In the News: Glyphosate (again)

Nov 8, 2018 | Global Food and You, In the News, Sustainable Agriculture |

The Dirt:

The science tells us that glyphosate is safe to use as directed. Farmers use it because it enables them to use less herbicide and practice no-till farming, which is beneficial for soil health. The FDA has determined that any pesticide residues on our food are in minuscule amounts and not harmful, as EWG claims in the case of Cheerios. Why is glyphosate still making headlines as a “toxin” in our food?

For most of us, weeds are a backyard annoyance. Whether they are in a flower or vegetable garden or sprouting up in the lawn, manual eviction is possible. For farmers around the world, however, weeds are a lot more than an annoyance. Weeds in a farm field mean that crop producers must spend valuable time and money getting rid of them before they steal the water and nutrients that crops rely on to grow.

Weeds make a difference in how big the crop is at harvest time, and how much money is left over after all the expenses of production, harvesting, storage, transportation, and marketing are paid. 

For close to four decades, the safest and most effective herbicide has been Roundup, made by Monsanto. Its active ingredient is glyphosate – which in geek-speak is “an organophosphorus compound, specifically a phosphonate, which acts by inhibiting the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase.” In perhaps overly simplistic but understandable terms, it’s a salt that dries up and ultimately kills plants.

Why do farmers use glyphosate? Read our post: Is Glyphosate Safe?

Back in 2015, the use of glyphosate took on a strong international political flavor. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization (WHO) agency devoted to cancer research, concluded that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen.” IARC’s methodology evaluated hazard and not risk (coffee is a hazard too if you drink too much of it), and has been widely disputed by many other scientific organizations, including the European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Program does not list glyphosate as either “known to be a human carcinogen” or “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The difference of opinion on glyphosate has prompted intense battles and lobbying – in academic circles, in the media, in the courtroom and regulatory arena, and beyond.  Despite the fact that its use reduces the amount of herbicide needed, decreases use of more toxic herbicides, and enables farmers to till their fields less thereby improving soil health, environmental groups have made glyphosate almost an evil incarnate, to be either completely banned or at least extremely tightly controlled.  A new claim or new study seems to emerge regularly, alleging some new danger or additional “proof” of real and serious danger to the public health, the environment or some other vulnerable group. Notably, the EU debated further restrictions on the use of glyphosate or an outright ban on its sale or use but ultimately kicked the can down the road until at least 2022.

Closer to home, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental advocacy group, recently released a report claiming to have found minute levels of glyphosate in 26 of 28 breakfast cereals and snack bars tested.  Such presence should worry consumers, EWG suggested, especially where the health of children is concerned.

Hold on a minute, said others across the scientific, public health and business communities. The levels detected in the study are far, far below the threshold set by even the most stringent regulatory standards. People would need to consume vast quantities of these products over their lifetime before reaching the Allowable Daily Intake.  This is nothing more than a clear effort to cry wolf, using children as a tool to advance an environmental or ideological agenda.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The FDA began testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time in 2016 and released that data in October 2018. According to the agency’s report, no glyphosate was detected in milk and eggs. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As these EWG headlines renewed the controversy, a judge in California substantially reduced to $78 million the initial $289 million awarded last summer by a San Francisco jury to the groundskeeper who claimed his cancer resulted from exposure to Roundup. The ruling came despite hundreds of reviews and studies, most by government regulatory oversight agencies and independent scientists, that has found the popular weed killer to be safe as used.

The size of the initial award had attracted global media attention and raised eyebrows across the business community and around the world.  The recent reduction enabled Monsanto to claim some sort of victory – if only in the chance to repeat the defense of its product.

“There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides, including more than 800 rigorous registration studies required by the EPA and European and other regulators that confirm that these products are safe when used as directed.” (Monsanto)

The EPA, as part of a normal chemical review process, is currently engaged in its latest routine review of glyphosate and will publish its decision in 2019.  However, in December 2017, the EPA published the following:

 “The draft human health risk assessment concludes that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The Agency’s assessment found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label. The Agency’s scientific findings are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by a number of other countries as well as the 2017 National Institute of Health’s Agricultural Health Survey.”

The release of the EPA’s registration review report is certain to trigger the next animated round of debate.  Meanwhile, expect still more of the steady drip of claims and counterarguments from a broad spectrum of interest groups – public health, environmental, scientific and business, just to name a few.  The headlines aren’t going away any time soon.

Cooler heads in the debate urge everyone to keep calm and carry on thinking.  It’s a complex issue, with legitimate questions to be addressed regarding public health and safety – but also about the importance of preserving a very valuable tool in the continuing and growing challenge of feeding the world and preserving the economic health of the farm sector. 

With net cash income for farmers facing a fourth straight year of decline, the stakes for rural America are high.  Farmers note that they are at the forefront of efforts to protect the environment, with strong incentives to use Roundup and all other production inputs responsibly.  Don’t take a valuable tool away, many argue, when we need it most.  

The Bottom Line:

What’s the right role for glyphosate in agriculture and other public use?  Should it be banned completely, or should its use be unrestricted?  As the farming community suggests, perhaps the answer lies somewhere in between these extremes – in responsible product use, based upon reason and scientific fact – and not on fear and passion.