Roundup, the herbicide whose active ingredient is glyphosate – currently the most widely sold pesticide in the world – has just been put on life support.
The European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, after months of struggling to decide whether it will keep it, or throw it out from the entire land mass of Europe, has finally decided to give it a year and a half of last-ditch existence, before a potentially final removal from the food we eat. The current brouhaha has hinged on whether the regulators would go with independent scientific evidence of hazards, or go with political and economic expediency which says there cannot be any such hazards, because Monsanto says so.
Riding implicitly on this and any future actions by world leaders, is humanity’s opinion about the safety and effectiveness of all chemical pesticides – the belief that we can chemically kill off the “pests” we don’t want, while having little or no impact on other life forms, including ourselves.
Whatever the Commission decides in 18 months, I believe that one day Roundup/glyphosate will join other egregiously wrong-headed myths, like the harmlessness of cigarettes, or the unbreachable security of all nuclear reactors.
The signs are all there.
Roundup/glyphosate linked to cancer
Things really took off in March, 2015, when the World Health Organization made an explosive declaration about the herbicide that its manufacturer, Monsanto, once declared “completely safe”.
After a lengthy and rigorous review process involving new scientific evidence – and only the very best studies, free from any taint of conflict of interest – the International Agency Research on Cancer (IARC), the WHO’s division that looks at what causes cancer and what does not, openly stated the unthinkable.
Glyphosate, they said, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, probably causes cancer.
But coming from a prestigious body like IARC, with a reputation for rigorous and impartial analysis, the statement that Roundup/glyphosate causes cancer triggered a very public and steadily accelerating process of dismantling the false image of safety that surrounds Roundup, and its key ingredient, glyphosate.
The Séralini bombshell
Before this happened, however, one scientific study had already rocked the complacent profit-taking of Monsanto and Roundup – and the entire world of chemical pesticides – a full two and a half years before IARC waded in.
In September, 2012, a research paper was published, surrounded by an almost instantaneous and intense outburst of publicity and wild controversy, by a team led by experienced French scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini, based at the University of Caën. This paper described a research project which duplicated, in critical parameters, a key Monsanto analysis carried in 2004 in rats, looking at the effects on the health of the rats of genetically-engineered corn laced with glyphosate.
The Monsanto study – and a bevy of other industry-sponsored publications – had all loudly proclaimed Roundup/glyphosate to be completely safe, except for target plants.
But Séralini, while duplicating the early Monsanto study, also did something radically different from what the industry-friendly researchers had done – something most scientists had been advocating for decades.
He carried out a full life-time study.
He extended the duration of his research from 90 days, the interval used by Monsanto, to over 700 days – the entire lifetime of his experimental animals. Instead of looking just for short-term harms of the pesticide, which obviously minimize the likelihood of any harms, he waited patiently to see if there were longer term effects.
In human terms, it’s like the difference between looking for liver problems in a crowd of teenagers after a couple of drunken house parties, or studying a group of alcoholics after a lifetime of boozing.
The research project was officially an examination of harmful effects in general – what is called a “toxicological study” – but it was widely reported to have been a cancer study because it revealed benign and malignant tumours appearing in abundance in rats fed GMO corn (laced with glyphosate) and in those fed glyphosate alone.
The strain of rats used in this experiment, called Sprague-Dawley – also used in the earlier Monsanto study, and popular among many other researchers worldwide – readily and spontaneously develop both benign and malignant tumours.
The rats exposed to Monsanto’s genetically-engineered and Roundup-laced corn, and to glyphosate on its own, were considerably more afflicted with both kinds of tumours than a control group of their labmates fed a conventional non-GMO, glyphosate-free corn diet.
The paper Séralini and his team published didn’t just show cancer, however. It also revealed a wide and alarming array of other ill effects involving major organs like the kidneys and the liver, and endocrine glands like the thyroid and pituitary.
(As an aside, bear in mind that although the metabolism of rats has striking similarities in many ways to that of humans, rats live for something like two years on average, while humans live for 70-90 years. Imagine the effects that might turn up over that length of exposure to this or any other poison.)
The researchers deliberately and carefully hid their research from the mainstream and scientific press until just prior to publication. Inevitably this resulted in some bruised editors’ egos. But more importantly, it denied the pesticide industry its well-used tactic of pre-publication character assassination, which it visits upon researchers whose work it doesn’t like, such as erupted when Rachel Carson wrote her iconic book Silent Spring. The practice continues to this day, as Tyrone Hayes, another prominent critic of the pesticide industry, eventually found out.
The corporate pesticide world hits the roof
So threatening were Séralini’s findings to Monsanto that the pesticide industry quickly went ballistic, ferociously attacking him and his team’s integrity from every conceivable angle.
Monsanto, like other large corporations, has had a special department established for this purpose for a long time.
The company launched a barrage of condemnatory press statements and commentaries from industry-friendly scientists and regulators all over the world. They mercilessly castigated what they variously called “a critical failure in the ethical supervision,” data that were “inaccurate and confusing”, and statistics that were “questionable and not correctly interpreted and displayed”.
One critic from Bayer — the company infamous for its neonicotinoid insecticides — asked bluntly: “What is the scientific rationale that led the journal reviewers and the editorial board ….to accept this article for publication?” An academic group in Spain, with strong industry ties, lamented that “The study appeared to sweep aside all known benchmarks of scientific good practice”.
Only later did it become clear that these remarks were actually laying the way for a brazen display of corporate power.
After months of what some scientists called “orchestrated campaign … launched to discredit the study in the media," an unexpected and astonishingly bold development took place that illustrated the power and reach of Monsanto and its corporate fellow travelers.
By some as yet undisclosed means, a veteran Monsanto researcher, Richard E. Goodman – with a background in dairy science and immunology, but not plant science or pesticides – suddenly appeared out of nowhere on the senior editorial board of the journal that had published the Séralini paper, in a newly created position called “Associate Editor for biotechnology”.
The shift in the debate was palpable.
Within a few weeks after this unprecedented and highly contentious event, the Séralini paper was abruptly and unceremoniously retracted by the journal that a few months earlier had peer-reviewed it, accepted it, and published it.
Alas for the Monsanto and the pesticide industry, this was not the end of the story.
The blatantly self-serving appointment of Goodman, followed by the rapid retraction of the paper Monsanto was clearly determined to destroy, was the final straw for the wider scientific community.
Independent scientists all around the world responded angrily. They pointed out that the Séralini paper had been perfectly acceptable to the peer reviewers at the journal that had published it, and lambasted the conduct of industry and its regulatory fellow travelers:
“When those with a vested interest attempt to sow unreasonable doubt around inconvenient results, or when governments exploit political opportunities by picking and choosing from scientific evidence, they jeopardize public confidence in scientific methods and institutions, and also put their own citizenry at risk.”
The equally unprecedented and explosive rebuttal of industry’s “orchestrated campaign” to annul the work of the French researchers soon overcame the power of Monsanto’s massive vested interest.
In a striking reversal of fortune, on June 24, 2014, the Séralini paper was re-published, more or less unchanged but with added explanatory material, and in a different journal, Environmental Sciences Europe. It was one of an eventual total of five that offered to disseminate the research once again. Séralini and his team chose this publication because it was open source and thus accessible to everyone, thereby ensuring it the widest audience possible.
Apart from some late sniping by disgruntled GMO supporters, attempting belatedly to belittle the study even further, “L’affaire Séralini” — also known as “l’affaire Goodman” – was now officially over.
And Monsanto had lost. (And Séralini not only won this “case”; three years later, in December, 2015, he also won a legal action for defamation against one of his more outlandish and vituperative critics.)
Pesticides and GMOs
Let’s pause for a moment, because some readers may be wondering why there seems to be a connection between Roundup and genetically-modified food (GMOs) – food that has the gene from another species artificially inserted into its DNA.
Pesticides and GMOs are very different, but there’s a simple reason for tying them together.
Ninety percent of the genetically-altered food crops in the world today (and for good measure, most of the cotton plantings as well) are totally dependent on Roundup/glyphosate, and require that it be applied in substantial and ever increasing quantities in order for them to survive.
They’re called “Roundup Ready.”
Specifically, Roundup Ready means that the plant in question has been altered by the insertion of one or more genes that render it immune to the lethal effects of glyphosate, the toxic “active ingredient” that makes Roundup a universal plant killer. When the soil is drenched with the herbicide just after planting, every green and growing thing rapidly dies except for the Roundup-Ready crop – corn, soy, cotton, sugar beets or canola.
No other significant traits have been inserted into these plants – nothing to make them more nutritious, more able to deal successfully with bad weather, or to reduce farmers’ prices. In fact there are studies suggesting glyphosate actually makes them less nutritious.
The only unique feature of these genetically engineered plants is the addition of a couple of genes to make them utterly dependent on Roundup/glyphosate – and its manufacturer – for their survival against competing species.
This association between pesticides and GMOs is part of a strategic plan by the GMO industry, developed early in its roll-out of genetically engineered food crops, to use the first wave of genetically-engineered plants to directly serve the bottom line of their manufacturers.
Other needs, industry decided – like enhanced nutritional value, or salt or drought resistance – could be addressed later.
And from which giant multinational corporation do farmers have to buy all their corn, soy, cotton or sugar beets seeds, as well as only one brand of glyphosate pesticide, brand-named Roundup – while signing a contract to never reveal anything about their arrangements with the manufacturer, and especially to never dare to share their seeds with their neighbours (a mutual self-help practice followed by farmers for thousands of years)?
The answer, of course, is the Monsanto Company, 800 N. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63167.
So when Monsanto, and its industry allies who now also make glyphosate-based herbicides, as do Bayer, Dow, BASF and Dupont – and the scientists and regulators whose careers depend on their engagement with the agribusiness industry – responded as if their biggest dispute was with Séralini’s critique of GMOs, they were really defending themselves against the frontal attack on the economic lifeblood of genetically-engineered food and fibre crops: Roundup/glyphosate.
Dark days ahead for Monsanto and Roundup?
The primary fallout from the IARC declaration and from the research by Séralini and his team has been a radical enlargement of concerns about Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, and a new and intense interest, no longer in parroting Monsanto’s bowdlerized version of its properties, but in digging down and finding out its real-world impact.
Before Séralini, studies by Monsanto scientists themselves were widely published in leading scientific journals, and their findings accepted with little critical analysis. All claimed to show, predictably, the fabled harmlessness of glyphosate.
A typical pair of studies prepared by the industry-friendly consulting firm Exponent Inc., illustrate this pattern. The first swept the floor clean, finding “no evidence of a consistent pattern of positive associations …. between any disease and exposure to glyphosate”. Then, just a month before Séralini’s toxicological paper was published, the second study from the same hired guns specifically claimed there was “no consistent pattern of positive associations indicating a causal relationship between total cancer …. or any site-specific cancer and exposure to glyphosate” (note the closely parallel wording between the two pieces).
A cluster of independent studies done before Séralini and the “probable carcinogen” designation by IARC, delineating glyphosate’s frightening hazards, have now emerged out of the shadows and come into new focus. And new research, unleashed by the growing challenges facing the Monsanto herbicide, is steadily building (see Samsel and Seneff below), further damaging the corporation’s disintegrating cover story of safety and effectiveness.
* the notorious bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides produced by Bayer, it turns out, are not alone in harming critical pollinators. Glyphosate harms the ability of bees to learn and remember, and so also reduces colony survival.
* Roundup (the full product, meaning glyphosate and other ingredients) has been known for more than a decade to kill frogs and tadpoles with deadly efficiency. Now there is evidence that glyphosate effects are even worse in stressed amphibians. It has recently been shown that it can even alter the actual bodily development of tadpoles (remember, the chemical is touted as a herbicide – one that is supposed to affect plants only).
* a Brazilian toxicology study by researchers at the University of Santa Catarina showed both immediate and longer term brain overstimulation and cell damage.
* another Brazilian study by University of Santa Catarina researchers showed damage to rat testicles, leading to a potentially serious effect on fertility.
* an Argentinian study, carried out by University of Buenos Aires researchers after an increase in birth defects that coincided with the ramping up of Roundup Ready crops in the country, showed that glyphosate caused severe birth defects in a frog species. There is suggestive evidence that Monsanto knew of this effect as long as three decades ago.
* a 2009 study by Séralini himself showed that the glyphosate and Roundup, even in infinitesimal quantities well below levels of exposure in the field, and in line with the residues left on Roundup Ready crops as eaten by consumers, showed damage to human embryo and placental cells.
By the way, most of these studies have been carried out on animals – often sensitive to the same things that affect humans, but animals nonetheless. The reason for this is the fact that it has long been considered illegal under international law to test poisons or potential poisons in humans, ever since the post-WW II trials of leading Nazis in Nuremburg, Germany.
Roundup more than just an “active ingredient”
Roundup is a mixture of glyphosate and other chemicals, called “formulants” by the industry (after a decade or two of hiding them behind the meaningless euphemism “inerts”). It is now recognized that it is far more poisonous and harmful in many different ways than the active ingredient on its own.
One such formulant, called polyethoxylated tallowamine, is part of the most widely sold Roundup product; its lethal effect on a little crustacean called the beaver-tailed fairy shrimp, commonly used in laboratory tests of toxicity, is phenomenal. And in combination with glyphosate, its power to kill is markedly amplified.
Regulators like the American Food and Drug Administration and US Department of Agriculture, and Canada’s Pesticide Management and Regulatory Agency, have for years only tested the active ingredients of pesticide products in isolation; today, in a range of research projects like these, the gross inadequacies of the limited regulatory process have been laid bare. In fact, Canada’s Environment Commissioner, Julie Gelfand, recently threw a string of harsh criticisms at the federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency.
It is getting harder and harder for regulators to continue to act as if the negative studies of Roundup/glyphosate — and other pesticides — are invisible and irrelevant.
Governments are finally waking up
Consequently, after decades of indifference or even outright boosterism, national and other governments are finally stepping up and taking a good hard look at Roundup and the other products based on glyphosate.
Actions like the US Environmental Protection Agency’s unconscionable decision three years ago to raise the allowable levels of glyphosate residues in food crops would be completely unacceptable today. In fact, the year after this decision was taken, the US General Accounting Office took the EPA to task for this short-sighted decision, and in February, 2016, “shamed” it into starting to test foods for glyphosate residues, a step the EPA has resisted for years.
The government of Sri Lanka, despite pressure from Monsanto and even the threat of trade sanctions from the US government itself, has banned Roundup/glyphosate in the entire country because of an epidemic of kidney disease in farm workers that has been closely associated with its use.
The European Union, until recently, was openly supportive of Monsanto’s product. Now, as noted at the beginning of this piece, it has wavered for months over whether or not to recertify glyphosate, in what one writer on EurActive, a website covering EU-related news, characterized as a “glyphosate tantrum.” European regulators have been buffeted on the one hand by pesticide and agribusiness lobby groups, who repeat ad nauseam that there are no problems with glyphosate or the products that contain it, and on the other by a growing number of independent scientists who present evidence with increasing forcefulness, that this view is wrong. Their decision to approve it for a mere 18 months, rather than the 15 years the industry asked for, is a sign of changes elicited in regulators by the onslaught of new data challenging bland corporate messaging.
Health professionals speaking out
An advocacy campaign and a global petition distributed by the social campaign organization Avaaz which gathered over 2 million signatures called for the EU to not recertify the embattled herbicide.
In Argentina, where Roundup use has grown exponentially thanks to the introduction of vast amounts of Roundup Ready crops, the union representing 30,000 doctors and health professionals has called for its ban. Argentinian physicians have also formed a coalition called Physicians in Crop-Sprayed towns, an outgrowth of the National University of Córdoba, and are actively campaigning for a restriction in Roundup use (as the most widely-used pesticide in that country also).
More potentially disruptive for the Monsanto empire is pushback on its home territory. Legal actions are threatening the company, brought forward by Roundup-exposed individuals who have developed cancers, especially non-Hodgkins lymphoma, a specific type of cancer associated with glyphosate exposure.
Earlier this year, a new film called Poisoned Fields, which documents the erosion of Roundup support, has been released as well.
Laboratories in the US that conduct tests for glyphosate residues are now receiving a flood of requests for sample analysis from ordinary citizens alarmed at the information now circulating about its adverse effects.
Glyphosate is everywhere
You don’t have to look very hard to find glyphosate.
Glyphosate is found in all 14 leading brands of German beer, in amounts up to 300 times the limit established for drinking water.
Glyphosate has been found in California wine, some US breakfast cereals, honey, soy sauce, infant formula and breast milk. It’s present in virtually all genetically-engineered corn and soy grown anywhere in the world. According to early results from a University of California research project, it has been found in nearly every person tested.
Despite this dismaying omnipresence, Roundup/glyphosate’s trajectory is nevertheless turning into a slow but inexorable downward slide, which promises to accelerate in coming months.
Some have speculated that this process might drag with it its creator, the corporate behemoth Monsanto, even though only three years ago a senior Monsanto executive, Robert Fraley, won the industry-sponsored “World Food Prize” for “breakthrough achievements in founding, developing, and applying modern agricultural biotechnology”.
It’s highly unlikely that this will happen, however. The company has a long history of backing what has ultimately turned out to be the wrong horse (the banned PCBs, bovine growth hormone and Agent Orange, to name three) but then switching mounts in the middle of the race and going on to win (more on that later).
Elements of decline
Probably far more disturbing for the corporate agribusiness sector in general, however, is the fact that the looming slippage of Roundup/glyphosate– coupled with increasingly bad news about other synthetic chemical pesticides and man-made chemicals used indiscriminately in other fields – threatens to topple what Indian scholar and activist Vandana Shiva has described as the militaristic, chemically-saturated, product-dependent superstructure of modern agribusiness.
(By the way, to give you a whiff of the rampant militarism and Wild West mentality inherent in chemical based agriculture, consider the following typical names for synthetic pesticides: Wildcat, Viper, Pursuit, Arsenal, Gladiator, Broadside, Barricade, Blitz, Frontline, Spitfire, Enforcer, Sword, Fortress, Thrasher, Bullet, Lasso, Cannon, Sharpshooter, Renegade Plus, Authority.)
Would Roundup ever go away? If you don’t follow food or agriculture politics and trends, you might well be forgiven for thinking this is pure fantasy.
After all, Monsanto ads are everywhere, Roundup is on the shelves of nearly every garden supplies outlet in the world, and although Monsanto introduced the chemical over four decades ago, the surge in use of glyphosate on Monsanto’s genetically-engineered food and fibre crops has meant that 2/3 of all the glyphosate ever used has been sprayed on crops in just the last 10 years.
It is also widely used on conventional crops to kill off the leaves (the process is described by another euphemism, “dessication”) and make it easier to harvest the food portion, while contributing to a further increase in use and hence the exposure of consumers.
Think of it: children born in the last decade have been exposed to more of this questionable chemical than any other generation in the history of humankind.
For students of pesticide industry mores, nevertheless, there are clear signs of erosion in the edifice that Roundup (and Monsanto) built – signs that are more easily recognizable today because of the dramatic historical model provided for our delectation by the tobacco industry.
The accelerating rate of Roundup/glyphosate’s fall from grace exhibits striking parallels, in fact, to the phases of decline of the tobacco industry, or the gradual but eventually complete elimination of lead in gasoline.
All the elements are there:
* Initially a product that everyone uses, and leading authorities and regulators endorse routinely, for years, with sales boosted by an avalanche of slick advertising; a smattering of critics are present, but they are marginalized;
* rumours surface of more substantive problems, but they run parallel with expanding sales and burgeoning profits, while well-placed friends in the scientific and governance world (e.g. Supreme Court judge Clarence Thomas and former US Secretary of Agriculture Anne Veneman) continue to stoutly assert their support of the product;
* as evidence of harm starts to slowly accumulate in the wealthy, industrialized world, hinting at slowly mounting regulatory stringency, a quiet, anticipatory market expansion begins into countries with less adequate and less rigorously enforced regulatory control;
* increasingly expenditures mount up to pay for advertising and public relations and the vigorous suppression of mounting revelations of harm, which threaten market share; the industry and its allies increasingly resort to aggressive verbal and even legal assaults and other questionable actions against the cadre of increasingly incisive and credible critics;
* alarm builds in corporate head offices and among allies, as mainstream scientists and once pacified and compliant regulators are impelled to examine the product’s effects more rigorously and in greater detail;
* throughout this evolving process, increasingly ready to administer the coup de grâce, there emerges a swelling throng of sceptical, sometimes damaged and ultimately outraged citizens, led by an expanding cadre of independent scientists, affected consumers and hostile working people employed in directly affected roles (e.g. farmers, gardeners, and mothers with small children)
* the cumulative effect of this gathering storm of broad-based resistance is a tightening of restrictions on the product’s use, leading to an steady slide in acceptability and then in sales.
The tolling bell of public distaste has begun to sound the long-drawn-out death knell of a chemical that was once the epitome of “better living through chemistry.”
Part Two of this piece reveals how Monsanto transformed a water softening chemical into a best-selling herbicide, through an artful and carefully constructed public relations campaign.