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Monday, March 10, 2014
- Environmental safety groups are stepping up efforts to prevent a reportedly dangerous yet widely used herbicide from being sold in the United States, even as the country’s primary environmental regulator is considering increasing the amount of the herbicide allowed in the U.S. food supply.
The agricultural giant Monsanto has for years relied on its flagship product, a weed-killer known as Roundup. The primary ingredient in Roundup is an herbicide called glyphosate, which Monsanto has used to selectively kill weeds while allowing genetically modified versions of sugarcane, corn, soy and wheat crops to grow.
“We are increasingly seeing more and more samples of surface water coming up with residues [of glyphosate], and this is affecting frogs that live there,” Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group, told IPS. “Potatoes and carrots are also picking it up in the soil – there are multiple routes of exposure.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal regulatory agency, is currently preparing to increase the allowable amount of glyphosate in crops like carrots, sweet potatoes and mustard seeds. A public comment period on the proposal to do so ends Monday night, and the EPA has reportedly already received some 9,000 comments.
The new EPA regulation would allow “oilseed” crops such as flax, canola and soybean oil to contain glyphosate at levels up to 40 parts per million (ppm), up from 20 ppm, which is over 100,000 times the concentration needed to cause cancer according to a recent study. It also raises the allowable glyphosate contamination level for food crops such as potatoes from 200 ppm to 6,000 ppm.
Glyphosate has previously been shown to be an “endocrine disruptor”, which the National Institutes of Health has shown to have long-term effects on reproductive health. They can be very dangerous at low levels, thus restricting the amount allowed will not be effective.
“The EPA is failing to protect human health and the environment by neglecting to regulate the excessive use of herbicides,” a current Food & Water Watch petition states. “Instead, it is just changing its own rules to allow the irresponsible and potentially dangerous applications continue.”
Monsanto, meanwhile, claims glyphosate is safe because it only acts on a biological process that is present in plants, not animals.
“We are very confident in the long track record that glyphosate has,” Jerry Stainer, Monsanto’s executive vice president of sustainability, has stated in the past. “It has been very, very extensively studied.”
Yet new research says glyphosate interferes with gut bacteria, which can disrupt immunity and vitamin synthesis.
Indeed, according to EPA analysts, the consequences linked to exposure to the chemical include lung congestion and shortness of breath. Further, according to a study published in April, scientists have linked exposure to glyphosate to gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility and cancer.
“Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study states.
“Part of the problem is that there is no ethical way to prove that [glyphosate] is as toxic as it is,” Sayer Ji, director of GreenMedInfo, an advocacy group, told IPS. “Yet meanwhile, no new research is proving it’s safer, but rather the opposite. I think the EPA is really damaging its credibility.”
According to Lovera, the EPA tends to be very slow in taking new studies into account. (The EPA was unable to provide comment for this story before deadline.)
180 million pounds
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 180 million pounds of glyphosate are applied to U.S. soil annually. Herbicide use has increased by 26 percent since 2001, according Food & Water Watch.
Instead of pushing more environmentally friendly techniques to combat weeds – such as varying crops from year to year or using crop covers – biotech companies have focused on inventing genetically engineered crops that can withstand the use of Roundup and other herbicides.
Yet the impacts of this massively increased use of chemical inputs on environmental systems and human communities are only slowly being understood.
Scientists have repeatedly found that the numbers of migrating monarch butterflies, for instance, are today at their lowest point in decades. Environmental advocacy groups say this is because milkweed plants – the only plant on which these butterflies lay their eggs – are being killed off by these herbicides.
Nor are plants and animals the only ones reportedly being affected by this increased use of glyphosate.
In its Farm Family Exposure Study, GreenMedInfo looked at the glyphosate concentration in the urine of 48 farmers, their spouses and 79 of their children on the day before, the day of, and for three days after a glyphosate application on their farms.
Of the farmers studied, 60 percent had detectable levels of the chemical the day of the application. So too did four percent of their spouses and 12 percent of their children.
“For consumers in the United States, the best way to get around this is to look for organic labels on food, because they are not allowed to use Roundup,” Lovera told IPS. “That’s one of the biggest distinctions between conventional and organic products.”