A group of health scientists worried about the explosive growth of agricultural chemicals’ use worldwide is pressing U.S. and European health officials to examine the health impacts of glyphosate herbicides.
A report published on February 17, 2016 in Environmental Health, warns that use of the herbicide glyphosate—the major ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup—has skyrocketed in the 20 years since genetically engineered crops resistant to glyphosate were introduced. The report says government health agencies have failed to adequately monitor how much of the herbicide is getting into food and what impact it might be having on health, according to Environmental Health News.
The report’s senior author, Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist and consultant at Benbrook Consulting Services, writes, “It’s time to call on the global science and regulatory community to step back and take a fresh look at glyphosate since everyone on the planet is or will be exposed.”
Use of glyphosate has increased exponentially since the herbicide was introduced in the 1970s. Roughly 9.4 million tons of glyphosate, best known as Roundup but also sold under various brand names, have been sprayed on fields since 1974, Environmental Health News reports. Nearly 75 percent of that use coming in last 10 years, according to a report Benbrook Consulting Services issued earlier this month.
Health agencies, including the U.S. National Toxicology Program, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have not been able to keep up with monitoring the impact of glyphosate. “Since the late 1980s, only a few studies relevant to identifying and quantifying human health risks have been submitted to the U.S. EPA,” the authors wrote. Studies done in the 1970s when glyphosate was approved were “very unsophisticated,” Benbrook said. Dose ranges were very high and “research on developmental problems and endocrine disruption has shown repeatedly [that] chemicals can have subtle effects at much lower levels.”
Glyphosate has been linked to liver and kidney problems, birth defects, and it potentially disrupts the proper functioning of hormones, Environmental Health News reports. Scientists suspect glyphosate might be a factor in a kidney disease epidemic in Sri Lanka, parts of India, and Central America. One of the main gaps identified in the report is the lack of endocrine disruption testing, said Frederick vom Saal, University of Missouri biologist and a co-author of the report. There is increasing evidence that glyphosate may impact human hormones, which can lead to a variety of health impacts. In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer changed glyphosate’s status from a “possible” to “probable” human carcinogen.
Glyphosate use is part of the debate over genetically modified food, because seeds from Monsanto and other companies have been genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. When crops such as corn and soybeans have such immunity, farmers can spray entire fields. But weeds are increasingly developing resistance to the herbicides, leading to more and more spraying.
It is not clear what impact a statement from a group of scientists can have on federal policy. But vom Saal said that even if the EPA does not alter testing, the statement could spur more progressive states such as California to take action. Benbrook said modern tests, conducted by independent scientists, are long overdue, according to Environmental Health News.