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Regulators in the United States and Canada are making a formal review of the safety of glyphosate, the key ingredient in herbicides that have revolutionized row crop farming over the last 30 years.
The current regulatory review of Roundup and glyphosate herbicides is taking place at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), not the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Having chosen to do its own review of the products, the EPA has three options: continuing approval of glyphosate with no changes, banning the chemical, or restricting its use. The EPA will not do its own research, but will instead rely on studies provided by 19 companies that make agricultural chemicals, including Monsanto, BASF, Dow Chemical, and Syngenta.

There are lots of real problems with Roundup. Some of them are agricultural

  • Bacteria in the soil that convert the nitrogen in the air into the form that can feed plants are deactivated by glyphosates. (Most of the nitrogen used by crops is provided by chemical fertilizers.)
  • Plants that are exposed to glyphosates do not absorb manganese properly. Plants also need their minerals.
  • Soil exposed to these kinds of herbicides harbor the Fusarium bacteria that cause sudden wilting. It is almost impossible to get rid of wilt diseases once they establish themselves in the soil.
  • And most importantly, many weeds are becoming resistant to Roundup. In parts of the Southeastern USA, glyphosate weed killers have become useless, and in parts of the Midwest, up to six different kinds of weeds are unaffected by the spray. This requires returning to the older, more labor-intensive and fuel-intensive methods of cultivation.
Agricultural chemical makers are developing new herbicides to kill the new weeds, and even more genetically modified crops to stand up to the new herbicides. This keeps farmers dependent on chemicals and genetically modified crops to make a profit. The agricultural supply companies will make more and more genetically modified crops that require more and more chemicals and more and more fertilizers. This is an enormous social and even national security problem—that is not addressed by the EPA review.

Other problems with Roundup and similar problems are environmental

  • Glyphosates are toxic to amphibians. Since the introduction of Roundup, the "horny toad" in Texas has disappeared, and laboratory experiments have shown that the product causes developmental defects in African clawed frogs, although at concentrations far greater than are likely to be encountered on and near farms.
  • Glyphosates are possibly toxic to beneficial insects, such as bees, and also to earthworms.
  • Most streams, rivers, and lakes in the US and in Europe contain measurable amounts of Roundup.
Add to this list of concerns recent research at Texas A&M University that has found preliminary indications that glyphosates interfere with human genes that regulate the use of estrogen.

As long as the EPA is considering only the active ingredient in Roundup, and not the additives to the formula, and it is relying on studies provided by the chemical industry, it is unlikely that it will ban or limit the use of the product. And there is relatively little indication that glyphosate itself is a major problem in human health. For the sake of the environment and future food production, however, it is wise to seek to support farmers who do not use Roundup, by buying organic, non-GMO foods when they are available.

  • Bolognesi C, Carrasquilla G, Volpi S, Solomon KR, Marshall EJ.Biomonitoring of genotoxic risk in agricultural workers from five colombian regions: association to occupational exposure to glyphosate. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2009,72(15-16):986-97.
  • Hokanson R, Fudge R, Chowdhary R, Busbee D. Alteration of estrogen-regulated gene expression in human cells induced by the agricultural and horticultural herbicide glyphosate. Hum Exp Toxicol. 2007 Sep,26(9):747-52.
  • Photo courtesy by TJ Martins on Flickr: