As legal cases against the controversial weedkiller Roundup ramp up, health concerns about the herbicide’s key ingredient — glyphosate — also are ramping up.
Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, is under heightened scrutiny after the awarding in August 2018 of a $289 million jury verdict to a former groundskeeper who blames his terminal cancer on repeated exposure to Roundup. Three months later, he agreed to a reduced verdict of about $78 million. Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, continues to vigorously fight the case.
Now owned by German pharmaceutical and life sciences conglomerate Bayer, Monsanto still faces thousands of lawsuits filed by people alleging that exposure to glyphosate caused their cancer. The quarrel over whether glyphosate is a carcinogen lies at the heart of the legal wrangling.
While people (such as the groundskeeper) who’ve had direct contact with Roundup claim they’ve been stricken with cancer as a result, everyday consumers also worry about the effects of glyphosate. Consumers’ fears have been stoked by research showing the presence of glyphosate residue in some everyday foods.
Amid those fears, we’re providing answers to these common questions about glyphosate:
- What is glyphosate?
- How is glyphosate used?
- Where in the food chain has glyphosate shown up?
- Does glyphosate cause cancer?
- What other health problems has glyphosate been linked to?
- How can you avoid glyphosate?
- What can you do to fight the use of glyphosate?
What is glyphosate?
Glyphosate is an herbicide found in weed-killing products like Roundup. Monsanto patented glyphosate in the early 1970s as the active ingredient in Roundup, the European Glyphosate Task Force says, and started selling Roundup to consumers in 1974. Following expiration of the patent in 2000, other manufacturers have marketed glyphosate-based products.
How is glyphosate used?
To control weeds, farmers spray glyphosate-based products like Roundup on crops. Among those crops are GMO corn and soybeans. In addition, farmers turn to glyphosate to speed up the harvesting process for non-GMO crops like wheat, barley, oats and beans. It’s also used to kill weeds that sprout up in lawns and gardens at homes, schools, parks and similar places.
Where has glyphosate shown up in the food chain?
Studies have turned up glyphosate residue in some grocery products such as snack crackers, snack chips and oat-based breakfast cereals.
Some critics complain that the limit set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on glyphosate residue in foods is too high — 30 parts per million — and would like to see it dropped to 0.1 parts per million. However, the Best Food Facts website, backed by a slew of heavyweights in the food industry, claims the amount of glyphosate detected in foods “is very small and well within the range determined to be safe by government agencies.”
Does glyphosate cause cancer?
Both sides of the glyphosate debate are sharply divided on this issue.
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer identified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic for humans. But critics maintain the agency’s findings are “flawed and incomplete.”
Two years later, in 2017, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment added glyphosate to the state’s list of chemicals that are known to cause cancer. In June 2018, however, a judge struck down a demand for label warnings in California about glyphosate, saying the bulk of available evidence fails to support it being branded as a carcinogen.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization, notes that Americans’ exposure to glyphosate appears to have risen sharply in recent years. But, the group adds, it’s hard to be certain, as government agencies don’t track exposure levels.
“Americans’ widespread exposure to glyphosate is of grave concern, especially for children’s health, because of the potential risk of cancer,” the group wrote in an April 2018 letter to the EPA.
Bayer, the parent company of Monsanto, defends glyphosate as being safe.
“The full body of research on glyphosate and Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicides consists of more than 800 rigorous registration studies required by EPA, European and other regulators that found them to be safe for use,” the company says.
Specifically, Bayer cites a 2018 study by the National Cancer Institute that found no connection between glyphosate-based herbicides and cancer.
What other health problems has glyphosate been linked to?
According to EcoWatch, an environmental news website, glyphosate has been associated with a host of health problems other than cancer, including ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, birth defects, diabetes, gluten intolerance, heart disease, obesity and reproductive issues.
“In the nearly 20 years of intensifying exposure, scientists have been documenting the health consequences of Roundup and glyphosate in our food, in the water we drink, in the air we breathe and where our children play,” EcoWatch says.
Bayer disputes any connection between glyphosate and non-cancer health concerns.
“Glyphosate-based herbicides have been used safely and successfully for over four decades worldwide,” the company says, “and are a valuable tool to help farmers deliver crops to markets and practice sustainable farming by reducing soil tillage, soil erosion and carbon emissions.”
How can you avoid glyphosate?
Eating organic foods is your best bet, as the use of glyphosate is prohibited in organic-certified farming. Still, there’s no assurance that glyphosate won’t show up in organic foods.
“While this news may come as disappointing, it is not entirely surprising,” according to Nature’s Path, a producer of organic foods. “Glyphosate use has skyrocketed in the past decade, and it maintains the ability to adhere to water and soil particles long enough to travel through the air or in a stream to nearby organic farms.”
Nonetheless, going organic is the smartest approach to restricting exposure to glyphosate residue in foods.