April 12, 2024

What is glyphosate and why should you care

Glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl) glycine) is a synthetic, organophosphorus compound that we are exposed to in our food, water, rain, air, personal products, and landscapes. Glyphosate was originally developed and tested for pharmaceutical use in 1950. When no pharmaceutical uses were found, it became a common metal boiler and pipe cleaner due to its ability to effectively bind to and remove mineral deposits. In 1970, the chemical company Monsanto discovered its herbicidal (plant killing) properties. Excited by the prospect of a blockbuster product, Monsanto combined glyphosate with a surfactant to create the formulated product we know as Roundup, and launched it in 1974 for landscape and agricultural use. 

Pesticide applicators and farmers were thrilled to have a purportedly non-toxic alternative to more toxic pesticides, and Roundup became a popular chemical formula in the weed-killing toolkit. Roundup was initially advertised as entirely harmless to humans and pets. Glyphosate’s mode of herbicidal action is through the “shikimate pathway” – a metabolic pathway that was thought to only exist in plants, not people. Glyphosate blocks this critical pathway, which prevents the production of the amino acids phenylalanine, tryptophan, and tyrosine.

In the mid-1990s, Monsanto developed and launched genetically modified plants (GMOs). The seeds were genetically modified to be immune to the effects of glyphosate, meaning that a farmer could spray their fields with the weedkiller Roundup and the genetically modified crops would survive. Described as “Roundup Ready”, Monsanto’s GMO seeds quickly overtook the soy, corn, and cotton seed markets in the United States, replacing native and conventional varieties throughout the country. Following the introduction of the Roundup Ready system, the use of glyphosate exploded.

Roundup is commonly used as a pre-harvest desiccant, in which farmers spray Roundup on grains, chickpeas, sugarcane, and more just prior to harvest. Drying out the crops leads to an easier harvest because the field matures evenly, thereby avoiding the burden of some parts of the field ripening faster than others. Glyphosate cannot be washed off of crops because it is a systemic herbicide – actually in the plant. When sprayed pre-harvest, concerningly high levels of glyphosate end up in our food supply. 

As early as the 1980s, concern about the potential for glyphosate to cause cancer was debated at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As revealed in the Monsanto Papers, Monsanto went to great lengths to avoid repeating a required mouse study that showed glyphosate to be carcinogenic. Even as a significant amount of independent, peer-reviewed research amasses, pointing to the likely carcinogenicity of glyphosate, the EPA refuses to admit that exposure to glyphosate contributes to the development of Non Hodgkin Lymphoma or other cancers. 

In 2015, the scientific panel at the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), determined glyphosate to be a “probable human carcinogen” based upon independent research, versus the industry-funded research upon which regulators rely. This concerning determination of carcinogenicity from such a highly regarded agency created a ruckus, and ultimately helped to support the Roundup cancer lawsuits which have totaled over $11 billion in settlements. 

The negative human health impacts from glyphosate extend far beyond just cancer. Research connects exposure to glyphosate to a wide range of conditions including liver disease, kidney disease, infertility, reproductive issues, endocrine disruption, ADHD, depression/anxiety, Alzheimers, autoimmunity, autism, obesity, and Type 2 Diabetes. Due to the limitless use of glyphosate in our environment, it is present in our urine, hair, feces, semen, breastmilk, and tissues.

One key pathway to the negative health effects from glyphosate is the gut microbiome. Research shows that bacteria in our microbiome also have the shikimate pathway – the same metabolic pathway that was originally thought to only exist in plants. In fact, glyphosate has been shown to negatively impact our beneficial gut bacteria while allowing pathogenic bacteria to proliferate. Current medical research has proven the integral role that our gut bacteria plays in several body processes, and gut dysbiosis is often found to be the root/functional cause of many chronic health conditions.

One of the largest contributors to our runaway public health crisis of chronic disease is the use of glyphosate and other agricultural chemicals on our food and in the environment. While exposure to many other pesticides also results in negative human health effects, glyphosate is the most used pesticide of all time and warrants prompt scrutiny.

The roadblock to proper regulation of this chemical lies strictly in the corporate capture of our irresponsible regulators. Accurate information on the dangers of glyphosate are hard for the casual learner to find due to the agricultural chemical industry’s use of expensive PR tactics including ghostwritten articles and research, corporate front groups, and false claims that chemicals are needed to “feed the world”.  The “Let Nothing Go” campaign, revealed in discovery documents during the Monsanto Roundup lawsuits, elucidated the shady corporate tactics of responding to all public criticism of glyphosate on socials or in the media. Usually, that response includes personal attacks of scientists, journalists, or activists who are trying to share the truth of the harms of the chemical. 

Decrease Exposure

Fortunately, anyone can take steps to decrease exposure to glyphosate. 

  1. Eat organically. The production of certified organic food is not allowed to include synthetic pesticides.
  2. If you can’t eat organically, avoid grains and chickpeas, which likely have been sprayed with glyphosate pre-harvest.
  3. Talk to local farmers about their practices – if a farmer has begun the path to regenerate his/her farm, chemical use will be decreased.
  4. Drink filtered water and add a filter to your shower head.
  5. Take off shoes in the house to avoid tracking it in.
  6. For children, dogs and cats: keep them away from any areas that have been sprayed. Roundup can be absorbed through the skin and cause cancer. Glyphosate and its metabolites will not disappear from pavement surfaces until rain washes it off. 
  7. Use organic personal care products. Tampons and pads that are not organic likely contain glyphosate which can be absorbed through the vaginal tissues.
  8. If you are trying to get pregnant, be sure that you and your partner both stay vigilant to avoid glyphosate to prevent miscarriage and support successful conception. 
  9. Avoid glyphosate while pregnant. Glyphosate crosses the placenta and circulates through the fetus. 

Take Action

If you are interested in taking action against glyphosate, the best thing you can do is immediately share what you know about glyphosate with friends, family members, and acquaintances. 

  • Are you a student? Find a way to write a paper or report about glyphosate. 
  • Are you a parent? See if you can present information about glyphosate to parent groups at school or in the community. 
  • Are you a reasonably strong writer? Submit op-eds to newspapers, both local and national. 
  • Do you have a podcast? Create an episode about glyphosate to share broadly.
  • Are you an artist? Activist art can go a long way – spread the word about Roundup toxicity. Sponsor a contest for others to enter with a theme of glyphosate.
  • Do you have a garden? Put up a sign that says “glyphosate free” which will encourage neighbors to consider glyphosate use.
  • At a family reunion? Bring up the glyphosate topic and have some key facts memorized to substantiate your opinions.
  • A pro at social media (or even just moderately ok at social media)? Start posting memes to draw attention to glyphosate use and connected health problems.

Through greater awareness, we will all demand a cessation of the use of glyphosate and other harmful pesticides, and slowly start to regenerate the health of our sickly population.

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Kelly Ryerson

I’m writing on behalf of all those who are chronically sick, fatigued, depressed, anxious, cancer-ridden, hormonally off, coping with allergies, suffering with pain, digestively wrecked, and accidentally dependent on multiple medications. We deserve to know the truth about how Monsanto's herbicide Roundup has made us a devastatingly sick population.