Roundup, the WHO and the pesticide treadmill

24.04.15 Editorial
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On March 20, the UK journal Lancet Oncology published the summary of a report by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which classified glyphosate - the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup and the world's most widely-used herbicide - as "probably carcinogenic to humans." With this report, the WHO explicitly recognizes the importance of independent research on the impact of pesticides on human health and the food chain - a field long dominated by pesticide manufacturers. And it gives advocates of food rights and a safer, saner food system an important opportunity to push for action.

Monsanto immediately attacked the credibility of the report, and they will not be the only company descending with their lobbyists on the WHO and national regulatory agencies. Glyphosate is used in some 750 commercial products, and Monsanto, which sold USD 5 billion worth of Roundup last year, is not the only maker. Virtually every significant agrichemical company sells a glyphosate formulation since the patent passed into the public domain in 2000.

Glyphosate application, as the WHO report notes, has expanded exponentially with the growth of Monsanto's genetically modified soy, corn, cotton, rapeseed (canola) and sugar beet varieties engineered for glyphosate resistance. Sales from the Roundup complex (herbicides + seeds) generate around half the company's profits. But glyphosate is widely used as a general weed killer in agriculture and forestry as well as in home gardens and public lands. It is also applied to dry grain, pulse and oilseed crops prior to harvest, leaving significant residues in non-GM varieties.

The massive injection of glyphosate into agriculture has, unsurprisingly, induced the development of dozens of varieties of glyphosate-resistant 'superweeds' requiring heavier applications and increasingly toxic formulations, including combinations of glyphosate with an earlier generation of herbicides for which it was marketed as a safer replacement. Dow Chemical's 'Enlist' weed control system, now promoted in North America, is based on seeds which have been genetically modified to resist a pesticide formulation combining glyphosate with the highly toxic 2,4-D - the active ingredient in the US military's Agent Orange used to destroy food and forests in Viet Nam, with its toxic byproduct dioxin. In January this year, the United States Department of Agriculture approved Monsanto's new GM cotton and soy plants, the product of GM seeds designed to resist superweeds with a biocide cocktail of glyphosate and dicamba. Commercialization awaits approval of the herbicide. Monsanto and the USDA estimate that dicamba use in soy will increase 500 times, with a 14-fold increase in cotton. Dicamba has a well-documented propensity to drift, endangering non-target broadleaf plants (including commercial crops) and the pollinating insects which depend on them. It has been linked to health and environmental health risks, and has generated its own resistant weed varieties.

The IARC report notes that glyphosate has been detected "in air during spraying, in water, and in food" and "in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, indicating absorption".  It cites evidence in Canada, Sweden and the USA linking workers' occupational exposure to glyphosate to increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma (blood cancers) and "DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro", among other risks. None of this is really news. For decades, independent studies have confirmed glyphosate's ubiquitous presence - in fresh water, including rainwater, in blood, in the urine even of city-dwellers and in human breastmilk. Independent research has pointed to the negative impacts of glyphosate on human health and potentially wider toxicity. The IARC drew on only a selected portion of this research. The news is that the significance of this research has been recognized by the WHO, which should strengthen calls for stricter regulation.

Monsanto was quick to denounce the IARC report as "a dramatic departure from the conclusion reached by all regulatory agencies around the globe," but the regulatory agencies have long since been captured by the pesticide industry, which supplies the reports which are recycled in the regulatory process. Regulatory agencies routinely refuse to disclose the information they base their conclusions and decisions on, citing "commercial secrecy".

Glyphosate's authorization in the European Union, for example, is currently up for review. Last year Germany, the country responsible for the renewal assessment report, submitted a positive assessment written by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment drawn from material prepared by… the Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), a "consortium of companies joining resources and efforts in order to renew the European glyphosate registration with a joint submission". Efforts by NGOs to force both the European Food Safety Agency and the German regulatory agencies to release their material on the long-term toxicity of glyphosate have been consistently rejected, despite a 2013 ruling by the European Court of Justice ordering full disclosure (the European Commission appealed). On the basis of these secret reports, Germany has also recommended that Europe follow the United States in increasing allowable glyphosate exposure levels.

The massive application of toxic pesticides is not only generating pesticide-resistant weeds, locking the food system - and the planet - into a treadmill of greater applications and increasingly toxic biocide formulations. Only days after the WHO report was published, a study in the journal of the American Society for Microbiology linked a trio of pesticides - glyphosate, 2,4-D and dicamba - to increased antibiotic resistance in E-coli and salmonella bacteria, two pathogens which have increasingly invaded the hyper-industrialized food system, killing and sickening thousands of people annually. The pesticide treadmill and its superweeds are linked to the antiobiotic treadmill and anti-biotic resistant super-pathogens

There is a proven alternative to saturating crops and agricultural workers with chemical toxins which place worker and consumer health and the food system itself at risk. The alternatives to hyper-intensive, chemically-dependent monocultures include multicropping, mixed farming and rotational systems which use catch and cover crops for non-chemical pest control. These methods preserve biodiversity, enrich the soil, conserve soil and water and can produce more food per unit of land than farms (and farmworkers) drenched in vast amounts of Roundup, Xtend and Enlist. They do not depend on patented intellectual copyrights. With proper support, they can generate socially and environmentally sustainable rural employment. The two projects are linked through the nexus which unites food rights with the rights of food workers.

Glyphosate, particularly in its Roundup formulations, has been promoted by its makers as not merely safe, but as environmentally beneficial, e.g.in connection with no-till cultivation (which does not in fact require pesticides). The WHO report challenges the industry narrative, and it should be used to challenge efforts to promote glyphosate as a safe alternative to paraquat, the highly toxic herbicide which the IUF and other groups have for many years been seeking to ban.

Will the WHO withstand the pressure of the pesticide lobby? Much depends on the public response, which also means defeating moves to lower regulatory standards through agreements like the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The biotech/pesticide lobby in both Europe and the US want to use this instrument to eliminate all GM requirements, including contamination threshold levels. The sudden spotlight on glyphosate, and growing awareness of the threat to food safety contained in TTIP and similar trade and investment agreements, can help catalyze a broader movement to fundamentally transform the food system. Unions should be at the head of the movement.