Roundup, a popular weed killer manufactured by the agribusiness giant Monsanto, sits at the center of an ongoing health controversy. Reports of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and other cancers linked to its main ingredient, glyphosate, have sparked debates about the safety of the world's most widely-used herbicide.
First registered for public sale in 1974, glyphosate is predominantly used in agriculture, forestry, lawn and garden care. Glyphosate works by interrupting the shikimate pathway, a metabolic function in plants. Plants use the shikimate pathway to produce amino acids. When the path is interrupted, pesky weeds cannot survive.
While human cells don't have a shikimate pathway, the bacteria in our gut do. Human gut flora needs millions of good bacteria to maintain good health. When our gut is disrupted, so is our immune system.
In 2016, Newsweek magazine reported glyphosate’s rise as the most-used weed killer in the world. Only one year prior, in 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency For Research on Cancer (IARC) stated the herbicide was “probably carcinogenic to humans." Approximately 220 million pounds of glyphosate were used across the United States that same year.
Risks Linked To Roundup
While no direct scientific link between glyphosate and cancer has been established, anti-GMO and other environmental advocacy groups stress that the incidence of cancer after using Roundup is too high to ignore.
Farm workers, landscapers, nursery workers, and others in occupations that require frequent use of herbicides like Roundup are most at risk of developing illness as a result of exposure. People who regularly use Roundup for their own home gardens, lawns, and ranches are also at risk.
Monsanto has responded to claims against Roundup, saying that more than 800 studies, some conducted internationally, vouch for glyphosate’s safety. Spokeswoman Charla Lord said, “Regulatory authorities in the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and Australia have publicly reaffirmed that glyphosate does not cause cancer.”
Human, animal, and cell studies conducted by IARC found glyphosate in the blood and urine of farm workers, increased risk of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and tumor formation in some animals. Other illnesses allegedly attributed to Roundup use include renal cell carcinoma, pancreatic cell tumors, and chromosomal damage.
Regulating Roundup Across The Globe
Just a few months ago, Judge Kristi Kapetan of the Fresno County Superior Court handed down a formal ruling against Monsanto, allowing California to list glyphosate as a chemical “known to the state to cause cancer.” This fell in accordance with Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986.
Roundup is still currently used in over 160 countries. Only Malta, Sri Lanka, The Netherlands, and Argentina have all banned glyphosate entirely. Sri Lanka’s ban follows a reported five-fold increase in the amount of chronic kidney disease among its farming communities, which has unfortunately resulted in 20,000 deaths.
Renowned German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, spoke with Argentinian pharmacologist and pediatrician, Ávila Vázquez, who stressed the dangers of pesticide drift faced by villagers residing next to soybean plantations sprayed with glyphosate.
Dr. Vázquez and his team of researchers found the number of birth defects and deformations quadrupled between 1997 and 2008. “During that same period, the cultivation of soybean in the province increased sevenfold,” said Vázquez.
In a rather ominous twist, Monsanto and other seed companies have extensively marketed the development and approval of genetically engineered (GE), herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops since 1996. GE-HT versions of cotton, corn, and soybeans have made it possible for farmers to apply glyphosate for months after crops had started growing. This has resulted in a 14.6-fold rise in global use from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion in 2014.
Does Roundup Cause Cancer?
While glyphosate may not directly cause cancer, it does contain animal fats and other ingredients that can foster conditions for cancer cells to flourish. The task now is to find or develop herbicides that will not cause a multitude of health problems.
It is estimated that over 700 Roundup cancer claims have been filed in courts throughout the United States, and over 3,000 individuals have sought litigation against Monsanto.