Massachusettes Institute of Technology suggests that heavy use of the world’s most popular herbicide, RoundUp, could be linked to a range of health problems and diseases, including Parkinson’s, infertility and cancers.
The peer-reviewed report, published last week, said evidence indicates that residues of “glyphosate,” the chief ingredient in Roundup weed killer, which is sprayed over millions of acres of crops, has been found in food.
Many Americans are more familiar with RoundUp than we realize. It is a weed killer, used on lawns and gardens, with precautionary measures taken by parents to keep it locked in cabinets and out of the reach of children. What most Americans don’t realize is that this chemical is routinely used on the foods we eat, most notably corn and soy.
It is now so widely used in modern agriculture that a recent article about glyphosate, the chief ingredient found in RoundUp, from the global news organization, Reuters, highlighted that these chemicals are part of an enormous market, with world annual sales totaling $14 billion—more than $5 billion of that spent in the U.S. alone.
But what are they doing to us? Especially given their pervasive use on the foods we eat? Well, MIT aimed to find out.
The report’s results
According to the report, authored by Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the research suggests that the RoundUp residue now found on our food enhances the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease. Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” the study says.
We “have hit upon something very important that needs to be taken seriously and further investigated,” Seneff said.
MIT is not alone in its concern.
In the mid 1990s, using a new technology, our soy was genetically engineered with new organisms to make it able to withstand increasing doses of weed killer, chemicals and glyphosate. The business model makes perfect sense: It enhances profitability of the chemical companies by enabling the increased sale of their chemical treatments and weed killers.
But according to the work of Professor Miguel A. Altieri of the University of California, Berkeley who looked into unforeseen risks that might be associated with genetically engineered crops and these chemicals being sprayed on them:
Exactly how much glyphosate is present in the seeds of corn or soybeans (genetically engineered to withstand this chemical) is not known, as grain products are not included in conventional market surveys for pesticide residues. The fact that this and other herbicides are known to accumulate in fruits… raises questions about food safety, especially now that million pounds of this herbicide, ($5 billion worth) are used annually in the United States alone. Even in the absence of immediate (acute) effects, it might take 40 years for a potential carcinogen to act in enough people for it to be detected as a cause. Moreover, research has shown that glyphosate seems to act in a similar fashion to antibiotics by altering soil biology rendering bean plants more vulnerable to disease.
In other words, it might take a generation for these effects to show up. In light of the escalating rates of infertility, pediatric cancer and inflammatory bowel diseases, it begs the question: since the introduction of this new technology in the 1990s, is that happening now?
So why are we using a chemical that is too dangerous to store under our kitchen sinks in the reach of children on the foods we feed our families?
Monsanto and Roundup
Monsanto is the developer of both RoundUp weed killer (an “herbicide”) and a suite of crops that are genetically altered to withstand being sprayed with it. These genetically engineered crops, introduced into our food in the 1990s and 2000s, have the unique ability to withstand increasing doses of the weed killer and are known as “RoundUp Ready.” In other words, it helps them sell more chemicals.
Since the introduction of these genetically engineered crops, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data reveals that between 2001 and 2007, as much as 185 million pounds of glyphosate was used by U.S. farmers, double the amount used six years ago.
So in the past, where we may have been getting a sprinkling of this chemical on our food crops prior to the introduction of RoundUp Ready crops, with the recent introduction of genetically engineered foods, designed to withstand this signature product, the doses are at unprecedented levels.
What is this product doing to us?
Glyphosate, found in RoundUp, is the world’s most popular herbicide and is designed to kill pests and insects, anything but the genetically engineered “RoundUp Ready” plants, such as genetically engineered corn, soy, beet, cottonseed and canola.
These genetically engineered crops, including GE corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets are planted on millions of acres in the United States annually and widely and generously in the U.S. food supply, particularly processed foods, without labels.
When these crops were first introduced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was conjectured that farmers would like them because they could spray RoundUp weed killer directly on the crops to kill weeds in the fields without harming the crops. And they did. But about three planting cycles in, it appears that Mother Nature has Monsanto figured out and it is now reported that over half of the farmers using these products are experiencing a resistance to the chemical company’s signature product and suffering from what are known as “superweeds” in their fields.
It was not only the unknown impact of environmental and crop disruption that caused countries around the world to exercise precaution around the use of these chemicals, it was also the uncertainty of the long-term impact that these crops and the chemical products applied to them would have on both the environment, soil, a developing fetus or human health that resulted in their use being banned in 27 countries around the world and labeled in 64 more.
In light of the study out of MIT, this precautionary measure seems well-founded, as with the approval of every new RoundUp Ready crop, there is a 2–5 time increase in the amount of glyphosate that is applied. And while that may help drive profitability for the chemical industry, there are social costs: lost yields in food production and any health care costs that may be associated with the harm that these chemicals might cause.
The authors of the MIT report are concerned that RoundUp, for which these genetically engineered crops are named, and the chemical used in it, glyphosate, are contributing to diseases as far-ranging as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, infertility, cystic fibrosis, cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, going so far as to suggest that it “…may be the most biologically disruptive chemical in our environment.”
According to Green Med:
“The researchers identified the inhibition and/or disruption of cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes as a hitherto overlooked mechanism of toxicity associated with glyphosate exposure in mammals. CYP enzymes are essential for detoxifying xenobiotic chemicals from the body. Glyphosate therefore enhances the damaging effects of other food borne chemical residues and environmental toxins. The researchers also showed how interference with CYP enzymes acts synergistically with disruption of the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids by gut bacteria (e.g. tryptophan), as well as impairment in serum sulfate transport, a critical biological system for cellular detoxification (e.g. transulfuration pathway which detoxifies metals).”
In working with plant biologists, I have learned that glyphosate kills weeds by turning off key enzymes that produce defense mechanisms for plants. It essentially targets and destroys their immune systems by chelating, stripping, micronutrients like magnesium, copper and zinc from the plant. As a result, there are fewer of these key micronutrients in the plants and in our food supply.
This effect, according to the researchers, can contribute to causing or worsening “…most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this. It picks up on a previous Reuter’s article that was titled “Cancer Cause or Crop Aid?”
Roundup’s future in the U.S.
In Canada, the tolerable levels for glyphosate are 58 times lower that those in the U.S., and European tolerance levels are even lower as a precautionary measure to protect vulnerable subsets of the population, like pregnant women and children. Plant biologists share that the levels of glyphosate now found in the U.S. food supply have been clinically shown to be toxic, citing its effects on human placental, kidney, liver and testicular cells.
So what will it take to address this in the United States? The EPA has promised to look into it in 2015. But that’s two years of babies being born and two more years of escalating pediatric cancer rates. We already spend more on health care costs and disease management than any other country on the planet, according the the Office of Economic Co-operation and Development.
Unlike previous researchers, this is not a report from an anti-GMO activist, nor is it a report from the organic industry; this is a scientific research paper from one of our nation’s leading academic institutions led by a woman who is courageously highlighting that the potential toxicity of one of the world’s most widely used chemicals on our food supply is far greater than was previously considered.
Scientists and researchers who have spoken out on the dangers of these products are often attacked. This situation is no different, as Monsanto’s website in a “Featured Article: goes so far as to call MIT’s research 'Another Bogus ‘Study.’”
We still do not label genetically engineered foods in the United States, foods that have literally been given this product’s name and are hardwired to withstand increasing doses of it. Foods that were introduced as recently as the late 1990s and early 2000s into our food supply.
If the jury is still out on them, as evidenced by the MIT study, shouldn’t we, at the very least, be labeling them?
In light of the escalating rates of pediatric cancers, autism and other conditions impacting our children, the American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending a new policy, too, as seen on their website which states:
“The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that chemical management policy in the United States be revised to protect children and pregnant women and to better protect other populations.”
The reasons for this concern are not unfounded. American children have earned the title of “Generation Rx.” The Centers for Disease Control now reports that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of 15. And oncologists and leading experts in the field of cancer are calling for new treatment models, worried that the increasing costs of cancer are going to put an unprecedented strain on our health care system.
How to take action
According to Investor Place, an investment research site that tracks the stock price of Monsanto and the impact that news like this would have on its share price, “a spokesman for Monsanto says that glyphosate is a proven safe ingredient and is less damaging than other widely used chemicals.”
It must be how our grandmothers felt when told that cigarettes didn’t cause cancer either.
While this type of corporate marketing and positioning may be in the best interest of shareholders, industry-funded research often merits further independent investigation.
The question of labeling genetically engineered foods is not just an academic debate, it is increasingly an ethical one. And while the industry will claim that this is a concern afforded to the wealthy, that these crops are needed to feed the world, mounting scientific evidence is proving that with no long term human health data, other than what we are witnessing ourselves in the health of the American children, labels represent a precautionary measure, afforded to parents in 64 countries around the world who are able to walk into a grocery store and choose if they want to feed their children foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients.
As evidence and controversy grows, highlighting the toxicity of these products increasingly used on our food supply in the U.S. with labels will afford American eaters the same rights. Cancer doesn’t care what side of the aisle we are on or what our income is, and the costs of diseases being born by our families, our corporations and our economy have the potential to destroy our competitiveness in the global marketplace.
A label and the knowledge that comes with it would go a long way to protecting the health of our country.
Learn how you can protect the health of your children and family from genetically engineered products and the chemicals upon which they are dependent to grow at www.justlabelit.org and at the Pesticide Action Network.
Resource: Samsel A, Seneff S. Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases. Entropy. 2013; 15(4):1416-1463.