The Attack on Glyphosate

Over the past three weeks, the biotech community has witnessed two major attacks on glyphosate, the key ingredient to Monsanto’s Round-Up. Glyphosate is the world’s best-selling herbicide, and it accounts for 25% of the global herbicide market. Its popularity can be attributed to its simple, cost-effective ability to protect plants from most types of weeds. The first attack involved a controversial review published by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in the prestigious Lancet Oncology Journal. The second involved a blind-sided challenge to Dr. Patrick Moore during an interview about Golden Rice, the world’s first scientific innovation with a purely humanitarian purpose; it saves millions of Vitamin A-deficient children per year. During the interview, the French journalist challenged Dr. Moore to drink a glass of glyphosate, and Moore stormed off the set. Despite the fears drummed up by either event, the fact still remains that glyphosate is and always will be “Practically non-toxic” under normal, realistic exposure levels.

On Friday, March 20th, 2015, the IARC, under the auspices of the WHO, released a review of the carcinogenicity of five organophosphate pesticides including the key ingredient to Monsanto’s Round-Up by looking at three studies that suggest occupational exposure to glyphosate (for farm workers) causes increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma . Their conclusion included the designation of glyphosate as Type 2A: “Probably Carcinogenic to Humans”. Monsanto recently called for the WHO to retract the review on the basis that it lacked quality science compared to several other reviews published by global health agencies. Dr. Phillip Miller, Monsanto’s Vice President of Global Regulatory Affairs, released a statement in which he lauds a recent German study that “completed a rigorous, four-year evaluation of glyphosate for the European Union. They reviewed all the data IARC considered, plus significantly more, and concluded glyphosate was unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk in humans.”

Although there are many formulations with different solution strengths and several different brands, glyphosate is the world’s best-selling herbicide. This means the plants that grow your food are sprayed with this chemical to protect the plants from broadleaf and cereal weeds. Glyphosate was discovered to be an effective herbicide by John E. Franz, a Monsanto Chemist, in 1970.

I had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman of the Horticulture Sciences Department at the University of Florida, to see what he had to say about the Lancet Oncology review:

Me: What are your thoughts on the IARC classification of glyphosate as “Probably a carcinogen to humans”?

Dr. Folta: I think what happened is that there was a politically-motivated attempt to publish a poorly executed review of only a handful of studies on glyphosate, and they neglected to include data from several other studies.

Me: What can we, as skeptics of these claims, do about it?

Dr. Folta: Nothing, really. Toxicology experts will be vocal in opposition. It’s very well established that glyphosate is safe when used properly.

Me: What would you tell consumers who are concerned with glyphosate being sprayed on their food?

Dr. Folta: That’s a major misconception. Herbicides aren’t sprayed on food-bearing plants. It’s done way beforehand, and it’s only about 2 soda cans worth of glyphosate per acre of farmland. This is a very minimal amount per square meter of land. Crops sprayed with glyphosate are also spot-checked by farmers for evidence of residue. Glyphosate, according to the IARC, is less toxic than sunlight, cell phones, caffeine, table salt, and 10,000 times less of a risk for cancer as alcohol consumption.

Dr. Folta remarked that this was a “bad scene” for the scientific community in which a “politically-based decision” may have a serious effect on the way we farm. He closed by saying glyphosate is “one of the safest chemicals we’ve ever worked with.” Dr. Folta wasn’t the only vocal expert on the issue. Professor Sir Colin Berry, Emeritus Professor of Pathology at Queen Mary University of London, said:

I have served on a number of regulatory bodies for the UK, EU and WHO and I am well used to sifting wheat from chaff in the analysis of pesticides. What is missing in this new assessment is balance in the consideration of the studies. There are over 60 genotoxicity studies on glyphosate with none showing results that should cause alarm relating to any likely human exposure. For human epidemiological studies there are 7 cohort and 14 case control studies, none of which support carcinogenicity.

Dr. Oliver Jones, Senior Lecturer in Analytical Chemistry at RMIT University of Melbourne, said “People might be interested to know that there are over 70 other things IARC also classifies as ‘probably carcinogenic’, including night shifts.” The study also puts the carcinogenicity of glyphosate on par with being a hair dresser.

A few days after the IARC Review hit the web, Dr. Patrick Moore sat down with Canal+, France’s Premier Cable channel, for an interview regarding Golden Rice. During the event, the journalist shifted focus towards glyphosate, and Dr. Moore made the bold claim that you could drink a quart of glyphosate without it causing bodily harm. Little did he know, the journalist was prepared, and he asked Dr. Moore if he would be willing to drink a glass of glyphosate on film. Moore backpedaled and exclaimed “I’m not stupid.” This tense moment created an uproar from anti-GMO news outlets where the story was blown out of proportion. Several news sources, including Time.com, claimed Dr. Moore was a “Monsanto Lobbyist”, even though “Dr. Moore is not and never has been a paid lobbyist for Monsanto.”

Dr Patrick Moore

This interview created the narrative that “Because a scientist refused to drink a glass of glyphosate, there must be something biotech isn’t telling consumers about the safety of the herbicide”. In reality, glyphosate isn’t a beverage. In my interview with Dr. Folta, he stated “[Dr. Moore] refused to drink the glass of glyphosate because there are added surfactants that make it similar to drinking a glass of Tide detergent.” It’s not something you’d want to ingest just like you wouldn’t want to drink a glass of dish soap, table salt, or Ghost Pepper hot sauce.

Early Sunday morning, Dr. Patrick Moore posted this statement on his Facebook page, “Golden Rice Now” in response to the viral video of his interview. In the press release, Moore clears up any confusion about his stance on glyphosate:

I had stated in a previous interview that glyphosate was safe to use in agriculture and mentioned that it has such low toxicity that drinking a large quantity of it at the concentrations used in farming would not cause permanent damage to humans. In the middle of the interview now being circulated, the interviewer abruptly changed the subject to glyphosate and asked if I would drink a glass of it on camera. I blew up at him because clearly only a fool would drink an unknown substance offered by a hostile stranger live on camera. I had never said I would drink glyphosate in the first place, only that nearly all the people who have tried to commit suicide by drinking it have failed. And they were drinking concentrations of glyphosate far higher than those used as a spray to control weeds. Glyphosate is sold as a concentrate and is typically diluted to 1- 2% with water before it is applied.

An hour after this press release, he doubled down and ensured his followers that “anti-science activists will not stop me from promoting Golden Rice, which can help stop the deaths of two million children a year.”

The bottom line is that there is no cause for alarm. The available research and the overwhelming consensus by the EPA, the European Food Safety Authority, and food experts all over the world should calm the fears of any consumer concerned about how much glyphosate they’re ingesting. Let’s not forget that glyphosate is less toxic than caffeine, table salt, alcohol, vinegar, and even sunshine.