Why You Should Know About Glyphosate if You Care About GMOs

What is the connection between glyphosate and GMO crops?

On Glyphosate:

What is it?

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, the most popular weed-killer for homes and businesses around the world.

What’s the issue?

The WHO ranked Glyphosate as a level 2A carcinogen, which means that it is “probably carcinogenic” to humans. Although it had been used in the food system since the 1970s without any proven negative effects, the use of the chemical in agriculture has changed with the introduction of “Roundup Ready” seeds in 1996. Instead of spraying the weeds around the intended crops, suddenly farmers were able to spray directly onto the harvest at any point during the growing process.

Despite the WHO’s findings, Roundup remains the most widely used herbicide in this country and (probably) worldwide.

What is the connection between Glyphosate and GMO crops?
  1. Some GMO crops—many of those used in this country in commodity food production of corn, soybean, and cotton—are formulated to be “Roundup Ready” (RR). That is, Roundup, which is a non-specific herbicide, would usually kill any plants it was sprayed on—weed or not. With RR crops, Roundup may be sprayed on developing plants that are later consumed directly by humans or indirectly through livestock.
  2. Because Roundup is a herbicide, when GMO seed use increased, pesticide use went down. Herbicide use, however, increased. There is not enough research on the long-term effects of either to choose one that is “better”. The point is, pesticides were displaced by herbicides, and the overall exposure of our food to chemicals has not gone down.

Roundup and/or Glyphosate are a topic all on their own, separate from GMOs, and there is ongoing debate. Mostly because there are many ways in which the chemical needs to be studied, and relatively few studies to provide definitive information. Something could be carcinogenic at certain exposure levels, or over a period of time, in or certain circumstances. Because Roundup is the most popular herbicide in the world, it appears that a more definitive link between the spraying used in our food system and a clear risk to the health of consumers is needed before the US government will take action to limit use in this country.

Here’s what we do know:
  1. Previous studies have not found Glyphosate levels in water runoff. Because Glyphosate binds tightly to the soil, it takes a long time to disconnect the chemical from the ground in order to enter the water system. However, rainwater and atmospheric levels were high when tested.
  2. Glyphosate vs. Roundup: More recent evidence that may actually shift the debate about Glyphosate has found that the other “inert” ingredients in Roundup (you know, the ones not listed as “active ingredients”) may be harmful on their own or in the unique concoction that exists in Roundup.
  3. Because the EPA and other governing agencies usually concern themselves with the active ingredient in chemicals, there are only a few recent studies looking at the effects of Roundup as a whole.
What you can do:
  1. To limit exposure, avoid using Roundup around your home and ask questions about your local parks and schools to see if they use the chemical in their lawn maintenance.
  2. Avoid processed foods, most of which contain soybean oil and/or high fructose corn syrup, both of which are derived from commodity crops. In 2011, 94% of soybean crops and 72% of corn used RR seeds.
  3. Buy organic or local. All of our Organic and local produce suppliers are non-GMO, so they will never use RR seeds. Our local growers and organic farmers use responsible pest-management, which at times may include the limited use of pesticides or other chemicals. For a more in-depth debate on organic pesticide use, read this.

Making GMO seeds that are Roundup Ready is only one application of biotechnology in agriculture. The possibilities are vast (please see my other post for more on this) and the debate about whether or not to use them is multi-faceted.

I hope that the health concerns associated with the use of Glyphosate can be addressed by our government in legislation separate from that which deals with GMO use and labeling, as Europe has done. The EU has yet to approve a renewal of Glyphosate use. Approval has been delayed by protests throughout the continent, and many to believe that an out-right ban may be coming.

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