Apparently, ‘back in the day’, salesmen used to swallow Roundup (containing the active ingredient glyphosate) to show how wonderfully nontoxic this powerful herbicide is. It has been in widespread use since coming to market in the UK in 1974 and it has truly had a remarkable affect on food production. It eliminates weeds, helps to ripen crops and since coming off patent in 2000 it is now remarkably cheap. Partly due to the power of glyphosate, grain is proportionally cheaper now than it has ever been and we have all financially benefited from this. One way or another, glyphosate is in our food chain. To prove this point, it has been found in the urine of all 48 EU MEPs who were tested for the herbicide (lovely!). It has been found in breast milk. But is it really so safe to consume?
A few weeks ago it looked very possible that the EU was not going to issue a relicense due to fears about the safety of the product. In 2015 The World Health Organisation had labelled the weed killer as ‘a probable human carcinogen’. There have since been other significant reports from the WHO and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) stating that it is ‘unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet’. When panels of experts come to different conclusions it is hard for a normal person to come to their own rational conclusions. Indeed, it has also been hard for the EU to come to a firm conclusion. The EU was initially going to grant the license for 15 years, then 9 years. When both of these attempts failed, a last minute plea meant that on June 29th (a day before the license would have run out and at the height of the British Brexit reaction) the license was extended for another 18 months pending further research. More caution seems to be urged with regards to spraying in parks and for using the product for pre harvest desiccation.
If the relicense had not been forthcoming, this would have totally changed the face of farming. We live in rural North Yorkshire and the other evening I walked alongside a field of wheat. I could have counted the weeds growing up in the field. It was a pure, single crop of wheat, presumably achieved with the help of herbicides, possibly including glyphosate applied as a pre harvest desiccant the previous year. Past farmers could have only dreamed of such bounty. Weeds strangle the crop, compete with light and nutrients with the crop and generally offer no benefit whatsoever for the farmer struggling to make a living.
Chatting with a farmer the other day, he emphasised how much farmers love glyphosate as it has made farming so much easier. However even he had some reservations about using the chemical for desiccating the crop. This involves spraying the crop with glyphosate just before harvest. This slowly kills the plant then allows the sun to naturally dry the seed head. With our unreliable weather here in the UK, this helps the field to ‘ripen’ at the same time, and avoids the use of costly and energy rich processes to dry the grain using heat. It is also very effective at killing perennial weeds including pesky weeds such as couch grass and E. Repens. Before the age of glyphosate, these weeds caused farmers considerable difficulty and resulted in significant drops in yield. Glyphosate is often used on wheat, barley and oats but it is particularly helpful for oilseed rape as it allows all the seed pods to ripen together without drying out the pods too quickly and loosing valuable seeds.
There are fairly strict protocols to follow on when and how much glyphosate to spray on crops prior to harvest. The crops must have a minimum of 30% moisture and they should be harvested 7-14 days after spraying. The theory is that this should make sure that ‘translocation into the grain does not occur if treatment is delayed until seed heads on pods are almost ripe’.(Source). I don’t have the ability to test whether this is true or not. However, I am fairly sceptical that this is the full truth. The Pesticide Action Network (Pan UK) analysed the pesticide residues reported by Prif (a government agency) to find that 63% of loaves sold in 2013 contain pesticide residues (source). The most common pesticides are glyphosate and chlormequat. These residues are not above the legal amount. But, this surely disproves the fact that the glyphosate does not get into the grain? (And remember, glyphosate can not be washed off, as it actually affects the grain at an amino acid level).
So we have established that glyphosate has had a significant impact on farming and that it is widely used. Does that matter? After all, men have drunk glyphosate and lived to tell the tale. It has been used or 40 years and we in the western world are still here to tell the story. But….
Glyphosate works by disabling the shikimate pathways which are necessary for producing ‘aromatic’ amino acids. Mammals do not have these pathways therefore it seems sensible to assume that glyphosate is non toxic to mammals. This has always been the party line. Indeed it is true that it does not act in the same way as a poison such as cyanide which has an immediate impact on the body. However in the past decade we have just begun to understand the key role that our gut bacteria play in regulating our bodies. The gut bacteria work together to some degree as an ecosystem, but individually, they are just tiny little things. And guess what? They do have a shikimate pathway and they are not so resistant to the effect of glyphosate. Or I should say the friendly bacteria are not so resistant to it. It so happens that Pseudomonas (a bacteria) can metabolise glyphosate but in the process it produces formaldehyde which has a toxic affect in our gut. Obviously if the ‘good’ gut bacteria are removed or reduced due to continuous low level glyphosate intake it is likely that any bacteria which can coexist with glyphosate will gain undue dominance.
Can we live without healthy gut bacteria? Yes, absolutely. Can we thrive without healthy gut bacteria? Surely not. What might we expect to see? A compromised ability to fight toxins. A lesser ability to access nutrients for our body. Maybe low level digestive issues. Maybe intolerances. Maybe chronic conditions. There is a definite link between gut health and brain function so, maybe … The list could keep on going.
In humans there are other concerns related to glyphosate and the endocrine system (ie hormones), the fact that it chelates heavy metals in the body, and of course the link with cancer. However, it is probable that we are actually creating a much larger problem for our ecosystem. Worms are affected (long term), bees are affected. The concerns raised in the first damning WHO report were raised by the international agency for research into cancer and they were specifically looking at links between glyphosate and cancer. The report from the WHO specifically stated that glyphosate does not possibly cause cancer, but it probably causes cancer. It is important to see this in context. Coffee probably causes cancer. Sunlight probably causes cancer. Many things cause cancer and sometimes I choose to have that coffee knowing the risk. However, knowing that there are many carcinogens doesn’t make glyphosate a less powerful carcinogen
As I have been researching this topic, it has been amazing to me how hard it has been to find good information on google when searching for glyphosate and cancer risks. If you dig a bit deeper and look for more specific complaints about glyphosate there is a whole host of detailed studies and concerns raised. I do not want to get sucked into the world of conspiracy theories, but I can see that Monsanto (the original makers of Roundup) have a lot to loose if glyphosate is not relicensed. It is an extremely powerful multinational company which has recently had to make many job cuts in its base in St Louis. Surely it would seek to exert any influence it may have to promote the safe, non toxic nature of its most successful product? They have a lot to loose. Some people HATE Monsanto, the manufacturers of Roundup. They say it is significant that Monsanto also made agent orange and DDT and swore blindly about the safety of these chemicals for many years before the truth came out. I do not know enough about them to make absolute statements but my view of human nature allows me to be suspicious of any one company holding too much power.
What is my response as a consumer, a mother, as a thinking person? There have been times over the past week when I have felt like the only sane response is to move to an island and grow my own wheat. I feel fiercely protective of my family and although I am perfectly happy with bugs and scratches and ant bites I am not happy for their immune systems to be compromised by a constant low dose of glyphosate at such a young age. When I met my husband he was semi intolerant to gluten. Surprisingly he did seem to be fine with bread and pizza in Italy. I could never understand this connection but, maybe it was not gluten intolerance but glyphosate intolerance?
Since having had chance to process some of this information a bit more, I appreciate that there are some gaps in the detailed research on glyphosate. However, I am concerned enough (especially concerning the link between glyphosate and depletion of gut bacteria which just seems to make good plain sense!) to try to avoid glyphosate products as much as possible. It seems that the main problems with glyphosate are that although we ingest it at a low level, it is a fairly constant low level which is constantly and slowly attacking our systems. Understandingt this is going to mean strictly organic flour in my home (although this may be very hard – we had some bought croissants this morning – can I resist?). Obviously I will not use Roundup in the garden. There are factors out of my control though. Roundup is sprayed by the pavements and even by one of our boundary walls, affecting my herbs on my side of the boundary. When eating with friends I will be served food which may not be free from glyphosate. I am happy to acknowledge that I cannot control many things in my life or in my family’s life so I will try not to worry.
Before finishing I should mention there is one prospect that does deeply concern me. One major application of glyphosate is for ’roundup ready’ GM crops. These are standard practice for American soy beans, corn, cotton and others. Monsanto has genetically modified these seeds so that they can withstand glyphosate application meaning that weeds can easily be kept at bay. So far the EU has resisted using GM crops. However, Brexit may have the effect of opening the door to GM crops and therefore to even more glyphosate. I am going to keep a close eye on the news.
Helpful links to find out more (I’m sorry about the odd formatting – I’m still learning!)
A helpful overview of the current scientific knowledge of glyphosate
Clarification of pre harvest uses of glyphosate,
The solid association is campaigning for an end to desiccating wheat crops with glyphosate.