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GUEST AUTHOR: Øystein Heggdal
Øystein Heggdal is a Norwegian agronomist. He holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and natural resources. He is currently working as an journalist for a Norsk Landbruk, a Norwegian farming magazine.
This piece previously appeared Norsk Landbruk. It appears here by permission of the author.
Liv Langberg, Anders Halvorsen and Bernt Førre provided crucial research support. Translation by Øystein Heggdal and Marc Brazeau
In November the state TV network of Norway (NRK) showed the French activist documentary “Roundup Facing The Judges”. This was done only hours after EUs decision to re-authorize the use of glyphosate for another five years in the union. I was invited on the show to debate the documentary, but since they did not give me two hours to debunk it, here is a lengthy post for anyone who wants to dive in to the muddy waters of European anti-glyphosate activism.
First of all, repeat after me “This was no trial!”. In April of 2017 anti-GMO activists held a “Monsanto Tribunal” in The Hague. It was a PR-stunt organized by the very same Marie-Monique Robin, who made the documentary, and the International Foundation for Organic Agriculture, an umbrella organization for various organic associations around the world.
This Tribunal had nothing to do with The International Court of Justice in The Hague, it has nothing to do with international law and international agreements. This was acting, staged drama and showmanship.
The accused in this parody trial was of course the American seed and agricultural chemical company Monsanto. Because who else makes genetically engineered plants and sells pesticides? Well, quite a few actually; Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont, but for some strange reason it’s only Monsanto that’s bad and must be dragged through the PR-courthouse. One of the reasons for this is that Monsanto invented glyphosate, active ingredient in the popular herbicide Roundup.
The irony is that Monsanto is primarily a seed company with a sideline in herbicides, which make up 15-20% of sales. Most their competitors are chemical companies with sidelines in seeds.
Glyphosate works in plants by preventing development of a necessary enzyme for photosynthesis: EPSP synthase. Without this, the plants cannot grow and the plant dies. The enzyme is found mostly in plants, so the active ingredient in RoundUp has a very low toxicity in other living organisms.
The fact is that 3300 peer-reviewed studies and every regulatory bodies in every country on the planet have said that glyphosate is one of the herbicides least impactful human and animal health or the environment. Of course, this was not submitted to the Monsanto “Tribunal”.
When it comes to the use of chemicals in farming it’s anecdotes and feelings that to often carry the day.
The documentary starts with mother and sick child. The mother tells us she used RoundUp herbicide in the paddocs when she was pregnant and then she gives birth to a child with the tracheoesophageal fistula birth defect . The connection is clear! Except this is this is one of the most common malformation; one case per 2500 to 5,000 births per year. I can not find anything that indicates that the rate of malformation has increased over the past 40 years, and the first time it was described in 1697. Some years before we began to control weed with glyphosate.
Australian authorities had a look at the research concerning glyphosate exposure during pregnancy and injuries to fetuses. They found that in animal experiments the highest dose of glyphosate without harmful effects on neither mother nor fetus was 300 milligrams of glyphosate per kilogram of body weight per day. This is 1000 times what Australian authorities have set as the maximum acceptable daily intake. (page 8). There is no possibility that these women could have reached such concentrations in the body by handling glyphosate or eating food with residues of glyphosate. To get into such concentrations, you may need to drink concentrated glyphosate.
The Argentinean epidemic
Then we move on to Argentina, where the use of glyphosate has increased dramatically after the introduction of genetically engineered plants that can withstand spraying with glyphosate. And yes, it is clear that Argentinean agriculture has changed dramatically over the past 30 years; they now produce more than five times as much soy as they did in the mid 90’s, and they use about 10 times as much pesticides.
But what they do not mention in the documentary is that glyphosate is only a small part of this story. In Argentina, they use a wide range of active substances that are not permitted to use elsewhere such as chlorpyrifos, atrazine, 2,4-D and cypermethrin. The health and safety-regulations in Argentina does not seem to be an gold standard. The Pesticides and Agricultural Work Environments report in Argentina describes how those who work with pesticides have not been trained on which pesticides are dangerous (typically insecticides) and which are less dangerous (herbicides). Only half of the applicators use tractors with cabins and air filters.
One of the “witnesses” from Argentina is Dr. Damian Verzenazzi who has published research together with Dr. Menardo Avila Vazquez for a number of years. They are a part of a network of doctors called “Médicos de pueblos fumigados” who claim that the frequency of cancer in children has tripled, the number of miscarriages, and the number of deformed children is quadrupled in the last 20 years.
Now you might think that the good doctor got these numbers out of some sorts of public available health statistics, but no; they have been based on surveys. Dr. Vasques received a public reproach of his department three years ago because he sent out 27 students to do a survey on 5,000 people within two working days where they asked about the people who had experienced recent illness among themeselves or family members. The faculty rejected the possibility of conducting a proper survey of that scale in such a short period of time. They also held that it was irresponsible to use inexperienced students for such unscientific methods. The faculty stated that they do not support or accept the allegations Vazquez claims in the university’s name.
The following year, the doctors in the network proclaimed that it is not the Zika virus that leads to the deficient development of children’s heads (microcephaly), that’s … wait for it … ..Glyphosate! And so the story goes.
It would also be quite strange if glyphosate should be the source of a huge undiscovered health problem in Argentina, as all the time child mortality has continued to decline in the years after the introduction of glyphosate resistant plants.
In contrast, country with a high consumption of glyphosate and high proportion of genetically engineered soy. This week was a long-term giga study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, which looks at the link between glyphosate and the occurrence of cancer among those with the highest exposure, namely farmers. With 54,251 participants surveyed, it is the largest of its kind ever. They find no link between cancerous incidence and the use of glyphosate in the job.
“In this large, prospective cohort study, no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) and its subtypes.”
Deformed chickens and toads
In Argentina we also meet Rafael Lajmanovich, a researcher who has shown that a certain type of glyphosate formulation causes deformations in chickens and toad embryos. But he injects this mixture into the embryo, something that is not exactly relevant to how fetuses will normally be affected by glyphosate. I would guess if you are injecting aloe vera into an embryo, it would not go well.
Now it is also uncontroversial that some of the additives used in glyphosate-based pesticides have been poisonous to aquatic organisms. For several years, the use of some additives has been limited around water and watercourses, and has partly been phased out. But here it is the additives that have been the problem, not glyphosate.
Patented as water softener
It is true what they say in the film that glyphosate was originally discovered by a Swiss named Henri Martin in 1950. It is also quite correct that glyphosate originally was patented as a chelator, that is, glyphosate can bind to metal ions, such as calcium and magnesium. It was therefore used to prevent lime deposits in hot water heaters.
The movie tries to make this as something unfamiliar and scary, something that it definitely is not. Glyphosate belongs to a category of compounds known as phosphonates, a group of substances used in water purification plants. A chelator is not necessarily dangerous in itself. They are used, for example, in food, medicine, and detergents. Malic acid, citric acid and some amino acids are commonly used chelators.
There are many natural chelators in the soil and in plants. The transport of minerals is one common function. Chlorophyll and hemoglobin are both chelators. Glyphosate, however, is a rather weak chelator, which makes it completely impossible to get the effects that the film shows. The claims that glyphosate should cause nutritional deficiency in plants is not supported by the evidence.According to one major literature study in the field:
“In general, none of the research on chelating agent effects on metal uptake would indicate that a weak chelator such as glyphosate would reduce or increase uptake of micronutrient cations from soil.”
Another problem for this theory is that there are infinitely more metals in the soil than there are glyphosate molecules and a molecule of glyphosate can only bind a single metal ion:
“On a molar basis, the metal to glyphosate ratio can be from nearly 10,000 times more to about 100,000 times more minerals such as Mg or Ca compared to glyphosate”
The researchers concluded that there is little evidence available showing that glyphosate could cause nutritional deficiencies in soil and plants or that this non-existent nutritional deficiency should lead to actual diseases. On the contrary, data from the United States show that crop yields increase year by year.
The dead water fleas
The film also takes us to Tromsø in Norway to meet up Thomas Bøhn at Genøk National Center for Biosafety. He tells us that water fleas fed with RoundUp Ready soy died earlier than water fleas fed conventional or organic soy. However what Bøhn does not tell us is that the experimental design of these water flea trials was so problematic that none of them have met the standards used by EFSA in their safety assessment of either glyphosate or genetically engineered soy. The Genøk water flea studies are actually so bad that Jeremy Sweet, who is in the EFSA Panel for Genetically Modified Plants, has used them as an example of how not to carry out water fleas studies. Genøk lets their water fleas studies run until enough statistical noise is introduced for them to reach whatever predetermined conclusion they are looking for.
More about Genøk: How Norway Became an Anti-GMO Powerhouse
Glyphosate is an antibiotic
In the film, the American veterinarian Art Dunham claims that glyphosate is the most broad-spectrum antibiotic present in the world and that glyphosate is also patented as antibiotic.
Many substances have antimicrobial functions. Alcohol can kill bacteria, but no one sees it as a broad spectrum antibiotic. Although I do have friends who recommend moonshine as medicine, it will require so much moonshine to kill the bacteria that the patient (and my friend) would die first. And it is the same with glyphosate.
Yes, it’s patented as an antibiotic in the United States because a company wants to patent as much use of a substance as possible. However, while glyphosate affects some bacteria negatively, it does not mean that if these bacteria develop resistance to glyphosate they are resistant to antibiotics used in human medicine. The way glyphosate works on bacteria is completely different from the ways medical antibiotics work.
The film also asserts that glyphosate only kills “good” bacteria.The idea that glyphosate only affects “good” bacteria and not “bad” bacteria would also mean that somewhere in the world there is an internationally recognized list of good and bad bacteria and that these bacteria can be defined by their metabolism rather than their effects on human health. This list does not exist.
Dr. Don Huber and the 40 diseases
Dr. Don Huber is Professor Emeritus in Plant Pathology at Purdue University and has for a number of years warned against a new super-organism that apparently has a totally destructive effect on plants, animals and humans which cause, among other things, reproduction problems. Something that will be absolutely exceptional as corn, soy, pigs and humans have quite different reproductive systems. In the documentary he claims that it is possible to trace 40 different diseases back to the super-organism ; which has evolved due to the use of genetically modified plants and glyphosate.
But he is still unable to explain what this organism is, whether it’s a virus, a fungus or a bacterium. He can’t even tell if it has DNA. But does he have evidence of this new super-organism? No. None. He has refused to share his data or display the organism for other researchers and he has never published any peer-reviewed research on the super-organism. Nor have any observable effects of this devastating pathogen shown up since he started warning of it seven years ago.
Dr. Huber is quite skilled at conveying pathos, anecdotes and connecting unrelated events. In this blog post, an American organic farmer tells about Huber’s modus operandi:
“For instance, he’ll show the results of a study, then, as a supposed illustration, he’ll display aerial photos taken of neighboring cornfields during the 2012 drought. Claiming that one field is non-GMO and other is GMO, he’ll point to the superior appearance of the first, ignoring the fact any number of other factors could account for the difference between two fields on two separate farms, despite their geographic proximity.”
It is quite difficult to make out what disease Huber is talking about in the film, but when he mumbles; “The bacterium, the bacterium,” he sounds like Marlon Brando at the end of the Apocalypse Now.
Sri Lanka and chronic kidney disease.
For a number of years in Sri Lanka they have been investigating the cause of a high rate of incidence of chronic kidney disease (or CKD), but they have not yet been able to figure out what the reason is. In the documentary no such uncertainties are presented, instead we meet Channa Jayasumana who connects CKD to the use of glyphosate in agriculture. He believes glyphosate binds to heavy metals in the soil and that these heavy metals end up in the drinking water and kidneys of people.
There are many problems with that theory, the lack of data being a big one. The fact that CKD occurred long before glyphosate was used in Sri Lanka is another. A complete lack of research from elsewhere in the world showing a link between CKD and glyphosate use, a third problem.
From Denmark comes a former pig farmer, Ib Borup Pedersen, with anecdotes about genetically engineered soy in his feed that he feels led to deformed piglets. Pederson tells that when his father produced piglets before the introduction of GE soy, there were no deformed pigs. I find this a little surprising, because I grew up on a Norwegian pig farm. I have probably seen the farrowing of some 5000 piglets over the years, and the malformations that Pedersen refers to are also quite common in GMO-free Norway as well.
It is also a bit odd that no other Danish pig farmers have noticed the same problem. Denmark produces over 30 million piglets a year, and if there had been any problems with the feed, highly professional, experienced farmers would have noticed it in their production statistics right away.
Research has now been carried out on how the livestock performs before and after the introduction of GMO feed. Alison Van Eenennaam published a huge study in 2013 that included production parameters for 105 billion broiler chickens in the United States over a period of 10 years, concluding with the following:
“This very large field data set does not reveal overt health problems associated with the consumption of GE feed, but rather shows a continuation of industry trends that were observed prior to the introduction of GE crop.”
Manipulation of research
In the end of the documentary we get to hear from researchers of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), who two years ago concluded that glyphosate is probable to cause cancer in humans. The IARC has a strange grouping of substances that cause cancer in humans. In the group of “working with glyphosate” we find the following: Hot beverages over 150 degrees, shift work, sawdust, red meat, and hairspray. In the group that definitely causes cancer we find: Alcohol, plutonium, diesel fumes, sunshine and processed meat.
Probable carcinogen just means there might be some dose at which a substance might cause cancer. It’s not an assessment of the risk of cancer at real world exposure levels.
Stranger still are the revelations that have come out recently. The news agency Reuters has outed the IARC as an organization with corrupt panelists who have manipulated and ignored research that did not fit the conclusion they seem to have been seeking. Recently this fall it was revealed that Christopher Portier, one of the last interviewed in the film, has secretly received $ 160 0000 as a glyphosate expert for a law firm working on a group lawsuit against Monsanto. And that while he has claimed to have no financial interests in banning glyphosate.
What’s going on here?
So what is this documentary? Well it is not journalism. It is activism. And the most interesting story here is what we don’t get to hear; Where are the public health statistics? Where are the researchers at European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to tell that there is no connection to cancer? Or the rest of internationally recognized regulatory authorities? Where are farmers around the world using glyphosate to control weeds? Where are the representatives of Monsanto, or any of the other manufacturers of glyphosate?
The PR stunt that filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin herself participated in and staged is nothing but a collection of the most marginal and disreputable people in this crusade against modern agriculture, against the regulatory process and against the scientific method. Here there are no shades, no debate and no doubt. It’s good against evil. There are feelings against dry facts. They use all the tricks in the book. And NRK has lent its credibility to people who should ideally be equipped with tin foil helmets.
According to German numbers EUs farmers would have lost 20 percent of their earnings if glyphosate were to be banned. We would have to increase tilling and soil cultivation to control weeds, there would be more erosion, more nutrient run-off, less carbon sequestered, higher carbon emissions from the tilled soil, higher diesel consumption and lower carbon bindings in european soils. Norway and Europe would become less self sufficient and the environmental impact of food production would increase.
Nor would there be anyone saved from cancer, kidney disease, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, nutritional deficiencies in plants.
• How to Spot a Shockumentary: Food Edition
• Is Glyphosate an especially dangerous pesticide?
• Could Glyphosate be another case like DDT or Thalidomide?
• Does Glyphosate Cause Cancer?
• Glyphosate and Health Effects A-Z
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