When the hum-drum of the news cycle is punctuated by a scientific scandal, it’s not uncommon for words like “triglycerides” and “glyphosate” to jump from scientific jargon to kitchen table conversation. And with scare stories about weed killer in your Ben & Jerry’s and allegations of ghostwritten studies, there’s no scandal more electrifying than that surrounding glyphosate.
First, the big picture: Glyphosate is the world’s most popular weed killer. Since it’s sprayed on “Roundup Ready” corn and soybeans, which are genetically engineered to withstand a strong application that normally would kill both weeds and non-modified plants, glyphosate landed smack dab in the middle of the GMO debate. Although nine out of 10 scientists agree that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, fewer than half of Americans support biotechnology in their food (compare that to the roughly 70 percent who support its use in human health).
In the U.S., all pesticides and weed killers — even the organic ones — are periodically re-evaluated to ensure the most up-to-date studies still support their safety. Time and again, government agencies have found glyphosate to be safe. But since both the European Union and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in the midst of another round of re-evaluations, anti-GMO activists know that the easiest way to take down GMOs is to eliminate the weed killer they’re grown with.
Kansas is the seventh highest corn producing state in the nation, which means eliminating glyphosate from a farmer’s tools would severely impact our nation’s ability to keep up with demand, especially as corn ethanol plays a larger role in alternative fuel.
According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Geological Survey, Kansas farmers spray at least 88 pounds of glyphosate per square mile on portions of their farmland. It certainly sounds like a great deal, but glyphosate has helped displace the use of other far more toxic weed killers. Bromoxynil, for example, is moderately toxic to humans and must be applied with chemical-resistant gloves and protective eyewear. Data from the Department of Agriculture indicates that farmers began spraying far less bromoxynil in the early 2000s — the same time glyphosate came into favor.
The shift likely held due to glyphosate’s cost (Roundup and generic glyphosate weed killers are among the cheapest and most effective tools farmers have to combat unwanted plants, resulting in reduced labor costs as well), and it’s relative safety. Glyphosate is less toxic than caffeine.
Even Dr. Aaron Blair, a pesticide researcher who devoted his now-defunct career to rooting out toxic chemicals, couldn’t find evidence glyphosate caused cancer. Unfortunately, Blair also neglected to publish the results of his study in time to impact an evaluation by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an organization with shaky credibility which to date is the only authority in the world that thinks glyphosate causes cancer.
There is certainly reason to want harmful pesticides off the market, but misleading the public and respected toxicologists is hardly an appropriate way to meet that goal. French farmers also worry that the end of glyphosate would mean the end of conservation farming, a method that utilizes glyphosate and organic soil cover to capture carbon from the air.
If well-meaning activists run glyphosate off the shelves, farmworkers will have no choice but to turn to other weed killers which are potentially more toxic and harmful to the environment than the product they originally tried to malign.
Until evidence emerges to the contrary, we should recognize glyphosate's safety. If activists want to fight GMOs, they should take their concerns to the laboratory rather than undermining glyphosate.
Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chief science officer at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Accountability in Science, which provides a balanced look at the science behind sensational headlines, and seeks to debunk junk science and correct public misconceptions.