Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, was once hailed as a kind of miracle solution to the problem of weeds.
Today, glyphosate-based weedkillers like Monsanto’s Roundup are a disgraced product, associated with a shocking and increasing number of health and environmental problems.
Glyphosate has long been promoted as a fast-acting weedkiller, as effective in small gardens and lawns as it was in industrial corn and soy fields. Its use on farms dramatically increased with the introduction of herbicide-tolerant GMO crops. But glyphosate is also regularly sprayed on non-GMO crops—‘healthy’ foods such wheat, oats, maize and barley but also soya, rapeseed, sunflower seeds and chick peas—as a desiccant, used to dry out the crops in a uniform fashion, so they can be harvested all at once.
Glyphosate-based herbicides are also used to control weeds in parks, on city streets, roadsides, sidewalks and in playgrounds.
At one time pundits claimed that glyphosate was less toxic than coffee and table salt. This wasn’t merely an outrageous mangling of the science of toxicity—it was an out-and-out lie.
We now know that glyphosate has a dirty secret—one that is being very publicly and forensically exposed in a string of recent court cases involving people who have developed an otherwise rare cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, as a result of regularly using glyphosate.
These cases may be just the tip of the iceberg.
A trail of devastation
Glyphosate was classified in March 2015, as probable human carcinogen by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A separate formal review of glyphosate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), published in May 2019, backs this up. The review found statistically significant links to certain cancers, such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
According to a recent international study, glyphosate increases antibiotic resistance. The study found that along with two other toxic herbicides, 2,4-D and dicamba, glyphosate changed the way bacteria responded to a number of antibiotics including ampicillin, ciprofloxacin and tetracycline, which are widely used to treat a range of serious, and sometimes deadly, diseases.
In February 2016, a group of international scientists published a consensus statement drawing attention to the risks posed by increasing exposure to glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs). The health concerns highlighted included endocrine system-mediated and developmental impacts. The letter called for better monitoring of GBH residues in water, food and humans.
Indeed most “monitoring” of this kind is still being done by citizen scientists and NGOs. These analyses have shown worryingly high levels in the breastmilk and urine of American mothers, as detailed by Moms Across America, and in drinking water (traces have also been found in the in the urine of European citizens).
In a 2018 survey, glyphosate residues were present in all but two of the 45 oat-derived products sampled by the Environmental Working Group. GMO Free USA found that glyphosate residues are pervasive in foods served by major restaurant and fast food chains in the United States. Laboratory tests conducted by the Organic Consumers Association in 2017, both in the U.S. and in the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands, found glyphosate in multiple flavors of the popular ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry's.
The list goes on. The big question is: Where is the government oversight in all this?
A moment of possibility
As the bad news about glyphosate builds, many places in the U.S. are declaring themselves glyphosate-free zones.
In addition, a large number of EU citizens want the herbicide banned—a recent European Citizens Initiative petition gathered more than 1.3 million signatures.
All these activities present us with a moment of possibility. A moment when we can take a cold, hard look at the way we farm, and at the way we manage our environments, and ask ourselves how we might do it better. They give us an opportunity to ask ourselves what has gone so wildly wrong in our world that we need to use increasingly toxic chemicals to manage our food system and our lives.
These discoveries and actions also give us an opportunity to recognize how fragile are industry claims of “magic bullets,” and to examine the all-too-familiar “natural history” of toxic chemical use which follows a predictable pattern of rising from obscurity to peak concern and eventual decline—a process which that typically takes about take 30 years. This far-to-slow response, hindered by industry lobbyists, means many more people are exposed to toxic chemicals than should be.
This may well be a moment when we can change things—yet you wouldn’t know that from reading either the mainstream media or the farming press. Even as the toxicity of glyphosate is being splashed all over the news, so-called experts and agricultural and scientific commentators are asking what herbicide can we use next. or what machinery can we press into service to spray “precision” doses of herbicide on crops.
Farmers in a bind
There’s no question that the withdrawal of glyphosate would leave many farmers in a bind. The way we farm now—monocultures, GMO crops, heavy applications of synthetic fertilisers—has made conventional farmers, unfamiliar with regenerative, dependent on pesticides.
Yet all of these components of modern agriculture scream short-termism. They put our farmers on a chemical treadmill with a horizon that stretches only as far as the next planting. They obscure the wider and longer-term context of why we have become so chemically dependent and how we might be able to break free of that addiction.
We need to stop lying to ourselves about pesticides being “safe” and “environmentally friendly.” All but the most short-sighted people recognise this.
Fortunately, an increasing number of experts throughout the world are calling for change.
In 2013, the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) published a report entitled Wake Up Before It’s Too Late. It was a powerful call for a return to sustainable farming practices.
In 2018, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES) published a series of case studies of agroecological transition which illustrated how the chemical treadmill—what the authors called the “lock-ins” of industrial food systems—can be overcome, where the key leverage points for transition are, and how transition towards sustainable food and farming systems can be best supported.
A way forward
Today according to the latest annual analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data by the health advocacy group Environmental Working Group, 70 percent of U.S. produce contains pesticide residues
Additionally, up to 50 million Americans could be drinkingfrom pesticide-contaminated water sources, according to a 2000 study by the USDA.
Well-meaning advice in the media suggests that consumers can protect themselves by washing their produce. Never mind the fact that they are potentially washing their produce in contaminated water, most pesticides simply don’t wash off.
The consumer action that is really needed has nothing to do with kitchen hygiene and everything to do with demanding a better food and farming system.
A recent analysis by German think tank IDDRI found that if the process of agroecological farming began today, Europe could feed itself, pesticide free, in 10 years. A single decade is all it would take to phase out pesticides, reduce its impacts on climate and biodiversity, while ensuring a healthy and secure food system for Europeans.
If it can happen in Europe, it can happen in the U.S.
In fact studies into regenerative farming show that a “paradigm shift” in agriculture can build soil health and with it, more resilient crops. More resilient crops means a better yield of more nutritious food. Better yields maintain and improve profits for farmers. Agroecology also emphasizes crop diversity which means dietary diversity and biodiversity.
Regenerative agriculture is also a win in the fight for climate change. According to the Rodale Institute, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100 percent of current annual CO2 emissions by switching to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term “regenerative organic agriculture.” These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.
Finding the next toxic pesticide is not a solution.
The use of glyphosate, introduced to the world by Monsanto and still being defended by Bayer, is no longer tenable. It’s a product that’s on its way out—though not fast enough. We should be grateful to the independent scientists who risked their jobs to expose its toxicity, and to the legal experts and citizens who have gathered together by the thousands to make its manufacturers pay for the widespread and undeniable chronic ill health and fatal diseases that its use has caused.
Let’s move forward now. Let’s not waste another moment in asking what new poison we can spray on the planet.
Pat Thomas is a journalist, author and campaigner specializing in food, environment and health. See more on her website. To keep up with Organic Consumers Association (OCA) news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.