If you eat food, drink water or breath air, it’s time to reckon with glyphosate. With so many critical issues clamoring for our attention, why focus on this one? Because it disproportionately affects our children and our future. The stakes are high.
The article The Glyphosate Roundup by Nikos Kavanya was included as part of the Fedco 2020 Seed Catalog, and is reprinted here at Silicon Valley Seeds with permission…
I bet that a goodly number of people reading this have a container of Roundup tucked up somewhere in their garage. I do. I bought it years ago, when it was advertised as a “safe” herbicide, to deal with the poison ivy increasing its stride toward my garden. That was before the research about its toxicity to frogs started surfacing.
Before the Sixth Extinction became news, any research that indicated problems with this new agriculture wonder drug didn’t get much traction. In 1992, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. was using almost 14 million pounds of glyphosate; by 2016 that usage had increased exponentially to 287 million pounds. As our usage increases, so have the problems.
This became abundantly clear to me last year as I read a book we had decided to list: What’s Making Our Children Sick? (See p. 159) I was gobsmacked. The early research had come of age and formed a compelling case against glyphosate. How had this toxin crept so far under the radar that it now pervaded so many aspects of our health? As adults, with immune systems developed before the onslaught, we might be relatively fine, but the increasing litany of childhood illnesses correlated to the rise of glyphosate leads to the conclusion that younger generations are not so fortunate.
I was fired up, and about to speak at an organic conference in Montana. I tweaked my talk — “Seed as Industry; Seed as Life” — to include this information, which wasn’t news to the Midwestern crowd. In the Northeast we have smaller farms, more buffers, more organics, and one vast no-drift zone to seaward, and every New England state uses far less than 1% of the national usage. Not so in the Midwest, where 8 states comprised 55% of the usage in 2016. The conference included a nurse presenting the negative health impacts of glyphosate and a grain grower who spoke about how the ambient glyphosate in the environment had contaminated his organic crops.
What is glyphosate?
Glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide in the U.S., is a systemic, non-selective, broad-spectrum, post-emergence herbicide, which means it kills any plant not genetically engineered to resist it. It is the active chemical ingredient in Roundup herbicide as well as many other name-brand weedkillers. Studies have found that the full formulations of these herbicides, which may include surfactants to help the glyphosate penetrate plant cells or additives to extend shelf life, can be up to 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate alone. The producers aren’t required to make a full list of their proprietary ingredients public. One study found an increased specific toxicity to human umbilical, embryonic and placental cells from glyphosate exposure in a combined formula.
In a good soil it has a half life of 22 years.
Glyphosate has been documented in:
- Drinking water
- Mother’s milk
- Food, including wheat, oats, infant formula, children’s cereals, beer, wine, snack foods and ice cream, among others, and including organic products
- Air quality samples
- Wetlands and sea water
- Urine samples
- Diapers, medical gauze and tampons
A toxic history
When first patented in 1964 by Stauffer Chemical, glyphosate was used as a metal chelator to clean or descale commercial boilers and pipes. As an herbicide and desiccant, glyphosate has been found to bind and remove minerals such as manganese, zinc, iron, copper, nickel, calcium and cobalt from human and animal bodies, and the soil. When glyphosate forms complexes with metal ions in the soil, it affects the availability of those nutrients, which affects nutrient uptake by the roots of plants as well as the translocation of nutrients throughout the plant. Plants struggle along and we eat food devoid of minerals vital to our health. An abstract of interdisciplinary toxicology conveyed that deficiencies in iron, cobalt, molybdenum, copper and other rare metals associated with celiac disease can be attributed to glyphosate’s strong ability to chelate these elements. Deficiencies in tryptophan, tyrosine, methionine and selenomethionine associated with celiac disease match
glyphosate’s known depletion of these amino acids.
By 1974 a second patent was filed by Monsanto for glyphosate to be used as an herbicide. Monsanto states that glyphosate kills plants by disrupting the shikimate pathway, a metabolic function in plants that allows them to create essential amino acids. When this path is interrupted, the plants die. Since human cells don’t have a shikimate pathway, scientists and researchers believed that exposure to glyphosate would be harmless, so Roundup got top billing as the “safe pesticide.” The problem is that bacteria DO have a shikimate pathway. According to Don Huber, plant pathologist emeritus from Purdue University, glyphosate works both against the beneficial organisms in the soil while also stimulating pathogens such as fusarium, pythium and rhizoctonia. Without beneficial microorganisms in the soil to compete with and suppress these harmful soil-borne pathogens, the balance of bacteria and fungi shifts to the detriment of soil ecosystem functions and plant health.
In the early ’90s, Monsanto petitioned the EPA to allow triple the amount of Roundup residue on food crops. The first Roundup Ready (RR) soybeans, genetically modified to resist glyphosate, were introduced in 1996. RR corn followed in 1998 and then canola, sugar beets, cotton, tobacco and alfalfa, with wheat still under development.
With this rapid rollout of RR (now called GR) crops nationwide, the use of glyphosate skyrocketed. The increase is largely due to “super weeds,” which are resistant to Roundup and necessitate more spraying, which further increases the likelihood of residues in our food.
In 2010, Monsanto was granted a third patent on glyphosate as a parasitic antimicrobial, or antibiotic. It was proposed that glyphosate be used as a treatment for microbial infections and parasitic control of various diseases such as malaria. As a powerful antibiotic, it works against the beneficial organisms in the gut. These bacteria are essential to our digestive health and immune function.
A more recently developed use of glyphosate is as a drying agent for beans, dried peas, lentils and grains (including wheat). It’s also used to “ripen” sugar cane and seed crops.
In 2015 after a year-long investigation, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, concluded that the chemical is “probably carcinogenic to humans” and that there was strong evidence of an association between glyphosate exposures and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Their working group consisted of 17 renowned scientists from 11 countries.
Yet in April 2019 the EPA reaffirmed its finding that there are no risks to public health when glyphosate is used according to the label and that glyphosate is not a carcinogen. The EPA is known to have a revolving door with Monsanto executives, so it was no surprise to find they had begun working together to stall a toxicology review of glyphosate being conducted by a unit of the Center for Disease Control. They feared the CDC would come to a different conclusion than the EPA at the same juncture that Monsanto was facing a spate of lawsuits brought by people claiming ill effects on their health from glyphosate.
Further health and environmental risks
At the forefront of studying the impacts of glyphosate on human health is Stephanie Seneff, PhD, MIT. Some of her findings are that glyphosate:
- binds to aluminum and mercury and deposits these in the pineal gland. Aluminum in the pineal gland can disrupt circadian rhythms and lead to sleep disorders.
- disrupts human DNA by inserting itself where there should be a glycine molecule. Gets into collagen to cause joint pain.
- sets off an autoimmune reaction to GMO “non-self proteins.”
- breeches the blood-brain barrier, which exacerbates the effects of other toxins to which we are exposed.
We also have a broad spectrum of ecological consequences to consider. On farmland, application of glyphosate can significantly lower the populations and diversity of plant species on the edges of fields. Common ??weeds?? are important food sources for wildlife, including declining bird species. The precipitous drop of the Monarch butterfly population is often attributed to glyphosate, which interrupts their caterpillar stage and eliminates their main food source, milkweed. Monsanto highlights glyphosate as a control for milkweed. It is estimated that milkweed has been eliminated from 250 million acres of U.S. croplands.
The relationship between soil ecosystems and glyphosate is complex and variable. Glyphosate is water soluble but also binds to some soil particles, particularly clay. Midwest farms with their high glyphosate usage drain into the Mississippi watershed, from which those farms’ fertilizers have created this summer’s Gulf bloom of cyanobacteria, which has prevented humans from swimming without risking rashes, stomach cramps and vomiting. Although it was long believed these plankton could not access phosphonates like glyphosate for food, researchers in Ohio have shown otherwise.
The tide is turning. Bahrain and five other countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have banned glyphosate. Thailand is set to do so by the end of 2019, Austria on January 1, 2020, and Germany by 2023. Legislation is currently pending in Vermont, Massachusetts and New York to limit or ban glyphosate. Current Maine legislation seeks to ban aerial spraying in the north woods for clearcutting. Many towns, schools and parks have local ordinances against spraying.
The time has come. Let’s ban it.
Of course, the battle doesn’t stop with glyphosate
The next herbicide is already out of the pipeline with the EPA’s rapid market approval. XtendiMax® with VaporGrip® Technology for use on Roundup Ready 2 Xtend® soybeans and cotton with XtendFlex® technology is a reformulation of the potent herbicide dicamba. It will take years to compile the inventory of hazards tied to this new chemical formulation. But the trademarks are those of the Bayer Group, formerly Monsanto. Instead of Millions Against Monsanto, we will need reformulate ourselves into Billions Against Bayer.
In New England, here are some groups working on this issue:
- Mass NOFA: nofamass.org
- Regeneration Vermont: regenerationvermont.org
- Ban Glyphosate (Maine): banglyphosate.net
Most all national environmental organizations are educating their members. Public Interest Research Group, Organic Consumers Association’s Millions Against Monsanto and Food and Water Watch are a few groups advocating action.
Closest at hand, the citizens of cities, towns and school districts are uniting to effect local bans. Root out where glyphosates are being applied in your community!
Nikos Kavanya hails from a long line of farmers and growers. A seed steward helping to re-establish people’s understanding of the important role seeds play in our food system, Nikos operates today as an herbalist, market grower, educator, and seed maven at Fedco Seeds, a cooperative organic seed company located in Waterville Maine that specializes in providing seed adapted for growing in the northeastern United States.