A few months ago a U.S. court ruled that Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup had caused a plaintiff’s Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (1). Thousands of similar cases are still awaiting trial. Glyphosate, Roundup’s active ingredient, had been declared “probably carcinogenic in humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) (2).
Some background on glyphosate
Glyphosate is a herbicide, i.e. it is capable of killing all vegetation, weeds and food crops alike. However, recent advances in gene editing techniques have led to the development of so-called Roundup-ready crops – canola, corn, cotton, soybeans and sugar beets – that are unharmed by glyphosate. These Roundup-ready crops can therefore be sprayed directly throughout the growing season to keep the fields weed-free.
Farmers also use glyphosate as desiccant. Even Non-GMO cereals like wheat, oats and barley are now sprayed once they are ripe, to hasten harvesting before the wet weather arrives.
Roundup is thus used in enormous quantities. Workers applying this stuff, and people in rural communities living near sprayed fields, are especially heavily exposed. The rest of us get it in our diet.
Monsanto’s reaction to criticism of glyphosate
Of course, Monsanto denies any link between Roundup and cancer, and plans to appeal the court’s decision. In fact, Monsanto denies that glyphosate poses any health hazard at all. They point out that human DNA does not have the genes that glyphosate targets in plants. Besides, they claim, the amounts of glyphosate found in human subjects are simply too small to pose a health risk.
However, internal Monsanto documents obtained during other ongoing litigation clearly show that the company was well aware of glyphosate’s toxicity, but covered it up and went to great length to fend off any evidence of adverse health effects from glyphosate (3).
Monsanto used third-party experts to plant positive news about glyphosate. They paid academic scientists to pose as authors of articles proclaiming the safety of glyphosate, articles that were actually written by Monsanto employees. The company used front groups – organizations that give the appearance of scientific impartiality but are actually industry mouthpieces – to spread misinformation and to counter unfavourable scientific findings. They tried to intimidate and silence scientists critical of their product, and to undermine the credibility of organizations like IARC.
Scientific evidence of harm from glyphosate
The successful lawsuit against Monsanto was about cancer, but cancer shouldn’t be our only health concern.
The claim that glyphosate should pose no risk, because humans don’t have the metabolic pathway that its herbicide targets, is misleading to say the least. That absence doesn’t mean that glyphosate is harmless (4).
First, while human DNA doesn’t encode the pathway in question, our gut bacteria do. Given their importance to our mental and physical health, disrupting the gut microbiome has to have serious consequences.
Secondly, glyphosate has been shown to be genotoxic, i.e. it messes with the genes that we do have. Interference in the synthesis of detoxifying enzymes is one important consequence. This means that our bodies don’t just have difficulty detoxifying and eliminating glyphosate itself, but other environmental toxins as well. Put differently, glyphosate even increases the health risks posed by other poisons.
What is more, other ingredients in Roundup have been shown to be even more hazardous than glyphosate by itself.
Given its known physiological effects, and our long-term exposure to it in our food and in the environment, glyphosate likely contributes to a number of modern lifestyle diseases, a contribution that short-term trials are unlikely to detect.
The bottom line
Since Roundup-ready crops are staple foods, and since even non-Roundup-ready crops are sprayed before harvesting, it is virtually impossible to avoid getting that poison in the food we eat. Even organically grown produce may become poisoned by wind-borne glyphosate and by contaminated water. To claim that even a lifetime exposure to that stuff could pose no threat to our health insults our intelligence. And lifetime exposure is what we will get if that stuff isn’t going to be banned.
Who decides what we can or cannot eat – we, or the food industry? Will we get to eat what is good for us, or what maximizes corporate profits, even if it sickens and kills us?
Yes, the people who were harmed by Monsanto should be compensated, but what we really need is to ban the use of the chemical altogether to prevent further harm. Interestingly, another court recently ordered the ban of chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to children’s health problems (5).
- Monsanto ordered to pay $289 million in Roundup cancer trial. The New York Times Aug. 10, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/10/business/monsanto-roundup-cancer-trial.html
- IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
- Spinning science & silencing scientists: A case study in how the chemical industry attempts to influence science. Minority staff report prepared for members of the Committee on Science, Space & Technology U.S. House of Representatives February 2018 https://www.baumhedlundlaw.com/pdf/monsanto-documents/Final-minority-report-glyphosate-spinning-science-silencing-scientists.pdf
- Samsel A, Seneff S, Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases, Entropy 2013;15(4):1416-1463. https://doi.org/10.3390/e15041416
- Court orders EPA to ban chlorpyrifos, pesticide tied to children’s health problems, The New York Times Aug, 9, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/09/us/politics/chlorpyrifos-pesticide-ban-epa-court.html?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=65e8cee8-1dc9-4f10-88c6-745710b8269d