Before you grab that bottle of Roundup® to kill those early spring weeds, you need to read this. And if you think it’s just an innocuous, low-risk chemical, you’re in for a surprise.
There is so much more to Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate. From claims that it revolutionizes agriculture to a Monsanto monopoly to predictable failure and corporate bullying, Roundup may be the tobacco of this decade.
First the science (of course). Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum, non-selective (kills everything) herbicide, introduced in 1974. It’s most commonly known by the Monsanto brand name of Roundup, but since its patent expired in 2000, it’s now generically sold under many colorful names, including Touchdown (Syngenta), Rodeo (Dow), Landmaster (AgriStar), Rascal (Winfield Solutions), Rattler (Helena Chemical), Honcho (Monsanto), and, my favorite, Mad Dog (Loveland Products).
Glyphosate kills plants by inhibiting a plant enzyme, EPSPS, that helps produce three amino acids that are essential to plant growth. EPSPS is not present in humans or animals, but is present in plants and microorganisms .
When first released, glyphosate changed how crops were managed. However, real change came with the introduction of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready® crops, first introduced in 1996. These crop seeds sold exclusively by Monsanto were genetically modified for resistance to Roundup. The pairing of Roundup with Roundup Ready crops created a whole new way to farm that was revolutionary, if short-sighted: plant the Roundup Ready crops and spray the death out of agricultural fields with Roundup to kill all of the weeds but not the target crop.
The Roundup Ready System was sold as being environmentally friendly, because more toxic herbicides were no longer needed and it supported a no-till method of farming. It was a huge success. According to the USDA, 64.3 million pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides were used on corn crops and 15 million pounds were used on cotton crops in 2010 . Statistics for soybeans were not available, but heavy glyphosate use is known.
A tangent here for two paragraphs. Glyphosate-resistant genetically modified crops, or GMOs as they are often referred to, are created by substituting a gene from a certain soil bacterium into the genome of the host crop. In the case of Roundup Ready crops, the implanted gene encodes for an alternate form of the EPSPS enzyme (called the CP4 EPSPS enzyme) that is not inhibited by glyphosate, allowing the plant to produce the needed amino acids and grow in the presence of Roundup. All plants produced from the seeds of the modified host plant have and will pass on this substituted gene and will have the glyphosate resistance.
Currently, there are CP4 EPSPS forms of corn, cotton, soybean, canola, and alfalfa. According to the USDA, in 2011, 94 percent of the U.S. soybean acreage, 73 percent of the U.S. cotton acreage, and 72 percent of the U.S. corn acreage was genetically modified . While Roundup Ready crops were the first on the market, other genetic modifications have been made to crops using different bacteria, affecting different enzyme systems, and imparting resistance to different herbicides.
But let’s just stick to glyphosate for now. More on GMO issues later.
Because humans and animals don’t possess EPSPS, glyphosate generally has a low toxicity profile, at least in terms of gross effects. This certainly has been the marketing spin from Monsanto. While conventional toxicological studies have typically shown glyphosate to have low human and environmental toxicity, more recent and refined studies have identified some potential adverse effects:
- Low concentrations of Roundup and glyphosate were found to cause a 35 percent decrease in testosterone production in mature rat fresh testicular cells in a 2011 study .
- A 2010 study in rats found that commercial formulations of glyphosate changed the progression of puberty in rats, reduced testosterone production, and caused morphological changes to the seminiferous tubules where sperm is produced .
- A 2010 study found that glyphosate causes malformations of the skull, face, midline, developing brain, and spinal cord in frog and chicken embryos at doses much lower than used in agricultural settings. The research was prompted by reports of high birth defect rates of a similar nature in areas of Argentina where Roundup Ready soy was being grown (more than 200 million liters of glyphosate-based herbicides are reportedly used in
Argentina each year) .
There are more, but I’ll spare you. According to an article in the Argentine press, after Dr. Carrasco (the primary researcher in the Argentinean study), gave a pre-publication interview on his study results, he was visited by men who claimed to be members of an agrochemical industry body and who demanded to see records of the experiments, and he also received threatening phone messages . Despite these newer studies, Monsanto maintains that Roundup is safe.
But attempts to foil nature eventually fail. As any high school biology student can tell you, things evolve in response to external conditions. And just as overuse of antibiotics has resulted in antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, so too have weeds mutated to become resistant to glyphosate. Often referred to as "superweeds”, these new forms of common agricultural weeds are growing
stronger, thicker, and faster than their glyphosate-sensitive fore bearers. And these weeds are causing incredible problems for farmers.
Reports indicate that there are at least 11 different weed species in the U.S. known to be resistant to glyphosate and an estimated 31 million acres in the U.S. are impacted by herbicide-resistant weeds [8,9]. That’s about the size of 40 Rhode Islands!
The response to this by the pesticide industry has been to recommend the use of additional herbicides, many of which are appreciably more toxic than Roundup, such as 2,4-D and atrazine. So the claim that GMO crops and the Roundup Ready System would result in less herbicide use has failed. In fact, according to 2010 USDA estimates, the use of glyphosate has dramatically increased over the last several years while the use of other more toxic herbicides has not declined .
Moreover, crops are being genetically re-engineered to be resistant to more than one kind of herbicide or combinations of herbicides and insecticides in a futile attempt to stay ahead of natural selection. Currently, Dow is petitioning the USDA for approval of its 2,4-D-resistant corn for market release this year (the public comment period ends April 27th), and the introduction of 2,4-D-resistant soy is planned for next year and 2,4-D-resistant cotton in 2015 . If approved, the use of 2,4-D across the country is certain to sky-rocket.
So the issue widens from just glyphosate itself to the whole pesticide/GMO pairing system. While the manufacturers and even the government have taken the position that GMO crops carry no undue risks, a finding by Retired Colonel Dom M. Huber caught my attention.
Dr Huber, an Emeritus Professor at Purdue University and coordinator for the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System, wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on January 16, 2011, of his discovery of a “previously unknown organism only visible under an electron microscope… [that] appears to be a micro-fungal-like organism. … It is found in high concentrations in Roundup Ready soybean meal and corn, distillers meal, fermentation feed products, pig stomach contents, and pig and cattle placentas. Laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of this organism in a wide variety of livestock that have experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility …[and] may explain the escalating frequency of infertility and spontaneous abortions over the past few years in U.S. cattle, dairy, swine, and horse operations” .
He urged the USDA to study this further. Monsanto, in its well-known aggressive corporate character, has a web page dedicated to responding to Dr. Huber’s findings, as well as pages on other individuals that Monsanto has sued for patent infringement .
A growing problem with GMO crops is that they don’t stay where they’re planted. Seeds and pollen escape from GMO farms to farms growing non-GMO crops, and can intermingle or cross-breed with non-GMO plants, contaminating the non-GMO farmer’s fields. If that farm is intending to market certified organic products, they are compelled to undertaken expensive and burdensome measures to avoid or detect GMO-contamination. And even with such measures, GMO contamination cannot be totally prevented. This puts the farmers in a position of inadvertently infringing on Monsanto’s patent rights, which Monsanto has been notorious for enforcing.
A law suit was filed against Monsanto on this issue last spring. The suit, filed by the Public Patent foundation [The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) et al. v. Monsanto] on behalf of family farmers, seed businesses, and farming organizations, are seeking a declaratory judgment against Monsanto. If granted, the judgment will prohibit Monsanto from suing for patent infringement in the event that its patented genes, such as the glyphosate tolerance gene, should turn up in seeds or plants grown by organic or heirloom farmers. Federal Judge Naomi Buchwald indicated that she would rule on the motion to dismiss the trial or move forward by March 31st [14,15].
All this from a little bottle of Roundup. Glyphosate is currently undergoing a periodic re-registration review by the Environmental Protection Agency (the docket was opened in July 2009) and it will be interesting to follow how new toxicological data, epidemiological studies, and lawsuits affect Roundup’s re-registration. Monsanto promises to show some unsavory corporate behavior, which should provide some interesting fodder for the coming presidential election.
So, the point of all of this? To educate you and to urge you to make an informed decision regarding Roundup. Pick your weeds by hands or get a propane weed torch (they can be bought for less than $50). But consider the bigger issues here and don’t use Roundup.
1. Monsanto Backgrounder: History of Monsanto’s Glyphosate Herbicide (June 2005).
2. USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. Agricultural Chemical Usage Reports http://www.nass.usda.gov/Statistics_by_Subject/Environmental/index.asp.
3. USDA Economic Research Service, Adoption of Genetically Engineered Crops in the U.S.: Extent of Adoption (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data/biotechcrops/adoption.htm).
4. Clair E et al. (2012). A glyphosate-based herbicide induces necrosis and apoptosis on mature rate testicular cells in vitro, and testosterone decrease at lower levels. Toxicology in Vitro, 26(2) March, 269-279.
5. Romano et al. (2010) Prepubertal exposure to commercial formulation of the herbicide glyphosate alters testosterone levels and testicular morphology Archives of Toxicology 84(4) 309-317.
6. Paganelli et al (2010). Glyphosate-Based Herbicides Produce Teratogenic Effects on Vertebrates by Impairing Retinoic Acid Signaling. Chem. Res. Toxicol. (2010, 23 (1), pp 1586-1595.
7. Página|12 Sunday, April 26, 2009 (http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/elpais/1-123932-2009-04-26.html).
8. International Survey of Herbicide-Resistant Weeds (http://www.weedscience.org/In.asp).
9. Science News (2011) Weeds increasingly immune to herbicides. July 2, Vol.180 #1.
10. Beyond Pesticides Daily News Blog, June 3, 2011.
11. USDA APHIS Biotechnology Regulatory Services (2011). Factsheet: Questions and Answers: Request for Comments on Dow, Inc. Petition on DAS-40278-9 2,4-D tolerant Corn. www.aphis.usda.gov/publications/.../2011/24D_tolerant_corn.pdf).
12. Reuters New Service (2/24/2011). Scientist warns on safety of Monsanto's Roundup (http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/02/24/us-monsanto-roundup-idUSTRE71N4XN20110224)
13. Monsanto (2011).Statement About Alleged Plant athogen Potentially Associated with Roundup Ready Crops February 22. (ttp://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/huber-pathogen-roundup-ready-crops.aspx).
14. Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association ( http://www.osgata.org/).
15. Public Patent Foundation (http://www.pubpat.org/monsanto-seed-patents.htm).