Last summer we published a collection of articles entitled “The Silent Spring Series.” Within this series we discussed the impact glyphosate, the world’s most widely used weed killer, is having on our environment as well as human health. Glyphosate, originally patented by Monsanto and the main ingredient in Roundup®, is now widely used in many herbicide products around the world. Glyphosate was originally discovered in 1950 by Dr. Henri Martin, a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company. There were no pharmaceutical uses discovered at that time, so the molecule was sold to other companies who proceeded to test other applications to find a use for it. In 1970, a Monsanto chemist discovered glyphosate could be used as an herbicide which led to the development of Roundup®, first sold commercially in 1974.
Last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. This has caused a heightened interest in the potential negative impacts this herbicide has on human health, specifically because even trace amounts are thought to be harmful due to exposure over time. In addition to being a carcinogen, glyphosate has been linked to a host of health concerns including its impact as an endocrine disrupter, connection to birth defects and reproductive issues, and the negative impact it can have on beneficial gut bacteria to name a few. Despite the fact that glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide, it has not been routinely included in testing by the USDA & FDA for residues on food crops. However, the FDA is preparing to start testing this year. FDA spokesperson Jason Strachman Miller stated “The FDA has not routinely looked for glyphosate in its pesticide chemical residue monitoring regulatory program in the past for several reasons, including that available methods for detecting glyphosate were selective residue methods that would have been very cost and labor intensive to implement in FDA field labs.” Soybeans, corn, milk and eggs are on the list of potential foods which may contain glyphosate and will be tested.
While glyphosate use in conjunction with producing genetically engineered herbicide tolerant crops such as soybean, corn and cotton is well-known, there are some lesser known uses of glyphosate that have not been as well-publicized. In the most recent issue of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, editor Ken Roseboro discusses the use of glyphosate as a desiccant in some crops just prior to harvest. While the pre-harvest use of glyphosate is not new, it is very concerning with respect to human health because it results in higher residues of glyphosate on the food product.
Dr. Charles Benbrook discusses the pre-harvest use of glyphosate in his paper titled “Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally” which was published last month in Environmental Sciences Europe. Glyphosate is sprayed on a crop just before harvest to help speed up the dry-down process and allow farmers to harvest a crop sooner. This is advantageous in northern, colder regions as well as in a year when conditions are wet and it takes a while for the crop to dry down before harvest. This use is referred to as a “harvest aid” or “green burndown.” While this process started in Scotland in the 1980’s, since the mid-2000s it has become a more common practice in the United States as well as in northern Europe and Canada. It is mostly used on small grain crops such as wheat, barley and oats. However, its use extends to many other concerning food crops including dried beans, lentils, peas, corn, flax, rye, triticale, buckwheat, millet, canola, sugar beets, potatoes and sunflowers.
Unfortunately this practice is not something most consumers are aware of, yet its use amongst conventional growers and the industry in North America is more extensive than any of us might like to admit. Roseboro quotes Tom Ehrhardt, co-owner of Albert Lea Seeds in Minnesota, who identifies the challenge of sourcing grains that have NOT been desiccated with glyphosate prior to harvest. “I have talked with millers of conventionally produced grain, and they all agree it’s very difficult to source oats, wheat, flax, and triticale, which have not been sprayed with glyphosate prior to harvest. It’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy’ in the industry.”
Dr. Benbrook stated in his most recent paper that “Because such applications occur within days of harvest, they result in much higher residues in the harvested foodstuffs.” Gerald Wiebe, a farmer and agricultural consultant interviewed by Roseboro states his concern that “Consumers don’t realize when they buy wheat products like flour, cookies, and bread they are getting glyphosate residues in those products. It’s barbaric to put glyphosate in food a few days before you harvest it.”
We’ll wrap up this discussion with a comment from Dr. Benbrook which Roseboro included in his article. His message is as follows: “It may be two percent of agriculture use, but well over 50 percent of dietary exposure. I don’t understand why Monsanto and the food industry don’t voluntarily end this practice. They know it contributes to high dietary exposure (of glyphosate).”
References:Benbrook CM. “Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally.” Environmental Sciences Europe (2016, 28:28) DOI: 10.1186/s12302-016-0070-0.
Gillam C. “FDA to Start Testing for Glypohsate in Food.” Civil Eats. February 17, 2016
Roseboro K. Grim reaper. “Many food crops sprayed with weed killer before harvest.” The Organic & Non-GMO Report. 2016; 161: 4-6.
GMO Update: The DARK ActOn Wednesday, March 16, 2016 the DARK Act was defeated by a vote of 49-48 in the Senate. Bill S. 2609, commonly referred to as the DARK Act (Deny Americans the Right to Know), would have allowed for voluntary labeling of food products containing GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Additionally, this bill would have preempted the Vermont State law requiring the labeling of all foods containing GMOs by July 1, 2016. Other states including Connecticut and Maine have passed state labeling standards but have not implemented the standards yet. New Jersey, Alaska, Hawaii, Iowa, Illinois and Massachusetts are also considering state labeling standards for foods containing GMOs.
Voluntary labeling of food products at the federal level would have been based primarily on QR codes, websites and call in numbers for consumers to use to inquire about the presence of GMOs. Sadly, this method discriminates against Americans who do not have access to the necessary technology or services that would be required to find this information.
The Center for Food Safety sites 64 countries around the world already have laws in place requiring mandatory labeling of GMOs. In a recent poll, 89% of American voters are in favor of mandatory labeling of products containing GMOs and feel Americans have the right to know and decide for themselves.