Posted by: Chris Maloney | March 22, 2015

Does Round Up Weed Killer (Glyphosate) Cause Cancer?

According to the EPA, we don’t know if drinking Round Up (glyphosate) in your water will cause cancer. We do know that the use of Round Up in the U.S. has tripled since 1986. Back then we were only spraying six million pounds onto our crops, and now we’re spraying eighteen million pounds a year.

If you believe the manufacturers and prominent blogger Steve Novella, glyphosate is completely safe. Anyone telling you differently must be an anti-GMO propagandist. To back himself up, Steve points to all the research done that show that glyphosate itself doesn’t seem to cause cancer. Steve places himself firmly in the same camp as Round Up salespeople, who will drink glyphosate in sales pitches just to prove how safe it is.

Unfortunately for Steve and Round Up’s salespeople, glyphosate is not sold as an individual product but as a mixture. As I point out in my post on whether Round Up causes Celiac, it is not the single chemical but the combination product that causes the issue.

As an additional challenge to the glyphosate issue, Steve points to a Snopes blog post debunking any use of glyphosate on wheat crops at harvest. According to the individual farmers writing in to Snopes, this never happens. But when you go to the manufacturer’s website, they are promoting the use of glyphosate on crops at harvest. The European site notes that even 12% of reluctant German farmers are following their recommendations. A glance at that chart shows that not just wheat is getting the preharvest spraying (barley and beans get more).

Now the UN has joined in the discussion, reclassifying glyphosate as a carcinogen. Don’t be surprised if that doesn’t change the opinion of the manufacturer or bloggers like Steve. Both will argue that the evidence does not support the conclusion. Within their argument will be statements like: “conclusions of regulatory competent authorities were also dismissed” implying that the people who came to any other conclusion might not be as competent.

For those not familiar with the people involved, the World Health Organization has an International Agency for Research on Cancer. To find that glyphosate was a possible carcinogen: “a Working Group of 17 experts from 11 countries” met for a week and discussed all the available evidence. Chances are that they were competent and made the right decision: “the agent is probably carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals.”

What does that mean for the average consumer? “Glyphosate has been detected in the air during spraying, in water, and in food.The general population is exposed primarily through residence near sprayed areas, home use, and diet, and the level that has been observed is generally low.”

What about what we eat? Chances are that it will another twenty years before Round Up is pulled from the shelves. But it’s residue will be ongoing, and we have seen a huge increase in its use since that introduction of glyphosate-resistant, genetically modified crops.

Before we focus entirely on wheat, glyphosate is also recommended on a variety of other crops. While Germany’s use of glyphosate at harvest is low, the manufacturers estimate that in the UK: “glyphosate is used on 78% of oilseed rape to facilitate harvest.” For those not familiar with rape seed, we commonly think of it as canola oil. While the manufacturer claims no absorption takes place, they do say: “residual traces can sometimes remain on the surface of seed heads and pods.” While these traces would be low for the grains, they would be much more concentrated in an oil taken from compressed grains. Who produces most of the world’s canola? Maine’s neighbor, Canada.

While glyphosate breaks down in the field, at frozen temperatures it remains for well over a year on most crops. The same analysis found differences in the estimated amount of residue in some U.S. and UK crops. Grain residue was generally higher than that found on other agricultural products.

Even if a crop is not sprayed with glyphosate, nearby crop spraying can affect a crop. Idaho potato farmers (Idaho produces most of the U.S. canola crop) are complaining about glyphosate drift that affects their potato crops.

With the recent ruling, we’ll likely see a shift to another weed killer over time. But currently agriculture is largely dependent on what it previously viewed as a harmless chemical. Maybe we’ll get to a point where we realize that such a thing doesn’t exist. All chemicals powerful enough to affect our planet are powerful enough to harm it when used improperly.


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