Posted on: July 14, 2020 at 4:49 pm

In late June 2020, Mexico’s Environment Ministry, the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) announced that all glyphosate-based herbicides will be phased out of use by 2024 [1].

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“Given the scientific evidence of glyphosate toxicity, which shows the impacts on human health and the environment, the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) takes important steps to gradually reduce the use of this chemical until it is totally banned in 2024,” the Ministry said in a statement [2].

In other words, Mexico is banning Roundup, a broad-spectrum glyphosate-based herbicide originally produced by Monsanto, the former American agriculture biotechnology corporation that was acquired by Bayer in 2018.

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Roundup has been the center of controversy in recent years, and Bayer has faced tens of thousands of claims that the weed killer causes cancer, forcing the company to pay ten billion dollars to settle cancer suits [3].

This decision comes less than a year after SEMARNAT denied the importation of thousands of tonnes of glyphosate [2].

This news has opened up the debate surrounding the risks of the powerful herbicide and has some people wondering if the move will do more harm than good.

What is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate is an herbicide that controls broadleaf weeds and grasses, and has been registered as a pesticide in the United States since 1974 [4].

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The weedkiller is effective against a broad range of weeds and is widely-used in the production of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, as well as glyphosate-resistant corn and soybean. It breaks down in the environment, and can also be used for pest management.

Products containing glyphosate can be sold as a liquid concentrate, a solid, or in a ready-to-use formula. One of the most common glyphosate-containing products, of course, is Roundup, which is used to control weeds in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings [4].

In the late nineties, Monsanto started selling genetically modified crops that were resistant to glyphosate, which meant that farmers could spray the herbicide right over their crops, killing the weeds without affecting the crop. This led to farmers buying a lot more seeds from Monsanto, and spraying a lot more Roundup [5].

Does Glyphosate Cause Cancer?

Monsanto’s GMO crops and weed-killing Roundup exploded in popularity, and it made a lot of people very nervous. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), decided then to perform a risk assessment on glyphosate.

In March 2015, the IARC announced that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans” [5]. The United States Environmental Protection Agency, however, says that it’s not- so where’s the discrepancy happening? 

First, let’s look at the IARC’s findings. The agency found “strong evidence” that glyphosate causes damage to DNA in cells, which leads to mutations. These mutations, they reasoned, are the first step to developing cancer.

Next, they found studies showing that when mice ate glyphosate, they got more tumours. This led to the conclusion that glyphosate causes cancer in animals.

The third piece of the puzzle was that the IARC found “limited evidence” that people exposed to higher levels of glyphosate had higher levels of non-hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer [5].

This prompted other agencies to study the herbicide themselves, including the EPA. EPA scientists, however, found that glyphosate posed no risk to human health when used according to label directions, they found no indication that children were more sensitive to the chemical, and no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer in humans [4].

The EPA argued that their review looked at a significantly larger set of data than that of the IARC, and says that their classification of cancer is consistent with other international expert panels and regulatory authorities, including the European Food Safety Authority, and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), among others [4].

The EPA also states that they set a limit on how much pesticide residue can legally remain on food, and that glyphosate residues on food is safe for consumption as long as they comply with the established ranges [4].

“From my reading of things, if glyphosate causes cancer, it’s a pretty weak carcinogen, which means that you’re going to need pretty high doses in order to cause it,” said David Eastmond, a toxicologist from the University of California, Riverside, helped conduct one of these glyphosate reviews for another part of the World Health Organization, the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues [5].

He points out that the IARC review only looks at whether or not the herbicide can cause cancer, no if it actually will. He also said that the IARC only looked at studies that were made publicly available, while the EPA looked at studies that were not made public, but were paid for by Monsanto and submitted to the agencies themselves.

For his part, Eastmond believes that these studies are credible and valuable, despite the potential conflict of interest, because labs are required to follow strict guidelines.

Not everyone agrees with Eastmond, including the lawyers representing the cancer victims who had used Roundup, and the first three trials against the company ended in favour of the cancer victims [5].

Read: U.S. Annually Uses 388 Million Pounds of Pesticides Banned in Either the EU, China, or Brazil

Does Glyphosate Damage the Environment?

For several years, glyphosate was thought to be relatively benign to non-target plants and animals. After all it didn’t persist in the environment as long as other chemicals, like DDT, it doesn’t build up in groundwater like atrazine, and was less toxic than other alternatives [5,6].

While the EPA did not find any link between glyphosate use and cancer, they did find that the herbicide posed a potential risk to both terrestrial and aquatic plants, and birds, and had a low toxicity to honeybees [4].

The problem here is the sheer amount of glyphosate that is being sprayed. According to a study published in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe, farmers sprayed enough glyphosate in 2014 to cover every acre of farmland in the entire world with half a pound of the chemical [7].

Environmental researchers are warning that this could have a serious impact on the creatures and insects that make up the base of the animal food chain, especially as glyphosate levels build up in the environment.

“No herbicide in the history of the world has ever been used this heavily. It’s a completely unprecedented case,” said Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and author of the 2016 study, told EHN [7].

To address this, the EPA requires glyphosate-containing products to be labelled with instructions to reduce off-target spray drift to protect non-target plants and wildlife [4].

Mexico Bans Roundup: Helping of Hurting?

Not everyone is supportive of SEMARNAT’s decisions to phase out the herbicide. One chemical engineer who goes by the pseudonym Food Science Babe says that glyphosate makes up 25 percent of all pesticides used on corn in the US, and only accounts 0.01 percent of the chronic toxicity hazard of all pesticides used in corn [8].

She argues that glyphosate has replaced many herbicides that were much more toxic to humans and the environment, and is concerned that a ban may cause many farmers to go back to using much harsher chemicals.

“While the reasoning behind these bans is for supposed environmental concerns, a ban on glyphosate can actually result in less sustainable farming practices and more harm to the environment” [8].

She describes the ban as an extreme form of “greenwashing”, which is when a product makes insubstantial claims to deceive consumers into believing that a product or process is more environmentally friendly, and says that if people care about human health and the environment, they shouldn’t support the ban on glyphosate [8].

The Future of Farming

The big question is: will the ban on glyphosate improve our health or make it worse? If the Food Science Babe’s fears come true, there is potential it could be worse. If not, then perhaps we are taking a step toward more sustainable agricultural practices.

Only time will tell, but it will depend on the governing bodies creating a plan to help farmers adopt better, safer, and healthier practices in its place.

Keep Reading: This Man Is Cloning Old-Growth Redwoods and Planting Them in Safe Places

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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