T he Wall Street Journal recently spotlighted the growing number of lawsuits implicating Roundup, a weed-killing spray used in virtually all industrial GMO farming.
Monsanto developed the chemical in the 70s, along with GMO seeds with immunity to the active ingredient —glysophate — so machines can spray it liberally (~1 lb. per acre per year) without killing the crop.
It’s big business, and Bayer AG took a gamble last year by buying Monsanto in spite of the potential liability from glysophate’s health risks.
“Bayer and Wall Street are betting none of this matters. Monsanto has built the kind of virtuous circle that management experts and business school professors rave about. More sales of Roundup Ready seeds beget more use of Roundup; more herbicide use drives up demand for Monsanto’s GMO seeds. The global chemical dependency could be too big to kick.
Bayer’s stock price has tumbled since 2017, when the courts began awarding settlements in the $10s to $100s of millions to farmers with cancer, claiming that their repeated exposure to Roundup (and subsequent cancer diagnoses) belie the government studies that labelled it as safe.
Roundup, the World's Best-Selling Weedkiller, Faces a Legal Reckoning
Bayer says hundreds of studies prove it safe, but plaintiffs claim the research was skewed by company cooperation with…
According to KQED, the scientific community is split: the World Health Organization says glysophate is “probably carcinogenic” at some level and the European Food Safety Authority concludes that it probably isn’t.
Use of glysophate has been going up since the patent expired in 2000, meaning it’s more important than ever to know whether the risk is real and at what levels of exposure (everything will kill you above some dose).
In awarding damages, judges have to look at whether testimony from scientific experts is valid. An educated public has the same task.
So what evidence are the experts using to justify $80 million settlements for their clients?
The link to cancer has been hard to prove, but a recent meta-study from UC Berkeley found strong evidence for the hypothesis that “higher levels, longer durations and/or with sufficient lag and latency, will lead to increased risk of [Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma] in humans.” The study combines datasets from all previous publications on the glysophate/cancer link and allowed the researchers to detect a much clearer relationship than was apparent in individual studies with a smaller sample size.
A recent report from the Office of Pesticide Programs says the risk of cancer is unlikely, but a majority of experts on a panel recently convened by the EPA expressed doubts over the report’s conclusions.
A Glyphosate General Fact Sheet from the National Pesticide Information Center also downplays the risks. You can find numerous articles from organizations like the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) acting like the science is settled, and that Roundup is harmless. For example:
- “If You Accept Science, You Accept Roundup Does Not Cause Cancer” | American Council on Science and Health
- Viewpoint: Here’s what’s wrong with study suggesting glyphosate damages our gut health | Genetic Literacy Project
Despite the official sounding name, the ACSH is actually pro-industry advocacy group, with funding from many of the largest corporations in the world, including Chevron, Coca-Cola, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, Bayer Cropscience, Procter & Gamble, Syngenta, 3M, McDonald’s and Altria.
I’m generally against the notion of guilt-by-association, and it has become cliché to bash “Big Business”— especially big agro-business like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) — but it’s undeniable that funding sources inject bias into scientific studies. It should trouble us that the Office of Pesticide Programs gets almost 30 percent of its operating budget from the pesticide industry, and uses industry research to make its final permitting decisions.
There was apparently a consensus among the panel of experts that the EPA had not followed its own standards in drawing a conclusion from the available evidence, and it seems that every time a study does show a link to cancer, the EPA finds someone who can find a flaw in the methodology. The result is that only the studies that agree with the industry’s preference are admitted into the final report.
A Case Study in Corruption
The Genetic Literacy Project, one of the groups that routinely defends GMOs against claims that they are unsafe, has worked with the ACSH to defend a variety of chemicals and GMO products, including Syngenta’s Atrazine — another herbicide, infamous for the “turning the frogs gay” meme.
While it seems ridiculous, conspiratorial, or both, this meme is based on an even more ridiculous but true story centering around a renegade UC Berkeley professor named Tyrone Hayes.
I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley when news broke about the intimidation campaign waged by Syngenta against the lone academic. My closest friends had Hayes as a professor and vouched for his credibility and integrity. Hayes discovered that Atrazine, which runs off farmland into rivers and lakes, was messing with amphibian sex hormones. Atrazine effectively neutered the males — turning their gonads into ovaries, altering their voice boxes, and even changing their brains to make them assume the female sexual position. It wasn’t killing them, nor was it “making them gay,” but it was limiting reproduction and slowly killing off the population.
Mother Jones documented the tactics used by Syngenta to neutralize Hayes’ research, along with Hayes’ unusually combative response. Hayes fought back against Syngenta’s psychological warfare campaign with obscene rap lyrics, and is still publishing research that contradicts the industry’s talking points about Atrazine’s safety. The only reason you or I know about it is because Hayes did not fit the profile of a mild-mannered academic.
This episode reveals a general bias within the scientific community to cow-tow to well-funded groups, which are often the industries relying on the chemicals in question. There is a revolving door between these companies and the agencies that regulate them. The biggest companies are thus able to “capture” the regulatory apparatus to favor their business model.
Bloomberg also reports on a particularly disturbing example of the nexus between the scientific establishment, big business, and big government, which goes beyond US borders:
“From Clinton to Bush to Obama, successive administrations mobilized federal agencies and embassies around the world to promote GMOs, often against the vehement opposition of environmentalists and food purists, particularly in Europe. Dozens of diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks show how U.S. missions received special funding from Congress to advocate for genetically engineered products and how Monsanto prevailed on American diplomats to lobby on its behalf when problems arose. In Argentina, for example, when the ministry of defense banned the use of glyphosate on its urban farmland in 2009, the U.S. embassy intervened, according to a diplomatic cable to Washington. “Post contacts within the Secretariat of Agriculture assure us that Argentina will continue to support biotechnology,” said the cable, signed by Thomas Kelly III, deputy chief of mission at the time.”
One can argue that these policies are in place to ensure food security for the billions of people on the planet, but there are two problems with this argument.
First, it hearkens back to the “bread and circuses” of Rome, which pacified people with cheap food and gaudy entertainment to distract them from the decay of the empire.
Second, and more importantly, it turns science into a tool for validating a questionable imperative (produce more food, cheaply) rather than a quest for truth.
Statements like “If You Accept Science, You Accept Roundup Does Not Cause Cancer” are just another form of intimidation. The Berkeley study demonstrates that there is scientific evidence for Roundup’s cancer-causing effects — it’s mostly a question of whether it’s something we should worry about it at the doses normal consumers of GMO food are exposed to.
Go With Your Gut
For farmers working with massive quantities of Roundup, the cancer risks are higher, but regular consumers might have a bigger concern about the effect on gut health of eating food contaminated with glysophate.
A 13-week pilot study by the Ramazzini Institute found negative effects of glysophate on rats’ microbiomes, i.e., gut bacteria that play a vital role in the immune system and overall health.
Kiran Krishnan is a research microbiologist who is calling attention to the dysregulation of our guts that is brought about by chemicals like glysophate.
Normal, commensal gut bacteria like Enterococcus, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus are especially susceptible to glyphosate, whereas pathogenic bacteria, like Salmonella, Klebsiella, and Clostridia are highly resistant to glyphosate (3). As a result, frequent exposure to glyphosate can shift the microbiome to favor the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, leading to gut dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis, an environment in which the harmful bacteria outnumber the beneficial bacteria, increases inflammation in the gut. Once the gut lining is inflamed, it can become damaged, or leaky, allowing unwanted food particles and toxins directly into the bloodstream, where they can trigger an immune response.
Krishnan recommends avoiding GMO foods, and eating probiotics, prebiotic fibers, and foods rich in Vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, and polyphenols.
The carcinogenic effects of glysophate are probably not something for the average person to worry about. Stress is a known agent of disease, and it’s easy to obsess about contamination to the detriment of physical and mental health.
However, a careful study of Roundup reveals some deeper philosophical problems with the conflicts of interest in science and industry, and should encourage us to reclaim health as our own responsibility — not something to be managed by experts.
We should focus less on eating the wrong things and more on promoting the kinds of food and food production that can restore our gut lining, farmlands, and waterways.
That’s the Roundup round-up.
Stay healthy, my friends!