Roundup to kill any perennial weeds and, in some cases, to desiccate the plant for a more “successful” harvest. Until the EPA starts testing residue levels of glyphosate in our foods, we will not know how much of this stuff we’re ingesting.

The only sure-fire way to avoid it is to buy certified organic products, especially cereals and beans. Luckily, eating an organic diet for as little as a week has been found to remove more than 90% of the pesticides from your system.

Beyond ourselves and our families, there are more systemic changes that you can partake in. Since glyphosate has been found in numerous waterways, and even rain, removing the chemical from our communities is a simple way to ensure the health of our aquatic ecosystems and the humans who rely on them.

Dozens of towns, counties, and institutions across the country have pledged to stop using herbicides like roundup on their land. Although that won’t do much for a safe food supply, the political and social message that such a policy can send is powerful.

Want to see which towns in your area have implemented pesticide reforms? Click here.

Interested in working to move your town or city toward pesticide (and glyphosate) freedom? Contact Dan Bensonoff, NOFA/Mass policy director, at


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