INDUSTRY | Roundup: To spray or not to spray?

Photo: flickr/jetsandzepplins

Photo: flickr/jetsandzepplins

By Troy Forcier —

Health Canada states on its website, “the herbicide glyphosate and products containing glyphosate (e.g., Roundup) are registered pesticides in Canada supported by extensive scientific data that meet strict health and environmental standards.”

Glyphosate (C3H8NO5P), or N-phosphonomethyl glycine, is a systemic herbicide used in high volume in Canada (0.5-1 million kilograms in 1986 and over 2 million kilograms in 1990). Several staple food crops have been genetically engineered to be resistant to the application of this pesticide and this has allowed farmers more economical control over many weeds.

Beyond massive agricultural and garden usage to control weeds, glyphosate is used to accelerate maturing of crops. In Canada in 2011, glyphosate was applied above recommended levels by as many as 45 percent of producers, according to the manufacturer’s own survey.

In forestry, Northern Woodland magazine pointed  out in 2012 that test blocks treated with glyphosate saw 477 percent yield increases and that a “separate study found that the cost of a cubic meter of wood tripled when conifers were released by workers with brush saws, rather than by the aerial application of herbicide.”

This product has undeniable benefits, the economics of which can be debated, but here the focus will be on impacts on health. There is significant disagreement about the safety of the usage of glyphosate and criticisms of the science on both sides.

In the USA, the National Pesticide Information Centre admits that glyphosate is not included in compounds tested in the FDA’s agriculture pesticide data program. Odd, considering that in 2007, 200 million pounds of this product were used in the U.S. Health Canada states glyphosate has not been detected in drinking water supplies, but admits this “may be because of the lack of monitoring studies and technical difficulties with available analytical methods.” In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) accepts the claims that glyphosate is non-toxic and there have been virtually no efforts to determine glyphosate levels in human blood or urine.

Dr. Keith Solomon, from the University of Guelph and co-author of the book Pesticides and the Environment, seems to have confidence in current Canadian testing and assures that although our testing framework is not without controversy, it is practical and rests on precedent. “The idea here is that the companies who make the profits – not the taxpayers – should be paying to test the products,” said Solomon. “This is the same framework that’s used in pharmaceutical testing because it provides a dependable funding source for the testing.”

Currently in Canada, pesticide tests only focus on active ingredients and do not have to test the whole compound; furthermore, when a pesticide is reviewed, no tests are mandated for acute or chronic low dose exposure effects on humans.

There is a fairly convincing number of studies that question the safety of this product and some good reasons to take measures to limit exposure. Two case control studies conducted in Saskatchewan by Karunayake, Dosman and Pahwa in 2013 found that farmers exposed to pesticides had an increased risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

In 2013, Samsel and Seneff concluded, “all of the known biological effects of glyphosate – cytochrome P450 inhibition, disruption of synthesis of aromatic amino acids, chelation of transition metals, and antibacterial action – contribute to the pathology of celiac disease.” As Celiac disease is associated with reduced levels of Enterococcus, Bifidobacteria, and Lactobacillus in the gut and an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria, this correlation deserves more attention.

Overlaying graphs of historical application rates of glyphosate and rising rates of Celiac disease are strikingly identical, but so are those with rates of thyroid cancer and deaths due to intestinal infections. This is not proof of causality and there are, for certain, other factors at play, but again, worth more inquiry. Glyphosate has been implicated in the disruption of intestinal flora in animals, reducing beneficial bacteria, and fostering overgrowth of pathogens.

In another study by Jungun, Yanzhen, and Xioyu in 2014, glyophosate exposure caused immunotoxology and, “remarkable histopathological damage including vacuolization of the renal parenchyma and intumescence of renal tubule in fish kidneys.”  Industry-sponsored studies have concluded that glyphosate is safe for amphibians, but a 2010 study found a direct link between exposure to  glyphosate and defects and craniofacial malformations in African clawed frogs, a finding replicated in poultry.

Pesticide fan Art Drysdale, in a blog piece equating “environmental researcher “ to “Anti-Pesticide Lunatic” and celebrating a 2011 federal court win for Monsanto, alluded to evidence in the case: “These so-called risks to amphibians were based on a 2008 literature review by BRITISH COLUMBIA MINISTRY OF THE ENVIRONMENT, a government agency INFESTED with Anti-Pesticide Activists.”

There are many studies linking the use of this pesticide to the chelation of essential minerals such as iron and cobalt, binding (and rendering unusable) of magnesium, reduction in plant calcium and manganese levels, and biological interference with vital enzymes such as P 540. There are concerning connections between levels of exposure to glyphosate in agriculture workers and sharp increases in kidney failure.

The manufacturer claims the product quickly dissipates, but a recent field test in the US found that lettuce, carrots, and barley contained glyphosate residues up to one year after the soil was treated with 3.71 lbs. of glyphosate per acre (4.15 kg per hectare). An Ontario study by Savitz et al. in 1997 found a link in Ontario farmers between usage of glyphosate and increased miscarriages and premature births within their family. Furthermore, Savitz found that glyphosate disrupts oestrogen synthesis regulating hormones that impact bone growth and testicular function.

Evidence shows that some of the associated biological effects of this product, many not discussed here, question glyphosate as a valid tool in the fight against global famine, a favourite argument of fans. The Cornucopia Institute reported in 2013, plant pathologist Don Huber’s findings that glyphosate alters soil ecology and renders plants susceptible to diseases that could ultimately impact humans.  Huber has had some career issues because of his stance. Partial bans on glyphosate use in Holland, France, and Brazil and total bans in Sri Lanka, El Salvador, and a growing list of countries are certainly an indicator of change in the air. Localized bans on cosmetic use of glyphosate in Canada are small steps in the right direction, but for now the choice is left with the consumer.

Troy was born and raised in the Cariboo and enjoys raising cattle and tending to the soils and water on the ranch with his wife Ingrid when he’s not working as a psychotherapist with youth in the city.

 

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