Round ’em Up

I am a champion of local foods. And I am a huge promoter of organic foods, but not if it’s industrial organic because that seems antithetical to the intrinsic organic principles. I definitely do not support growing and eating genetically modified plants for the myriad reasons I outlined in a previous post. And while I am not flat-out against all pesticide use no matter what, I am a strong supporter of the precautionary principle and using alternative, natural methods to control pest problems that enhance and protect biodiversity. I think, by and large, that chemicals that have been created by humans are overwhelming our environment and our bodies, and we don’t yet know what the consequences will be. Contradicting the precautionary principle, the producers of these chemicals put the burden of proof on the public instead of proving to us that their chemical is harmless. These chemicals are generally manufactured by multinational corporations that not only have heavy lobbying influence in Washington, but are party to the revolving door phenomenon, whereby people who are supposed to be the regulators leave the government for a high-paying job at the chemical company, and then eventually return to another governmental post (often in the EPA or USDA). How can people who have a vested interest or something to be gained make decisions for the good of the public? I don’t think they can.

And that’s how we have Roundup herbicide. Roundup is the brand name broad-spectrum herbicide manufactured by Monsanto; the main active ingredient is glyphosate. Monsanto developed and patented the glyphosate molecule in the early 70’s; Roundup has been on the shelf since 1973, but in 2000 the patent expired and now there are other manufacturers of glyphosate-based herbicides. This herbicide made it onto the shelf without being tested by the EPA; although the main active ingredient (glyphosate) has been classified in Toxicity Class III by the EPA (meaning it’s harmful if swallowed or inhaled). Roundup kills weeds, and other plants, by inhibiting an enzyme (EPSP synthase) from being produced; without this enzyme, plants cannot produce the correct proteins for growth, and so they quickly die. The EPA has requested test results investigating any potential harmful effects of glyphosate on humans, animals, or the environment in general. Twice, the EPA caught scientists who were deliberately falsifying the test results in testing labs hired by Monsanto. Those responsible were convicted of felony charges and sentences to jail for 5 years and the lab was required to pay a hefty fine.

Graph credit: University of Washington Extension

Monsanto has also been convicted of false advertising. In the late 90’s, Roundup labels claimed the herbicide was as safe as table salt, and practically non-toxic to fish and other aquatic wildlife. In France, Monsanto even wrote “biodegradable!” on the label. None of these things are true; it is definitely not as safe as the salt you sprinkle over your food, it does not biodegrade, and it is very toxic to aquatic organisms. Despite all this, it is the most popular herbicide in the US, especially since Monsanto began developing Roundup-resistant varieties of agricultural crops, such as corn, soybeans, canola, sorghum, cotton, wheat, alfalfa, and beets. These plants have been genetically modified to be able to produce an enzyme similar to EPSP synthase that will trigger the proteins to keep producing, unaffected by glyphosate. This means a farmer can spray his whole field with Roundup, killing all the weeds while leaving his crops unharmed. However, some plants have developed a natural resistance to glyphosate. These are called superweeds because they cannot be killed by Roundup, or similar herbicides, and are causing farmers significant troubles around the world. Farmers are reporting over 50 different species of weeds have become resistant to Roundup; in every case, the weeds were grown in areas of intense Roundup spraying.

This is a field sprayed with glyphosate – the plants (weeds) that are still green are resistant to the herbicide. In this case, it’s marestail weed. (Photo credit:

And now, after nearly 40 years on the market, the EPA is considering a ban or strict limiting of the herbicide due to new information of the probable human health effects from this herbicide. New studies have found glyphosate responsible for causing infertility and spontaneous abortions in pigs, cattle, and other livestock. Another study showed that glyphosate caused malformations in frog and chick embryos. In another study sponsored by the National Institute of Health, they have found that farmers and others who frequently use glyphosate have an increased risk of developing a cancer that affects the bone marrow compared to those who never used glyphosate. This same study found detectable levels of glyphosate in the urine of farmers and their children. This new information that brings to light some previously unknown adverse affects, along with the increased instances of glyphosate-resistant plants, will likely change the future of glyphosate’s approval. Many farmers and scientists believe glyphosate’s days are numbered. What I worry, though, is what the alternative will be. Glyphosate is not going to just go away with nothing to replace it; it’s the mostly widely used herbicide in the world – something has to take its place. And will that “something” be well tested? Or will it take forty more years to discover that the chemical we’ve been dousing on our environment is actually a carcinogen, mutagen, and endocrine disruptor? My hope is that the precautionary principle will be called into play. There’s nothing wrong with a little hope, right?


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