Glyphosate: Part 1 – History of Herbicides

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Awhile ago, I shared my opinion on GMOs and you saw that while I think the idea of genetically modifying something is fine, engineering something to be resistant to loads of glyphosate is NOT fine. I also promised that I would write a post that explains why.

It’s been a little while because guys, writing super well-researched articles is time consuming. And I want whatever science-y stuff I put on this site to be super well-researched.

The Short Version

I am not a fan of glyphosate. I try to avoid glyphosate. In fact, I won’t use glyphosate in my yard/garden, except for VERY special reasons (poison ivy being that ‘special reason’).

However, farmers are NOT running around drowning plants in glyphosate in an attempt to poison the world and destroy the environment. In fact, many farmers who use glyphosate are trying to help the environment and public health…and that’s NOT because they’ve been duped by Monsanto. (Although Monsanto is a pretty evil company. But they’re evil for different reasons). The farmers actually ARE helping the environment and public health in comparison to the agricultural techniques that were used prior to glyphosate.

It’s time for America to start using innovative agricultural techniques that move us away from herbicide use in general, which includes moving away from glyphosate. Glyphosate – and other chemicals – aren’t good. I avoid them! But we can’t just ban glyphosate all of a sudden or accuse conventional farmers of being evil. They’re not.

Read on for the details.

STOP: Before you read

People get VERY rabid emotional when glyphosate safety comes up. Some people are adamantly against it and think it is the root of all evil, and other people think it’s the greatest thing in agriculture and can’t possibly be harmful.

Unsurprisingly, I think both sides have some merit, and are ultimately somewhat wrong.

So please read on with an open mind, and make sure to read the whole post before concluding that I am being paid off by the “evil” Farm Babe or Food Babe (which one is evil depends on which ideology you subscribe to!)

Ready? Carry on.

What Is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate is an herbicide that is currently used in over 750 conventional herbicide products. It was invented by Dr. John Franz, who worked for Monsanto, and licensed in 1974. It is a non-selective herbicide, meaning that it kills most plants pretty indiscriminately. Actually, that is why GMO crops that are glyphosate resistant are so popular – they can withstand glyphosate application, when most plants can’t.

The most popular product containing glyphosate is Round-Up, which is not only used by farmers, but also everybody with a lawn. I remember my dad spraying the driveway cracks with the stuff, and paying me to painstakingly try to paint the leaves of dandelions that had found their way into our yard without dripping Roundup on the grass.

Shaky Reception to Widespread Use

At first, Round-Up received a rather shaky reception. Since glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide, you can’t spray it on a field of regular crops – it’ll kill the crops. It was clearly useful for sidewalk cracks and clearing land of all vegetation, but it’s reception in agriculture was mixed…until the invention of Round-Up Ready canola, the first Round-Up Ready crop. This GMO allowed farmers to spray Round-Up herbicide on the crops, and watch the weeds die but the crops survive. As Monsanto began to develop more Round-Up Ready GMOs – focusing on the most lucrative, high-demand crops like corn and soybeans – Round-Up use skyrocketed. Today, it is the most widely used herbicide in agriculture, at least in the US.

According to Roundup’s official website, glyphosate was hailed as “one of the most environmentally friendly herbicides in the history of agriculture.”

This is true.

“WHAT?!” says the mom who buys all organic and avoids GMOs like the plague. “But in your GMO post you said you hate Roundup and it’s bad for people and the environment!”

Well yeah, it is bad. But it’s definitely better than some other herbicides.

Let’s talk about some history for a second.

Life Before Round-Up: A Brief History of Weed Control

I think sometimes anti-glyphosate advocates think that before Round-Up, farmers weeded their fields by hand and used horses to plow their fields. Therefore, they think, if we ban RoundUp, there will be no more harmful chemicals!

But that’s simply not the case.

Prior to the 20th century, weeds were simply endured, or removed by hand or with plows. Many ancient cultures had special methods of planting and combining crops (such as the Native American Three Sisters planting method) to prevent weeds and maximize crop production. Others just accepted the existence of weeds and dealt with lower crop yields as a result.

Research on using inorganic compounds (read: chemicals) for weed control, began in the 1890s and progressed almost exclusively in academic circles until the 1940s. Some farmers used things like salt and copper sulfate to help with weeds; these methods are still used in organic farming. But in the early 1940s, Dow Chemical Company came up with an herbicide called 2,4-D.

2,4-D

2,4-D is a selective herbicide, meaning that it kills certain plants but not other plants. Conveniently, it’s cheap and it kills broadleaf, dicot plants – like most weeds – while leaving monocots – like grass, wheat, and corn – alone. It is commonly used on grass-like plants, including both lawns and crops. In fact, it is often mixed with glyphosate to make a super-weed killer, since over time plants can develop resistance to chemicals and some are resistant to 2,4-D, whereas others are resistant to glyphosate.

Many people who are against 2,4-D talk about it’s environmental impacts. It is known to be toxic to aquatic life, and has been found in groundwater in relatively high quantities. The EPA has also found it in drinking water. It does degrade relatively quickly in aquatic environments, but it’s prevalence is still concerning from an environmental and health standpoint.

Studies also show that it is an endocrine disruptor, which is a fairly recent and serious human health concern. The EPA is currently investigating concerns over this issue. Endocrine disrupting chemicals, which include compounds such as BPA and parabens, have only recently been identified as a health concern. It’s important to realize that scientists didn’t begin investigating endocrine disrupting chemicals until the 1990s. Early safety studies for 2,4-D – as well as other pesticides – would not have examined the chemical’s effect on the endocrine system. We can’t blame scientists from the 1940s for not realizing that a variety of chemicals were harmful to the endocrine system, but we also can’t count on their declarations of safety because they didn’t know what the endocrine system was.

The endocrine system, for the non-sciencey people, is basically the hormone system of the body. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can harm the thyroid, androgens, estrogen, and other reproductive hormones, contributing to various autoimmune diseases, cancers, and reproductive problems. I’m not saying that 2,4-D definitively causes any of those illnesses, but if it is an endocrine disruptor, then it may contribute to some or all of them.

2,4-D has also been linked to cancer. This isn’t conclusive yet – since 2,4-D used to be mixed with other chemicals that DEFINITELY cause cancer (in a formula best known as Agent Orange), it’s not clear if 2,4-D causes cancer by itself. As of 2015, there hadn’t been adequate studies done on 2,4-D to determine whether or not it was cancerous to humans, but it was marked as “possibly carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The World Health Organization reached similar conclusions (you can read their analysis here). Studies done by Dow Chemical Company (the manufacturers of 2,4-D) maintain that their studies show no connection between the product and cancer but…take that with a grain of salt. After all, they make money by selling this herbicide.

Of course, just because a company is making money off of something, doesn’t mean their study is inherently untrustworthy. However, I think it’s really important to always take company-sponsored studies with a grain of salt. If a third party, with no monetary stake in the issue, finds a problem with a product, I’m more inclined to believe them than the company making the product.

On the bright side, 2,4-D residue is not much of a concern in food, and it does break down quickly in the soil. It has a half life of only 14 days. This means that half of the herbicide put into the soil will be broken down after only 14 days. This is a fairly short half-life for a herbicide, and is good news for the farmer or gardener who decides to stop using it and is waiting for residues to leave the soil before planting.

Atrazine

Atrazine is yet another herbicide that is typically used on broadleaf weeds, particularly in corn production. In 2002, it was  the most popular herbicide worldwide, use in over 80 countries. However, in what is becoming a familiar patterns, studies emerged to show that atrazine has detrimental health and environmental effects.

First of all, like 2,4-D, atrazine is a potent endocrine disruptor. Several studies in frogs showed major sexual problems resulting from exposure to atrazine – this is an environmental issue, as well as potentially evidence of a human health issue. Upon review of this new information, the European Union banned the use of atrazine in 2004, but the United States did not. Atrazine levels have been found in the water supply, with spikes occurring seasonally during times of application. In fact, many local municipalities shut down community wells during these times a preventative measure.

Atrazine use, however, is declining, largely due to GMO corn and glyphosate. It is estimated that banning atrazine in the United States now would only result in a 1% yield reduction, compared a 6% reduction back in 2002.

Paraquat

Paraquat is a commonly used herbicide worldwide, though it is super toxic and banned in numerous Western countries. In fact, it is so toxic that it is not available to the public even in the United States; only people with special commercial licenses can purchase it. Basically, if you drink it, it kills you. If you only eat a little tiny bit of it, it might just cause crazy adverse effects, like lung scarring and kidney failure. To prevent people from eating it, paraquat generally has blue dye added to it. It also has a chemical added to induce vomiting in case somebody eats it.

Okay, but people aren’t exactly supposed to mix herbicides into their morning coffee. You shouldn’t eat bleach either, or gasoline. Who cares?

Well, paraquat poisoning can also occur through skin exposure and inhalation. That is why the sale is restricted in the United States; people need special training in order to buy and apply paraquat. There have also been studies linking it to all sorts of stuff including Parkinson’s disease, depression and other mood disorders, chronic lung problems, and more.

Environmentally, this stuff is pretty nasty. It’s estimated half life is anywhere from 16 months (based on a study in a lab) to 13 years (based on a study in the field). It’s toxic to aquatic life, and can be taken up by aquatic plants, which maintain residues for a long time. Residues have also been found in food, including potatoes.

Clearly, this stuff is not good. It’s been banned in Europe and China, although it is still produced and exported from these countries. It is primarily used in third world countries, where it has been linked to all sorts of issues. Use in the United States is also increasing, as crops become resistant to glyphosate.

Glyphosate – The Herbicide Savior?

I could go on, listing various chemicals – many of which aren’t used much any more – but I think you get my point. Glyphosate is, without a doubt, the least  toxic conventional herbicide that we have developed to date.

Using glyphosate is much better than many of the other chemicals that were used before glyphosate – at least, as far as we can tell, right now.

But this doesn’t mean glyphosate use is a good idea, and I do avoid it.  It does have negative health and environmental impacts, particularly given the scale at which is used in the present day.

More importantly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that it is not necessary for high yield farming.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Why Glyphosate Sucks (coming soon!), and Part 3: The Future of Farming & You (also coming soon!)

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