The total sale of products with ‘Non-GMO’ labeling is now in the billions, and the growth of this market is certainly to be applauded. However, the Non-GMO label inadvertently shields health-conscious consumers from one of the scarier realities of the modern food system—that glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, is also being applied to non genetically modified crops.
The world now has 500 million acres of GMO crops, mainly soy and corn in North and South America, but also cotton in the US, China, and India, and canola, sugar beet, and alfalfa in the US and Canada. These crops are genetically modified to withstand the application of glyphosate, in the form of Roundup—hence the label “Roundup Ready” crops. Glyphosate is a synthetic amino acid, a glycine analog that kills all plants except for the crop engineered with a bacterial gene that provides resistance to the herbicide.
Numerous scientific studies since 2009 have shown that glyphosate inactivates detoxification enzymes, disrupts the endocrine system, damages the microbiome and immune system, and is carcinogenic. The symptoms of the many chronic diseases that have reached epidemic proportions in the last 20 years can be explained by glyphosate’s (mis)incorporation as a synthetic amino acid in all our proteins (Samsel and Seneff 2016). That is, glyphosate accumulates in all human organs, including breast milk (Kruger 2014). The public is increasingly concerned about this reality, which is why foods labeled ‘Organic’ (free of both GMOs and glyphosate) and ‘Non-GMO’ continue to grow in market share.
It is also on the basis of these studies that the World Health Organization (2015) and the State of California (2016) recently listed glyphosate as a “carcinogen,” and many European countries that already tightly regulate glyphosate, finally banned Roundup as an over-the-counter weed killer. On Vancouver Island, where we both reside, the municipalities of Victoria, Esquimalt, and Saanich have also banned the “general use” of Roundup.
What is less well known is that glyphosate is also being used as a “desiccant” on crops that are not genetically modified. At present, there are no GM cereal grains on the market, and thus crops such as wheat and barley cannot survive a dousing of glyphosate. But since the turn of the 21st century, the USDA and Agriculture Canada have encouraged farmers to spray glyphosate onto grains and seed crops, in an effort to preemptively kill and dry out the crop prior to harvesting, to facilitate processing. This process is called “chemical drying” or “desiccation.” Glyphosate also kills the weeds around the crop, making it a convenient pre-harvest technique.
The Non-GMO label does not currently address the reality that products carrying the Non-GMO label contain conventional cereal grains that were doused with glyphosate. That is, many non GMO crops have glyphosate residues in them. This should be a major public concern and one that needs to be addressed legislatively.
There have been dozens of peer-reviewed studies on glyphosate in recent years, but the only one that has been widely publicized is from France (Seralini 2014). A top French court recently upheld its findings, which showed that Roundup Ready corn (sprayed with glyphosate) is clearly harmful to lab rats. The bulk of the results suggest that it is glyphosate that is the toxic agent—a point that is somewhat missed by ‘Non-GMO’ labeling.
In light of these facts, we urge the Non-GMO Project to take stock of this ambiguity and add ‘Glyphosate-Free’ to its label—for products that are, in fact, free of glyphosate. Short of such a development, the only certain way for consumers to avoid harmful dosages of glyphosate is to buy or grow organic foods.
Not only is glyphosate still legal in the US and Canada, but Agriculture Canada and the EPA recently raised the “safe” levels of glyphosate concentrations in human food and animal feed, in denial and defiance of the studies cited below. The reason for the change comes from industry pressure, since glyphosate concentrations are, on the whole, rising in our food—a fact that has not received enough public attention.
Consumers have a right to know what foods are contaminated and what they are putting into their bodies, and the best solution is to have clear labeling and well-informed consumers.
The regulation and labeling of GM foods is a good start, but we need to pay more attention to the toxic herbicides that most GMOs are modified to withstand. The European model of banning glyphosate on all food crops—whether genetically modified or not—should be adopted in North and South America.
Although this short article focuses on the adverse health effects of glyphosate, it is important to understand that there are many interrelated reasons to reject GMOs, and many ways of approaching the issue. Below is a short summary of the problems as we see them.
1. Non-science? Although the defenders of GMOs frame the topic as a debate between science and non-science, the reality is that numerous peer-reviewed scientific studies (cited below) have attested to the dangers of glyphosate, to other ingredients in Roundup, and to at least some GMOs. The science can be contradictory on the matter, but what’s striking is that the independent, non-industry-backed studies are inevitably the ones that find glyphosate toxic, whereas the industry-backed studies tend to find the opposite.
2. Human health. The peer-reviewed studies cited below demonstrate quite conclusively that glyphosate induces oxidative stress, disrupts the endocrine system, functions as a strong antibiotic that damages animal (and human) health, and is a carcinogen, conclusive enough to the WHO, much of Europe, and the State of California.
3. Ecological destruction. Although it is possible to have conventional, industrial-scale monocultures without GMOs, GMOs are overwhelmingly grown at the industrial scale and in monocultures. They form part of the destructive agricultural system that has depleted soils in North America and elsewhere, and toxified the environment through the increased usage of the herbicide/antibiotic Roundup.
4. Decline of biological diversity, lack of resilience, and vulnerabilities in the food supply. GMOs lack genetic diversity and are generally grown in monolithic blocks of a single crop. This lack of diversity creates vulnerabilities in the food supply and decreases resilience in the face of pests. Crops with low levels of diversity are more susceptible to disease and infestations. This state of affairs triggers a vicious cycle in which human beings wage a pointless arms race with weeds and pests and increase the use of chemical fertilizers to compensate for fragile plants, the adaptation of weeds and pests, and the absence of natural forms of fertility.
5. Privatization of genetic material. This fact is often ignored in the great debate on GMOs. When farmers purchase seeds, they purchase the ability to grow those seeds and harvest its crop. Farmers must sign a contract that prevents them from saving seeds. Thus, in a sense, farmers are growing someone else’s seeds, as the entire seed industry has now become controlled by only a handful of corporations. Seed-saving is an ancient practice, and one that fosters self-sufficiency, resilience, and biological diversity, and it has now been greatly impaired by the privatization of genetic material. This dead-end farming that makes farmers ever more reliant on corporations first began with the development of hybridized seeds – well before GMOs – which generally produced non-viable seeds and thus forced farmers to re-purchase seeds on a yearly basis. This practice then passed to GMOs. In a sense, the GMO farmer has become a modern-day sharecropper, growing someone else’s crops.
6. Culture of secrecy. Although GMO labeling exists in 64 countries, mainly in EU member states, the US and Canada have succumbed to industry pressure and still function without such laws. Further, the practice of chemical drying has taken place since 2000 with virtually no public consultation, consent, or transparency. There is ample reason to regulate glyphosate out of existence, as many countries and municipalities have begun to do, but until sweeping legislation occurs in North America, clear labeling on products that carry GMOs and glyphosate needs to exist, so that consumers can make well-informed decisions about what chemicals they are putting into their bodies. Governments should also foster public input before enacting policies that relate to GMOs and glyphosate.
Dr. Jeremy L. Caradonna
University of Victoria
Dr. Thierry Vrain
Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station (retired)
A Note on References
Given the immense interest in and suspicion of GMOS, we feel it is necessary for the public to have access to the scientific, peer-reviewed studies that address the adverse health effects of glyphosate. The studies below all appeared in highly respected, mainstream scientific journals that offer the latest research on toxicology, chemistry, microbiology, and more. We strongly encourage readers to take the time to read at least some of these technical studies.
References Cited in the Article
Samsel and Seneff 2013 Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases Entropy 2013, 15(4), 1416-1463
Samsel and Seneff 2016. Glyphosate pathways to modern diseases V: Amino acid analogue of glycine in diverse proteins. Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry · June 2016
Swanson et al 2014 Genetically engineered crops, glyphosate and the deterioration of Health in the United states of America. Journal of Organic Systems Vol.9 No.2 (2014)
Thongprakaisang et al 2013 Glyphosate induces human breast cancer cells growth via estrogen receptors. Food Chem Toxicol. Sep;59:129-36.
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Séralini et al 2014 Republished study: long-term toxicity of a Roundup herbicide and a Roundup-tolerant genetically modified maize. Environmental Sciences Europe , 26:14
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