Glyphosate, the most used herbicide on the planet, has managed to evade our attention amidst the media bombardment on GMOs. Its use threatens all elements of life from seed to society.
The dangers associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are slowing beginning to infiltrate the minds of the mainstream.
It is getting harder to ignore the scientific evidence coming out of the US, Europe, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and many other countries. But while academics, NGOs, pressure groups and even some governments are taking charge of the anti-GMO movement, Big Agri-business continues to push on and trample its path to pastures new; prophesying the benefits of an experimental technology that devastates all levels of life itself that are integral to the cyclical balance of the earth.
Yet, less publicised are the less obvious and more complex intricacies that are essential to the success of GMO implementation, one of these being the inescapable need for herbicides and the impacts of such a relationship.
Glyphosate is the most applied herbicide worldwide. Its herbicidal characteristics were discovered by a Monsanto chemist in 1970 and Monsanto subsequently brought it to market in 1974 under the trade name Roundup©. Farmers all over the world quickly adopted glyphosate-based Roundup due to the propagated benefits over older forms of herbicide and their well documented problems associated with crop damage and human health (Nelsen 2016). The uptake also increased after Monsanto introduced glyphosate-resistant ‘Roundup-ready’ GM seeds, enabling Monsanto to sell seeds and herbicide as a commercial package allowing farmers to kill weeds without killing their crops (Buffin and Jewell 2001).
In 2014, 240 million pounds of glyphosate was applied worldwide – 100 times more than in the mid-1970s, soon after its 1974 introduction. It is so ubiquitous that surveys show that almost all Europeans have significant traces of the substance in their bodies (Nelsen 2016). Initially, industry toxicity testing suggested that GBHs posed relatively low risk to non-target species, including humans (Meyers et al 2016).
However, in March 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO), together with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), found that there was “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans”, “sufficient evidence that glyphosate can cause cancer in laboratory animals” (mice) and evidence that “glyphosate also caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells” (IARC/WHO 2015). Monsanto relies heavily on its sales of glyphosate-based Roundup and its crops genetically modified to resists this weed killer and so the company publicly demanded the withdrawal of what they termed “junk science” and lobbied the WHO to “rectify” the conclusions of the report (CEO 2015).
Conversely, in November of the same year, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”. This conclusion was anxiously anticipated in the pesticide world and was met with relief by the industry; “Science wins!” rejoiced Monsanto Chief Technology officer Robb Fraley on Twitter (2015). With this assessment, EFSA had reached a verdict opposite to that of the panel of scientists convened by IARC.
Then, in May 2016, the WHO and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) released their revised findings on the safety of glyphosate; “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet” (FAO/WHO 2016). This revision supported the findings of the EFSA from November 2015 and simultaneously dismissed IARC’s findings that “there is strong evidence that glyphosate causes genotoxicity”.
A clash of methodologies
And so a conflict erupted between the EFSA and IARC. Determining who is right and who is not is difficult for non-toxicologists but the differences in the two analytic processes are interesting.
Firstly, as glyphosate is rarely used alone in the real world but in hundreds of different combinations, IARC scientists reviewed several studies assessing glyphosate formulations. The EFSA assessment, on the other hand, was confined to EU pesticide legislation, in which only the declared ‘active substance’ (glyphosate) is tested. This approach to assessment by the EU poses a fundamental problem; considering that the end product combines different compounds to obtain a synergistic effect, and thus, the health impact of commercial formulations escape assessment at the EU level.
Further to this, the studies used by the EFSA to assess the risk of regulated products are paid for and provided by their producers. And, most of these studies are only accessible to regulators, and not the scientific community or the public (because according to industry they contain trade secrets and could be used by competitors to obtain market authorisation elsewhere). Throughout the process, IARC only used publicly available data, with meetings accessible to observers (including industry) and a panel filled with top specialists while excluding all conflicts of interest.
Conversely, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), the lead agency involved in EU assessment on glyphosate and the EFSA relied on industry-sponsored studies to which only they and industry stakeholders could see. An access to documents requested at EFSA by the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO 2016) revealed that among the 73 national experts who participated in EFSA’s peer review on glyphosate, only 14 agreed to disclose their names as their country’s representative in the process and not a single expert from BfR was named. This is further problematised given the fact that BfR hold a policy which allows industry employees on its panels, of which its current pesticide panel includes employees of chemical giants Bayer (who recently bought Monsanto for $66 billion) and BASF.
In addition, it is worth noting that the publication from the FAO and WHO Joint Meeting of Pesticide Residues (JAMPR) came just two days before the EU standing committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed was due to vote on whether or not to extend the pesticide’s license in Europe, which took place on May 18th 2016. Greenpeace questioned the independence of EFSA’s report and suspected that two key experts involved – Alan Boobis and Angelo Moretto – were not neutral contributors (Michail 2016). According to the CEO (2016), both have ties to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) which is primarily funded by private companies, including Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta – all manufacturers of glyphosate.
Benefit of the doubt?
PAN (Pesticide Action Network) Europe commented that “EFSA’s opinion violates the precautionary principle; BfR and EFSA only conclude to adverse effects in case of overwhelming evidence; in case of doubt they give the advantage of the doubt to industry instead of giving priority to the protection of human health and the environment.”
Furthermore, environmental toxicologist Dr. Angeliki Lysimachou highlights how the core value of the precautionary principle, which sits at the heart of European health and safety standards, is being eroded through the suspicious approval of glyphosate; “European citizens trust the Commission that if a chemical is ‘probably carcinogenic’, it will be banned from agriculture and won’t end up as residues in food and the environment. It is unacceptable that EFSA decided to dismiss the scientific evidence showing the potential of glyphosate to cause cancer and genotoxicity, putting at risk human health and the environment” (PAN Europe 2015).
What more recent studies show is that cancer is not the only condition that can be induced by exposure to glyphosate. There are in fact a multitude of other physiological conditions that threaten human health. Yet the toxicity evaluation by IARC, BfR and EFSA places the safety of glyphosate in its entirety, solely on its ability to cause cancer. By viewing such a complex system of nature through a pinhole, other parts of the picture are rendered invisible and this has grave consequences for the health of human society.
In addition to the political circus that aims to balance and juggle supposedly objective scientific claims, we must also question the lens through which the science itself is observed. The primary way by which glyphosate kills the weeds is through the inhibition of a key plant enzyme, EPSPS (5-enolpyruvylshikimic acid-3-phosphate synthase). This enzyme is part of the shikimate acid pathway and is essential for the synthesis of amino acids that control vital metabolic processes in plants, fungi and bacteria.
Since the shikimate pathway does not exist in vertebrae cells, some scientists and most regulators have assumed that glyphosate poses minimal risk to mammals (Williams. G. M, Kroes. R, Munro. I. C 2000, Duke. S. O, Baerson. S. R 2003). However, the shikimate acid pathway is present in gut bacteria, which play an important and heretofore largely overlooked role in human physiology through an integrated biosemiotic relationship with the human host and several studies (Lu et al 2013, de Maria et al, Herrmann and Weaver 1999, Henry, Koger and Shaner 2005, Beecham and Seneff 2016, Samsel and Seneff 2013, Steinrucken and Amrhein 1980) now show that glyphosate based herbicides can adversely affect mammalian biology via the microbiome.
Many independent scientists (Samsel and Seneff 2013, de Maria et al 1996, Lu W et al 2015, D’Brant 2015, Dunn 2007, Seneff 2016) are claiming that the use of glyphosate in modern industrial agricultural may be the leading cause of many health issues in humans: imbalances of the gut bacteria, gastrointestinal diseases, inflammatory bowel disease, chronic diarrhoea, colitis and Crohn’s disease, as well as cardiovascular diseases, depletion of micronutrients, Alzheimer’s, autism, sulphur/sulphate deficiency, depression, Parkinson’s Disease, birth defects, reproductive disorders, aggression, obesity, Vitamin D deficiency and cell signalling disorders (D’Brant 2015). While many other environmental toxins can also contribute to these diseases and conditions, many scientists are claiming that glyphosate may be the most significant, primarily due to its widespread application and imprecise handling as a result of its perceived non-toxicity.
The evidence makes clear firstly, that without acknowledging the complex and ecologically bound relationships found in nature, a mechanistic science ostensibly reduces complexities into isolated, elemental parts, devoid of their environment. This produces a level of ignorance that is widely accepted by regulating bodies such as the BfR, EFSA and WHO – those responsible for the health and safety of modern society. Secondly, the evidence suggests the need for an assessment framework birthed in an intellectual space that demands complex analysis of equally complex scientific investigations.
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