By Lorrie Baumann
The real reason to be concerned about genetically engineered crops is not food safety. Rather it’s the increased use of the herbicide glyphosate that’s made possible, and perhaps even inevitable, by these crops, according to Gary Hirshberg, Chairman of the advocacy organization Just Label It! as well as Chairman and former President and CEO of Stonyfield Farm.
Read expert opinion about the food safety implications of GMOs here.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, was called “probably carcinogenic to humans” in May by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization. In the same report, IARC classified the insecticides malathion and diazinon as probably carcinogenic to humans and the insecticides tetrachlorvinphos and parathion as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The report notes limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and lung cancer with evidence from studies of exposures in the U.S., Canada and Sweden published since 2001. “In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals,” the report notes.
That report prompted the French government to ban sales of glyphosate to consumers, and retailers in Germany have begun voluntarily pulling products containing glyphosate from their shelves, according to Chemical & Engineering News. Monsanto has asked Intertek Scientific & Regulatory Consultancy to convene a panel of experts to review the IARC report and points to a statement by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, which says it’s too soon to say what the IARC report means because there are a number of long-term studies of the effects of glyphosate on mice and rats that were not considered by IARC. “IARC received and purposefully disregarded dozens of scientific studies – specifically genetic toxicity studies – that support the conclusion glyphosate is not a human health risk,” says a statement issued by Monsanto. “IARC’s classification is inconsistent with the numerous multi-year, comprehensive assessments conducted by hundreds of scientists from countries worldwide who are responsible for ensuring public safety.”
The suspicion that there might be a link between glyphosate and cancer as well as increased use of herbicides on American crops due to the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds should be enough reason to require food manufacturers to label products that contain genetically-modified ingredients, Hirshberg said. “The reality is, how can you say that GMOs are safe when there’s a direct correlation to herbicide use,” he said. “I have not said a word about whether GMOs are safe to eat or not. We don’t bother going there.” Hirshberg made the remarks during Natural Products Expo East, held September 16-19 in Baltimore.
“Though poll after poll has shown that more than 90 percent of consumers want labeling, there is no consistent answer about why people are concerned about GMOs,” he said. “In a civil society, we would let people know, and then let them find out.”
Hirshberg noted that in the 19 years since the first genetically engineered corn was introduced into the marketplace with the promise of crops with higher yields and greater drought-resistance, farmers have seen much different results. “There’s no evidence that there’s been higher yields in corn and soybeans versus non-genetically engineered crops. There’s no evidence that non-genetically engineered varieties have evolved any faster or any slower than genetically engineered crops,” he said.
He pointed out that use of glyphosate by American farmers has grown greatly because genetically engineered crops are designed to withstand the effects of the herbicide, which means that the herbicide can now be applied throughout the growing season. “Glyphosate is now the most-used agrichemical in our country,” he said.
Increased use of glyphosate and other herbicides has led to the evolution of herbicide-resistant weeds that have become a nuisance to American farmers, according to Hirshberg. “Today, more than 61.2 million acres of U.S. farmland are infested with weeds resistant to Roundup,” he said.
In response, farmers are being encouraged to use a solution of a stronger herbicide, 2,4-D, which is a component of the Agent Orange defoliant used during the Vietnam War, according to Hirshberg. “You have the foxes guarding the henhouse telling us what is and isn’t harmful,” he said. “That was effective for one season, but now we have 2,4-D-resistant weeds being developed. We’re using more and more of this stuff and getting less and less results…. Farmers are becoming more and more dependent on this herbicide treadmill without seeing any effect.”
Glyphosate is commonly found in the air and in rain and streams in Iowa and Mississippi, said environmental scientist Paul Capel, Research Team Leader for the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Quality Assessment Program, who spoke by telephone a few days after Hirshberg’s presentation at NPEE. His team measured the incidence of glyphosate in air and rainwater samples in both Iowa, where glyphosate is primarily used on corn and soybean crops, and in Mississippi, where glyphosate is used on a wider range of crops and in non-agricultural areas throughout the growing season. The analyses found glyphosate in the air in weekly samples taken in Mississippi during the growing season from April through October 86 percent of the time in 2007 and 100 percent of the time in 2008. Glyphosate was found in Mississippi rainwater samples 73 percent of the time in 2007 and 68 percent of the time in 2008.
For rainwater, the USGS team found glyphosate in the water in 73 percent of the samples in 2007 and 68 percent in 2008 in Mississippi. In Iowa, the team found glyphosate in 71 percent of the samples in 2007 and 63 percent of the samples in 2008. Capel was also involved in a 2004 study in Indiana that found glyphosate present in rain water 92 percent of the time.
Despite the chemical’s presence in air and rainwater, there’s little evidence at this point that glyphosate is a danger to groundwater supplies. Studies have shown that glyphosate is rarely detected in shallow groundwater, Capel said. He noted that glyphosate is typically applied by spraying from an airplane or from mechanized equipment near the ground, and as it’s sprayed, some fraction of the chemical enters the air directly, it never makes it to the ground. Of the chemical that does make it to the ground, some will be tied up in the soil, and thus unavailable to percolate into the groundwater.
While Capel’s USGS research documents that glyphosate is frequently found in rivers, streams and the air in areas where it’s heavily used on farm fields, the jury is still out on what that means about the health risk to humans, which depends both on level of exposure and how bioreactive the chemical is, according to Capel. “We’re trying to document environmental concentration off of the farm fields,” he said. “This is the exposure part of the health risk.”
He noted that scientists have associated glyphosate exposure with a number of different health issues, including autism, cancer and kidney disease. “Most of these studies are still under debate,” he said. “There’s not a clear linkage between exposure and some sort of detrimental end point…. These are questions that still need to be asked.”
Banning the chemical is not an immediate solution to this problem, according to Hirshberg. “The simple reality is, with fire retardants for an example, it’s been a 30-year fight. You need epidemiological research. You need deep pockets for lobbyists,” he said.
His organization is advocating in favor of mandatory labeling of foods containing GMOs, which he believes would create consumer pressure on manufacturers to exclude GMOs from their products. If farmers couldn’t sell their genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops, they’d revert to conventional crops that can’t withstand glyphosate’s effects, so they wouldn’t spray so much glyphosate, he reasons.
His immediate objective on the way to that larger goal is to stop passage of the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in July with the expectation that it would face a tougher fight in the Senate. The bill allows for voluntary labeling of GMO ingredients but prohibits states from requiring mandatory labeling. Opponents of the bill typically refer to it as the DARK Act, which stands for “Denying Americans the Right to Know.”
“Our mission is not just to stop this bill,” Hirshberg said. “Our mission is to get mandatory labeling…. The real critical societal question is if we’re going to be a society that’s satisfied with labeling the absence, or are we going to say what’s in it…. The reality is we vote every time we shop, and unless we have information, we can’t vote…. The other side has spent over $100 million denying your right to know. What are they hiding?”