Iida Ruishalme is a writer and a science communicator who holds an M.Sc. in Biology from Sweden. She thinks nature is pretty awesome, and that it only gets more awesome the more you learn about it.
[ A version of this essay previously appeared on Thoughtscapism. ]
Many worry about pesticides for health or environmental reasons and the most common target of general concern is undoubtedly glyphosate, the active ingredient in the famous weedkiller RoundUp. I find that the best thing to do when something worries me, is to
find out more about it. I’ve delved into the details behind the 17 most common concerns I’ve encountered. Questions 1-11 are mainly about health, whereas 12-16 focus on environmental aspects, and lastly, 17 delves into the question of the integrity of research. I will do my best to present useful evidence-based resources on all the following topics. If you would like to listen to a summary of this series you can head on over to my guest appearance on the podcast Talking biotech with Kevin Folta – I was very honoured for the opportunity to join his great series.
After receiving valuable feedback from my readers, I decided to break these questions into blog posts of their own, either alone or in groups of a few connected questions per post. This way the list below can also serve as a hyperlinked table of contents:
- Does glyphosate cause cancer?
- Could glyphosate have other health effects? What about the surfactants in RoundUp, or glyphosate breakdown products?
- What about studies claiming glyphosate causes celiac disease, autism, obesity etc? A look at Seneff et co.
- Does glyphosate harm our gut bacteria?
- Could glyphosate be another case like DDT or Thalidomide – should we apply the precautionary principle? The important difference between persistent and non-persistent pesticides
- Is glyphosate an especially dangerous pesticide?
- Is there glyphosate in the air and rainwater?
- Is there glyphosate in urine?
- What about breastmilk?
- Should we worry about glyphosate in wine?
- Is wheat toxic because of glyphosate?
- Are crops drenched in glyphosate?
- Does glyphosate use enable bad farming practices?
- What about resistance and superweeds?
- Does glyphosate interfere with soil organisms or nutrient availability?
- Does glyphosate harm Monarch butterflies or bees?
- Can glyphosate research be trusted? What about conflicts of interest?
Glyphosate is a modified glycine-molecule (the smallest of our essential amino acids) which has a phosphoric acid (or to be exact, phosphonomethyl) group attached at the end (GLYcine PHOSphonATE). You can find out more about the specifics here. This small molecule binds to an enzyme in plants and many bacteria, which they need in order to synthesise a class of amino acids (aromatic ones). If the plants cannot synthesise these amino acids, after a number of days they will die. Animals do not have this enzyme. Instead, we rely entirely on our diet to provide us with amino acids, which means that this inhibitory effect has no direct target in our cells.
But as you can see from above, there is a lot more to the discussions about glyphosate – in fact, conversations on the topic often sprawl into so many directions at once that it can be confusing and exhausting for anyone to try to make sense of them. Which directions may warrant real concern and which not? The general impression left may be a vague feeling of unease. If there are so many questions, surely there must be something problematic with glyphosate? Should we use it at all? EU is currently in the process of determining this very question, and according to the vice chair of EU’s environmental committee, their hesitancy is influenced by the vocal campaigns of activist organisations like Avaaz who are calling the reliability of research into question. So instead of another 15-year renewal, glyphosate has been given an 18 month continued allowance period while European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) comes to a conclusion, expected in December 2017.
But there are several comprehensive literature reviews in scientific publications and other scientific bodies in Europe and elsewhere in the world who have already concluded comprehensive reviews on glyphosate research that can give us a good idea about the topic.
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