A “sustainable agriculture company” focused on “empowering farmers — large and small — to produce more from their land while conserving more of our world’s natural resources such as water and energy” sounds like the type of company you’d want to support.
And why wouldn’t we want to use an “excellent tool” that helps farmers and homeowners “control weeds in a wide variety of situations” while posing “no unreasonable risk to people, the environment or pets” in our gardens or our communities? After all, who would turn down a product that ensures healthier crops and doesn’t affect the environment around it? It seems like a win-win.
What Is Monsanto and How Powerful Is This Company?
Monsanto is an international agriculture company based out of St. Louis, Mo., whose history dates back to the early 20th century. It began by producing the artificial sweetener saccharin and later moved on to producing chemicals like Agent Orange, widely used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and later found to be carcinogenic.
After selling off its chemical divisions after numerous environmental violations and lawsuits, today Monsanto sticks to the biotechnology and agriculture business. Whether you’re familiar with the brand or hadn’t heard of it before today, you’ve almost surely consumed a Monsanto-associated product. Genetically altered seeds from Monsanto can be found in alfalfa, canola, cotton, sorghum, soybeans and sugarbeets. In fact, Monsanto’s patented genes are present in about 95 percent of U.S.-grown soybeans and 80 percent of our corn. (1)
But the real money maker for Monsanto is Roundup. Developed in 1974, the herbicide is designed to control weeds, grasses and broadleaf plants in both farmland and home gardens, thanks mainly to its active ingredient, a chemical called glyphosate. Roundup is the most popular weedkiller in the world and it shows — the product accounted for around a third of Monsanto’s $15.8 billion in sales in 2014, according to the company’s annual report.
What sounds like a harmless protectant has actually led to more herbicide use, an increase in genetically modified crops, and a host of potential health and environmental problems lawmakers seem reluctant to confront. In fact, the World Health Organization declared in March 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”: in other words, it probably could cause cancer in humans. So why has this product been touted as safe — and what does this mean for us as consumers? Let’s dig in.
The Monsanto Roundup Takeover
Monsanto Roundup was created in 1974 as the company shifted its focus from chemicals and plastics to agriculture. The herbicide quickly became a farm favorite; it was considered benign to crops yet powerful. By inhibiting an enzyme essential to plant growth, according to Monsanto, it would kill anything green and unwanted in the fields that threatened harvests, while remaining safe for humans and animals. (2)
Of course, using Roundup widely brought certain difficulties for farmers — using Roundup widely would kill weeds, but it also could kill healthy crops along with it. So in 1996, Monsanto introduced Roundup Ready crops, also known as “glyphosate tolerant crops.” These Roundup-resistant crops were designed to help control weeds by allowing farmers to treat their fields with the pesticide without fear of hurting crops — in short, a miracle product for farmers.
The Roundup Ready crops spread like wildfire. In 2014, Roundup Ready crops accounted for 94 percent of soybeans and 89 percent of corn. (3) Between the two, these crops cover more than half of America’s farmland.
But nature wasn’t going down without a fight. After decades of being sprayed with Roundup, new weeds began sprouting. Known in farming circles as “superweeds,” these weren’t dying, even after Roundup treatment. And because of the high probability that weeds treated with Roundup wouldn’t survive, the ones that did all passed down their survivor gene, rendering Roundup helpless in killing them.
Because Roundup-resistant crops are so ubiquitous, the efforts to save them from superweeds can lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields and more expensive techniques, less environmentally friendly techniques, like regular plowing, to combat them. Most alarmingly, farmers are turning to additional, often more toxic herbicides to combat the Roundup-resistant superweeds, undermining the claims made by Monsanto that Roundup Ready crops are better for the environment.
What’s So Dangerous About Monsanto Roundup?
OK, you’re thinking. Monsanto Round and Roundup Ready crops seem to have given farmers the short end of the stick. But for the average consumer who purchases their fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, does it really matter? Oh yes.
The WHO Links Glyphosate to Cancer
One of the main concerns about Monsanto Roundup, the most-used weed killer in the world, is its active ingredient glyphosate. According to a group of scientists convened by the World Health Organization, glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans. (4) A carcinogen is an environmental factor that can lead to cancer, either by changing a cell’s DNA or causing other changes within the body that increase the chance of DNA changes.
What makes carcinogens like glyphosate so frightening is that long-term effects aren’t always immediately apparent. It works in tandem with other factors so that, over time, it makes other diseases and conditions more likely to occur.
In the medical journal The Lancet, scientists discussed several studies that showed people with occupational glyphosate exposure (say, farmers), had increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, even after the study was adjusted for other pesticides. They also mention that “glyphosate has been detected in air during spraying, in water, and in food,” and point out that glyphosate “induced DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro” (i.e. during pregnancy). (5)
Glyphosate’s Wide Reach
However, exposure to glyphosate doesn’t stop at just farmers. In fact, Monsanto Roundup leads us to a long chain of exposure that affects almost every single one of us and isn’t so easy to get out of.
About 75 percent of the food available at the grocery store contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (6) These usually will contain glyphosate residue, as they were grown from Roundup Ready crops, particularly alfalfa, corn and soy.
But even if you try to only eat non-GMO foods and don’t consume any of those products on their own — let’s say you hate corn, alfalfa and soy and are also gluten-free — they’re often ingredients in processed foods you might indulge in, like snack foods, canned soups and potato chips. Additionally, any animal who ate crops treated with Roundup — they nibbled on GMO corn, for example — will have traces of it in its meat.
And the amounts are rising. Thanks to the rise of Roundup-resistant crops, farmers now spray indiscriminately and without fear of destroying crops in the process. That means that while in the past, we might have gotten a bit of herbicides in our food, the levels today are much higher; in fact, Environmental Protection Agency data shows that in 2007, farmers used about 185 million pounds of glyphosate, or about double the amount they used in 2001. (7)
What does all that glyphosate you’re unwillingly consuming mean? Aside from its links to cancer, research shows that glyphosate’s ability to inhibit certain enzymes in the human body actually enhance environmental toxins and induce disease. (8) The consequences are “most of the diseases and conditions associated with a Western diet, which include gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, fertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.” It’s also been linked to Parkinson’s disease and prion diseases. (9)
Interestingly enough, most studies involving glyphosate focus on the chemical on its own. But while it’s the main ingredient in Roundup, it’s far from the only one. Now, new studies are showing that the inert ingredients in Monsanto’s Roundup — that is, the substances aside from the active ingredient that are added to the herbicide — increase Roundup’s toxic effects. (10) One specific ingredient was found to be more deadly to human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells than Roundup itself; researchers called the finding “astonishing.”
Other countries are taking notice. In Argentina, where Monsanto’s Roundup has turned the country into the world’s third-largest soybean producer, a report by the Ministry of Health revealed that, between 2005 and 2009, cancerous tumors were double the national average in the areas where GMO crops are grown and agro-chemicals like Roundup are used. (11) Now, more than 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina are urging the government to ban Monsanto products. (12) (See photos from Argentina’s farms and the devastating results of Roundup here.)
In Colombia, after the WHO’s announcement that glyphosate probably causes cancer, the President is currently reviewing recommendations made by its Ministry of Health to suspend the use of Monsanto Roundup as the country fights the growth of illegal coca crops. (13)
We Don’t Have a Clear Picture
While many scientists believe that the benefits of genetically engineered crops have been overstated and those treated with herbicides may pose more serious health and environmental risks than previously reported, it’s impossible to get a full look. That’s because of a chilling practice employed by Monsanto and other agricultural companies restricts the research done on their genetically engineered seeds. (14)
In order to purchase a GMO seed from Monsanto, a customer must sign an agreement limiting what can be done with the seeds. Guess what’s on there? You got it: independent research. Those scientists who fail to adhere to the agreement can be sued by Monsanto.
While studies do still get published, the only ones that are published are those that have received the thumbs up from seed companies. In other cases, studies that were allowed to take place were later blocked from publishing by the companies because the results weren’t positive. While companies have taken steps in recent years to be “transparent” and bolster their public image, we’re still in the dark about Monsanto’s seeds. (15) For example, a (non-binding) agreement with the USDA allows the federal agency to study crop production practices, but restricts it from taking a closer look at things like the health risks of GMO crops.
The kicker? Monsanto’s claims that its engineered crops allow for higher production hasn’t been substantiated. (16) Turns out, while some crop yields of GMO corn delivered a bit more than their non-GMO counterparts, some didn’t and others actually yielded less.
As if disease, cancer and a lack of transparency weren’t enough, Monsanto Roundup can also affect farms that have chosen not to use the product. Welcome to herbicide drift, where herbicide spray contaminates unintended targets. Drift “damages crops … hurts wildlife, and contaminates water supplies. Herbicide drift can also deposit illegal residues on eatable crops, especially organic crops or processed crops that are checked for contaminants.”
There are ways for farmers to reduce herbicide drift, but it’s hard to control. Particles can move long distances because of high wind or changes in temperature. And, of course, they’re also carried by our friends in nature. A 2015 study found that 62 percent of conventional honey and a whopping 45 percent of organic honey contained levels of glyphosate above the minimum established limits. (17) That’s right, even the organic honey was contaminated. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible for modern day honeybees to avoid things like herbicides, pesticides and other toxins in their hunt for nectar.
Additionally, conventional beekeepers often use pesticides to protect bees from parasites in the hive. Beeswax retains chemicals so, over time, these pesticides make their way into honey. (18) While organic beekeepers stay away from these chemicals, if they purchase wax, it’s more than likely they’ll get a dose of glyphosate; 98 percent of commercially sold wax contained at least one pesticide.
Interestingly enough, the study also looked at where the honey was produced. The honey from countries that allowed GMO crops had the highest levels of glyphosate in their honey — the U.S.-made honey contained the highest levels.
How to Reduce Monsanto Roundup’s Grip
Knowing what we do about Monsanto Roundup and its far-reaching effects, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing we can do. In fact, there is plenty we can do to fight dangerous Monsanto. From buying organic to supporting those companies — like Chipotle recently moved to offering only non-GMO foods — and small-scale farmers who choose not to buy into GMOs, we have power.
Buy Organic and Local
Organic vegetables on a stand at a farmers market with a sign reading locally grown. By definition, GMOs are prohibited in organic products. (19) Organic farmers cannot plant GMO seeds; organic cows cannot eat GMO corn, and your cereal cannot contain GMO ingredients.
That’s not to say your food is completely safe — the honeybee example above proves that organic food might not be 100 percent glyphosate and GMO-free. But the fact is still that the organic honey contained less traces of the chemical than the conventional options. Organic farmers also take different measures to reduce the chances of cross-pollination with GMO crops.
Additionally, take the time and get to know your local food producers. Becoming a certified organic farm can be too costly for small-scale farmers who are, in practice, growing organically.
Chat with them at your local farmers’ market and ask about the methods they use to protect their crops from weeds (organic farmers can still use certain pesticides!), what their animals are fed and where they get supplemental ingredients from (for products like jam or baked goods).
And if you’re weighing the cost of adding more organic products to your family’s food budget, keep in mind that organic products can also have more nutritional value.
Beware, unless its organic, of any food with canola, corn and soy in its ingredient list — as it’s more than likely it contains GMOs and the effects of Monsanto Roundup.
Let Your Favorite Companies and Legislators Know You Don’t Want GMOs
Chipotle is pledging to prepare food using only GMO-free ingredients. Tyson’s Chicken, America’s largest poultry producer, announced that by September 2017, it aims to eliminate all human antibiotics in its chickens. (20) Panera Bread is crossing artificial sweeteners, preservatives and meat from animals raised from antibiotics off its ingredient list. Whole Foods is requiring all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores to indicate if they have GMOs by 2018. (21) In Vermont, GMO-labeling activists have won the first round in requiring that GMO foods sold in the state be labeled. (22)
Consumers have spoken about non-GMO foods and the like; fortunately, the food industry is listening. The tide is turning but not fast enough. So tell your favorite brands and legislators that you don’t want GMOs and Monsanto Roundup in your food — or, at the very least, you want to have a choice in whether you consume them or not.
Monsanto Roundup might have a grip on our agriculture right now, but it doesn’t have to be this way forever. The more we can spread the word about the dangers of Roundup and Roundup Ready crops, the better chance we have of getting GMO-free food.