Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Glyphosate: An Important Update

By Andrea Yoder

We’ve included reports about glyphosate in our newsletters in previous years, but sadly this chemical and its issues have not miraculously disappeared from the headlines or from our lives.  We all have reason to be concerned about this chemical as it is now the world’s most widely used herbicide and can be found extensively throughout our environment, our food supply and in human bodies across the country and world.  Glyphosate has been in the headlines recently, including just last week when the European Union held their initial round of votes on October 25, 2017 regarding the proposed 10 year re-license for glyphosate use within the European Union, which expires on December 15, 2017.   The majority voted against the re-license and has voted to ban glyphosate completely by 2022.  Additionally, they have voted to impose restrictions on its use starting in 2018.  While we could write volumes about glyphosate and the controversy and health & environmental impacts it has caused, we wanted to provide you with a brief update.  For those of you who are not as familiar with glyphosate, its use, etc, we’ve also provided several resources for you to further your own understanding of this dilemma we’re all in, whether we like it or not.  As consumers, we need to practice our right to make informed decisions regarding our purchases, and in this case specifically food purchases.  The choices we make can have great implications on our own health and well-being as well as casting a vote in the marketplace.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, patented in 1974, is now the world’s most widely used pesticide.  When it was initially introduced into the market, farmers used it as a pre-emergent herbicide to kill weeds before planting their fields as well as for weed control in non-crop areas.  In 1987 6 to 8 million pounds of glyphosate based herbicides (GBH) were applied in the US.  The first genetically modified (GMO) seeds were commercially planted in 1996 and were made to have resistance to glyphosate, thus the two were meant to be used together.  By 2007, the amount of GBH being applied in this country rose to 180-185 million pounds.  In more recent years GBH have been used as a pre-harvest desiccant for small grain crops including wheat, barley, oats, lentils, flax and dried beans with the intention of accelerating the dry down of the crop before harvest.  Because the chemical is applied so close to harvest, high levels of the chemical are found in the crop and the food products made from them.  GBH are now being used quite extensively on both GMO and non-GMO crops which has led to even more chemical being applied on US agricultural land.  In 2014, approximately 240 million pounds of GBH were applied in the US alone.

While the manufacturers of GBH continue to claim it is harmless, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.  In 2015 the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen to humans.  On July 7, 2017, California’s Environmental Protection Agency added glyphosate to their Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.  The IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen prompted many to file lawsuits against Monsanto by people alleging that exposure to Roundup herbicide caused them or their loved ones to develop cancer.  There are currently more than 50 lawsuits pending in the U.S. District Court in San Francisco.   

There are many problems with the use of glyphosate, making it overwhelming to even know where to start.  The use of GBH as a desiccant so close to harvest has led to a significant increase in glyphosate and its primary metabolite in food products including seemingly benign foods like Cheerios!  While food products are not being extensively tested for glyphosate, Food Democracy Now in coordination with the Detox Project requested testing of some food products at a FDA-registered food safety testing laboratory.  They found extremely high levels of glyphosate in common food products including Cheerios breakfast cereal, Ritz Crackers, Oreos, Doritos and even Goldfish crackers.  Glyphosate has also been found in honey, beer and wine.  Last week a research letter was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) regarding the findings of increased levels of glyphosate in urine specimens collected from participants in a prospective study being conducted in Southern California.  The mean glyphosate levels in urine specimens increased from 0.024 ug/L in 1993-1996 rising to as much as 0.449 ug/L in 2014-2016 for 71 participants with detectable levels.  This was a very small study, but nonetheless it raises concern for the rest of us in the population and demonstrates a need for future research to study the relationship between chronic glyphosate exposure and human health impact.

Monsanto has laced the industry with lies and deceit in exchange for economic gain.  They’ve influenced governments to make regulations, or drop regulations based on their proprietary studies which are not available for independent review and the credibility of which are very questionable. Last week a German publication, Spiegel Online, released an article reporting on the recent release of the “Monsanto Papers” which included internal emails, presentations, and memos suggesting they have participated in ghostwriting, scientific manipulation and withholding important information from government regulatory agencies and the public. 

So, where do we go from here?  Do we really know and understand the full impact glyphosate has and is having on human health and our environment?  If we continue on the current trajectory, where will we be in another 10, 20, 30 years?  Cancer, allergies, birth defects, endocrine disorders and the list of possible health concerns associated with glyphosate goes on.  I mentioned the Detox Project earlier.  This is an organization that has set up a means for testing glyphosate levels in participants all across the nation.  Anyone can participate as long as you’re willing to purchase a test kit and submit a urine sample.The purpose of their study and testing is to start tracking glyphosate levels in the population, but also to help individuals understand what their personal exposure is based on the levels found in their own body.  The Detox Project website also has a lot of informative resources for the general public as well as links to scientific research and papers.

The research group that published the research letter in JAMA mentioned above is expanding their work at the University of California, San Diego.  They have initiated the Herbicide Awareness and Research Project to conduct research in the areas of how glyphosate exposure might have changed over time since the introduction of GMO foods and to set up longitudinal epidemiological studies to look at glyphosate exposure and human health. 

A picture of one of our CSA share boxes.
This has become our medicine!
All of these things are good moves in the right direction, but do we have time to wait for the research?  What can we do in the meantime?  Organic food has become our medicine now more than ever.  For those who do not feel comfortable wondering if the foods they eat have herbicides and pesticides in them and/or don’t want to wait to find out if there really are negative health consequences, choosing to eat certified organic food may be the best choice.  Taking it one step further, knowing more about your food and where it comes from is more important now than ever.  Sadly, there is corruption within the organic industry as well and the organic credibility of some companies, both domestic and  international, have been questioned.  “Know your farmer, Know your food” is not just a catchy phrase to support a feel-good campaign to support local farmers.  It’s an important tool in your tool box to help you make informed food purchasing decisions.

I’ve included several resources below and encourage you to do some further investigation into this topic on your own. There really is something for everyone here.  If you’re interested in health and want to read the scientific papers, I’ve included a consensus statement published in Environmental Health.  If you’re interested in the legal issues, policy, etc you might find it interesting to look into the “Monsanto Papers”.  If you just want some easy to read documents to bring you up to speed and guide you in making decisions for your family, I’ve included several good resources for that as well.  I hope you’ll take the time to become more informed, if you are not already, about the realities of glyphosate in our food and environment today.  It’s an issue that impacts us all and we all have the right to know about it.

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