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Q: I’ve seen a lot about the dangers of the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) on social media. What’s the scoop? How worried should I be?
A: Although few people realize it, one of the most disturbing issues concerning our food right now is the widespread use of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship weed killer Roundup. It’s the most heavily used chemical herbicide in human agricultural history, and its use has increased 300-fold since it was introduced in 1974, particularly skyrocketing after the introduction of herbicide-resistant, Roundup Ready genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in 1996.
The FDA and USDA do not test food for this toxic chemical; however, independent, FDA-registered lab tests have found extremely high levels of glyphosate in some our most iconic food products.
Why Be Concerned?
Glyphosate, which is patented as a chelating agent, can bind with nutrients in the soil, preventing plants from absorbing them. The chelating action may negatively affect the nutritional value of food. It also acts as an antibiotic that can kill bacteria, and emerging scientific evidence suggests that it may lead to a harmful imbalance in bacteria in soil and in human and animal intestinal flora. Researchers also believe the herbicide may act as a hormone disruptor.
Glyphosate has been associated with a host of health issues such as kidney disease, reproductive problems, and birth defects. Exposure is also linked to liver damage. In a 2016 study, researchers concluded that even in “extremely low doses,” rats exposed to Roundup developed nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) over a two-year period. The dose of glyphosate used in the study was thousands of times below what is permitted by regulators worldwide.
The link between glyphosate and cancer is particularly unsettling. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization, declared glyphosate a “probable human carcinogen.” The decision was reached by a group of 17 reviewers from around the world and was based on evidence indicating that the popular weed killer can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer in humans; can cause cancer in animals; and can induce DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals and in human and animal cell studies.
Based on the IARC’s declaration, the state of California moved to require companies like Monsanto to label products that contain glyphosate with a cancer warning—a move that was blocked by a federal judge in June 2020. To date, more than 800 people have filed lawsuits alleging that they, or a family member, developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma because of exposure to Roundup.
Steering Clear of Glyphosate in Foods
In 2016, Food Democracy Now! and The Detox Project commissioned tests that found high levels of glyphosate in many American foods, including some products that are certified organic or non-GMO.
It’s important to understand that glyphosate isn’t just on the outside of plants—it is absorbed into plants. Contamination cannot be removed by washing, and it isn’t broken down by cooking or baking. Here’s a rundown on what you need to know to avoid glyphosate-sprayed food shopping:
The Non-GMO Project Verified label means that a product doesn’t contain GMOs, which is helpful information to know, but won’t tell you whether the product is free of glyphosate.
The best way to steer clear of glyphosate-sprayed food is to seek out products that bear the USDA Organic label. In order to receive organic certification, food producers cannot knowingly spray food with synthetic chemical pesticides such as glyphosate. Unfortunately, glyphosate use is so rampant that the herbicide may contaminate food that isn’t directly sprayed, including organic crops.
The Detox Project, a research and certification platform that uses an FDA-registered food-testing lab to test for toxic chemicals, certifies a “Glyphosate Residue Free” label, which offers more transparency and provides extra assurance against glyphosate exposure. The Detox Project is working with food manufacturers and grocery chains to get this label on more products so that consumers can more easily avoid glyphosate in their food.