This is Part 2 of a four-part series on glyphosate. Read Part 1 here, and learn about the history of herbicides and why glyphosate was an improvement over what farmers were using in the past (and in many cases, are still using).
In The News
You may have heard about glyphosate in the news lately, or heard the class-action lawsuit ads on television. “Have you been exposed to glyphosate?” the ads ask. “Do you have cancer? You could be eligible to sue Monsanto!”
You also know, from my GMO post and some of the comments I alluded to in Part 1 of this series, that I am not a big fan of glyphosate. I acknowledge that it’s better than lots of other chemicals, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. Here’s some of the issues with it:
Conveniently, the recent news about Round-Up and cancer lawsuits, have caused several websites to compile links to the studies that point out the health concerns of glyphosate. Unless otherwise linked below, the studies I am referring to can be found here.
This is the health concern that has been in the news lately, and ironically, I think it is probably the least significant concern. However, let’s address it briefly:
The role in glyphosate in causing cancer is controversial. The World Health Organization classifies it as a probable carcinogen; the EPA disagrees. Links have been found between glyphosate and lymphoma, specifically non-Hodgekin’s lymphoma, according to several 2019 studies. Monsanto (now owned by Bayer, but referred to here as Monsanto, since it was under the name “Monsanto” that the company was originally implicated in the glyphosate controversy) maintains that their research shows the chemical is perfectly safe.
There’s also some accusations and inconclusive evidence that Monsanto manipulated the scientific results on glyphosate’s safety and made false claims in the scientific literature. This has been a central feature of some of the lawsuits. All the internal emails and documentation released at the courts is available at on the US Right to Know website. It appears inconclusive, but more evidence keeps coming out, so we’ll see.
Some research has tied glyphosate to miscarriage, birth defects, and premature labor/delivery. Much of this research is preliminary; more research is needed to make definitive conclusions. However, it is definitely concerning. Several of the studies on reproductive effects of glyphosate were conducted in humans, although others were conducted in animal models.
Some studies link glyphosate to liver issues, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. It is also linked to depression/anxiety and a disruption of gut bacteria. Good evidence links it, along with some other herbicides (2,4-D and dicamba), to antibiotic resistance, which is a major public health issue. This may have something to do with disrupted gut bacteria.
It is important to realize that one study linking a chemical to something doesn’t necessarily mean that the chemical causes the problem. However, it does cast suspicion and is worth studying further…preferably by independent researchers who are not funded by Monsanto/Bayer.
I care a lot about public health – in another universe, I could have been perfectly happy as a public health advocate or nutritionist – but I’m actually more concerned about the environmental effects of glyphosate than I am about the health effects.
Please keep in mind that the vast majority of the glyphosate being sprayed is NOT coming into contact with people. The concentrations are not very high in food (although, yes, some studies have shown residues in common products, like cereals and yes, I’d prefer to avoid residues altogether). I would actually argue that the biggest health concerns would affect the farmers or lawn workers who are spraying the chemicals, since they are far more likely to come into direct contact with high concentrations of it. For the average consumer, however, there are other things that I’m more concerned about.
But environmentally? Glyphosate is potentially pretty nasty.
To prevent this post from being 800 pages long, I’m not going to get into super great detail on how the soil ecosystem works (though the biology teacher in me would like to start drawing diagrams on a chalkboard and yelling excitedly about bacteria). But suffice it to say that the dirt is whole ecosystem, in and of itself.
Like, think about a lake ecosystem. It has a bunch of plants, and algaes, and fish, and bugs, and bacteria, and frogs, and turtles, and mammals, and birds that eat the fish, right? It’s complex. Well, a cup of soil is equally as complex. Soil science is a Thing in it’s own right. People get degrees in it. I have a friend who got a degree in it, and she spent hours and hours studying the numerous bacteria and microorganisms in different soils.
Well, glyphosate – obviously – gets into the soils where it is sprayed. It is highly water soluble, so scientists used to assume that it quickly washed out of the soil. This is generally true in sandy soils. However, it can also bind to certain things in soil, especially clay soils, lasting over a year.
While in the soil, glyphosate does several disruptive things (that we know about). Some microorganisms can basically eat the glyphosate (and break it down), so the amount of those organisms increases. Other microorganisms decrease in the presence of glyphosate. The same is true of various types of fungi. Interestingly, in soybeans (one of the most commonly GMO/highly sprayed crops as you may remember from my GMO post), fungi that causes plant diseases tend to increase with glyphosate, where fungi that prevents disease decreases. These changes to the soil ecosystem could have negative effects on soil health. I’m definitely concerned about widespread application of something that totally disrupts the soil, especially since soil is the backbone of successful food production. Soil health determine plant health, and affects the nutrients that are present in the food we grow.
Oh, right. It also is somewhat toxic to earthworms, specifically affecting their reproduction. Worms are pretty important for soil health.
Like I mentioned before, glyphosate is highly water soluble. As a result, it is found in groundwater and surface water all over the world. In fact, it is even found in rainwater and snow-melt. This gets us back into some of those human health concerns…
Side note: Glyphosate is found in fairly high amounts in rivers and lakes near lots of agriculture. It’s also found in wells in those areas…sometimes over the “safe” amount! This article contains some pretty disturbing statistics on this, if you are interested.
But basically, glyphosate is terrible for aquatic ecosystems. Lots and lots and lots of studies exist that study it’s effects on various aquatic organisms, including frogs, mussels, and more. In general, glyphosate exposure appears cause cognitive issues, deformities, and reproductive problems in these creatures.
One of my BIGGEST problems with glyphosate is it’s potential effect on bees. As in, it hurts bees (probably).
As you may know, bees are declining. This is a big issue because we NEED BEES to provide pollination, not to mention to make honey and beeswax. They are an integral part of our ecosystem, and environmental scientists are pretty concerned about the decline in bees, specifically honeybees.
Honey is delicious.
Anyhow, here’s the logic:
- Glyphosate causes honeybees (and other critters) to suffer cognitive impairments. This makes it harder for the bees to spatially map out their environment, which makes it harder for them to find their way back to their hives. This study used concentrations of glyphosate similar to what would be found in your average farm field. This is an issue because it’s critical for bees to be able to find their way back to their hive. If they can’t do that, they die. Also, their hive health declines (and possibly dies) because the hive is dependent on the bees going out, finding pollen, and bringing it back to the hive. There’s also crazy studies showing cognitive impairments in mosquitoes.
- Glyphosate ALSO may be harming the immunity of honeybees to disease. Remember how I said it can affect gut bacteria? Well, there are well-documented effects on this specific bacteria in the guts of bees, which helps immature bees fight off disease. This is also bad for overall bee health.
Although glyphosate is much better than some of its chemical predecessors, it’s NOT good for you.
In fact, with GMO crops and and increased consumption of processed foods that come from heavily sprayed crops, scientists estimate that consumption of glyphosate residues have increased over 500%. Some scientists are concerned that this long-term low-level exposure could cause health problems in the general population.
Other people, like the ones advertising class-action lawsuits on TV, are concerned about the groundskeepers and farmers who are exposed to high amounts of the chemical on a regular basis. What about their health?
There’s also concern about the environment. It looks like the widespread use of glyphosate is negatively impacting bee populations. It hurts worms. It’s causing problems for aquatic species, including frogs and mussels. It messes with soil health and ecosystems. It could (and probably does) have affects on all sorts of species that interact with it.
So why aren’t we banning it? IT’S POISON! STOP PRODUCTION IMMEDIATELY!
Stay tuned for Part 3 where I explain why we can’t (and shouldn’t) do that…..though I do hate glyphosate and would love to see a world where it’s not used, or at least used very rarely.
(But please don’t go out and buy any…)