Many worry about pesticides for health or environmental reasons, and the most common target of general concern is undoubtedly glyphosate, the active ingredient in the famous weedkiller RoundUp. I find that the best thing to do when something worries me, is to
find out more about it. I’ve delved into the details behind the 17 most common concerns I’ve encountered. Questions 1-11 are mainly about health, whereas 12-16 focus on environmental aspects, and lastly, 17 delves into the question of the integrity of research. I will do my best to present useful evidence-based resources on all the following topics. If you would like to listen to a summary of this series you can head on over to my guest appearance on the podcast Talking biotech with Kevin Folta – I was very honoured for the opportunity to join his great series.
After receiving valuable feedback from my readers, I decided to break these questions into blog posts of their own, either alone or in groups of a few connected questions per post. This way the list below can also serve as a hyperlinked table of contents:
- Does glyphosate cause cancer?
- Could glyphosate have other health effects? What about the surfactants in RoundUp, or glyphosate breakdown products?
- What about studies claiming glyphosate causes celiac disease, autism, obesity etc? A look at Seneff et co.
- Does glyphosate harm our gut bacteria?
- Could glyphosate be another case like DDT or Thalidomide – should we apply the precautionary principle? The important difference between persistent and non-persistent pesticides
- Is glyphosate an especially dangerous pesticide?
- Is there glyphosate in the air and rainwater?
- Is there glyphosate in urine?
- What about breastmilk?
- Should we worry about glyphosate in wine?
- Is wheat toxic because of glyphosate?
- Are crops drenched in glyphosate?
- Does glyphosate use enable bad farming practices?
- What about resistance and superweeds?
- Does glyphosate interfere with soil organisms or nutrient availability?
- Does glyphosate harm Monarch butterflies or bees?
- Can glyphosate research be trusted? What about conflicts of interest?
Glyphosate is a modified glycine-molecule (the smallest of our essential amino acids) which has a phosphoric acid (or to be exact, phosphonomethyl) group attached at the end (GLYcine PHOSphonATE). You can find out more about the specifics here. This small molecule binds to an enzyme in plants and many bacteria, which they need in order to synthesise a class of amino acids (aromatic ones). If the plants cannot synthesise these amino acids, after a number of days they will die. Animals do not have this enzyme. Instead, we rely entirely on our diet to provide us with these aromatic amino acids (Trypthophan and Phenylalanine – and Tyrosine, also an aromatic, can be synthesized from Phenylalanine), which means that the inhibitory effect of glyphosate has no direct target in our cells.
But as you can see from above, there is a lot more to the discussions about glyphosate – in fact, conversations on the topic often sprawl into so many directions at once that it can be confusing and exhausting for anyone to try to make sense of them. Which directions may warrant real concern and which not? The general impression left may be a vague feeling of unease. If there are so many questions, surely there must be something problematic with glyphosate? Should we use it at all? EU is currently in the process of determining this very question, and according to the vice chair of EU’s environmental committee, their hesitancy is influenced by the vocal campaigns of activist organisations like Avaaz who are calling the reliability of research into question. So instead of another 15 year renewal, glyphosate has been given an 18 month continued allowance period while European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) comes to a conclusion, expected in December 2017.
But there are several comprehensive literature reviews in scientific publications, and other scientific bodies in Europe and elsewhere in the world who have already concluded comprehensive reviews on glyphosate research that can give us a good idea about the topic. Let’s start looking at them, starting with:
1. Does glyphosate cause cancer?
We should always strive to honestly evaluate the evidence before forming our views on a topic.
Note: I previously had all the articles in this series both here as one huge piece, and broken down into sections. However, I like to update my pieces when new information comes up, and it was more practical to update each piece separately, and I decided to remove the gigantic version, and leave only the introduction here with links to each sub-article.
If you are interested in other environmental or health topics, you can find my other pieces and further resources under Farming and GMOs, The Environment, and Vaccines and Health. If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.
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Thanks. That’s the best roundup of the facts i’ve read so far. Wasn’t meaning to pun but there we go. Thanks for spending the time researching and writing the article. It was totally worth it.
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Thanks a lot for your pun Andy! Hearing feedback like this makes it worth it. 🙂
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Thanks for taken the time to put it together in away that is easy to understand.
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An older piece, I know, but I have only just discovered this blog. I have always believed glyphosate to be one of the safest of agchems. Yes, I know, ‘belief’ but this is based on things I have read. Don’t get me wrong though because I’m no fan of the overuse or unnecessary use of any chemical. This summary neatly puts the hype into perspective and even mentions my biggest concern with this substance which is the potential to increase resistance and therefore sideline a safe and useful product. I use it myself in a limited way but would stop if I thought it was toxic or persistent in the environment. Well done Iida!
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I agree with all the comments; this is an excellent presentation of the issues around glyphosate. Very informative. I like the general aspects of what science can do and not do, also the aspect of vested interest by commercial companies. I would like to see a study of how Monsanto dealt with the initial IARC report and reports prior to it that may have put their product in poor perspective. I know it shouldn’t change the conclusion of the EPA report but experience of how vested interests protect their product is interesting. I think of the sugar industry, tobacco, Shell after Rachel Crason’s ‘Silent Spring’, the dairy industries and ‘fat’ and cholesterol etc.
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Thanks for the facts based, objective presentation and analysis on the subject. I go for it almost 100% with one little detail holding me back. Prominently displayed at the very beginning is a chemical structure of a PHOSPHATE MONOALKYL ESTER wrongly labeled as a phosphonate. This could be interpreted as a lack of familiarity with chemistry which in turn may undermine authority on the rest of the information that follows it.
Happy that you appreciated my series. It’s true that I do not go into detail about the nomenclature about the chemical precursors that form glyphosate, and merely nod at the molecule that results in the formation of the phosphonate-part of the molecule glyphosate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phosphonate
Here’s the description from the original manufacturer: “Glyphosate is a derivative of the amino acid glycine, where one of the amino hydrogen atoms has been replaced with a phosphonomethyl group.” http://www.glyphosate.eu/glyphosate-mechanism-action
The series here is not intended for the purposes of detailed chemical background information, however. It’s purpose is to address the many concerns people have about the effects of glyphosate in practice. The authority of the claims comes from the sources I provide and the rational merits of the arguments presented. I do not purport to be an expert on the chemical synthesis of glyphosate, which is part of why I leave the finer details of its chemistry aside. I merely want to show how one should go about to judge the landscape of evidence on health and environmental effects, and in making risk assessment on those areas.
Thanks for your interest and attention to detail.
Hope you have a good day!
thank you for your response with which I agree all the way. I did not mean to be pedantic on a “minor detail” and of course, there is nothing wrong including chemical formulas when talking about chemicals to the general public but I am convinced that when we do so they must be typically correct, just in case.
Keep up the good work, it is so much needed.
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any news on whether this has passed in the German parliament?https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-farming-lawmaking-idUSKBN2AA1GF