Removing Glyphosate from Our Food Won't Make Us Safer
The most commonly used herbicide in the world is not worse than the things it would be replaced with.
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For years, opponents of glyphosate have argued the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup is harmful for your health. These messages, along with a 2015 decision by the International Agency of Research into Cancer (IARC) to classify the chemical as a probable carcinogen, have spurred a group of plaintiffs to file a lawsuit against Roundup's manufacturer, Monsanto, alleging the herbicide caused their cancer. At the same time, the State of California has survived a legal challenge from Monsanto, winning the right to require a warning label about glyphosate's health risks.
This is all starting to sound familiar. About a decade ago, a similar story unfolded with the chemical Bisphenol A or BPA, with an ending that's a cautionary tale for consumers. Why? Even though manufacturers were quick to respond to consumer demands and remove BPA from many of their products, these changes didn't make consumers any safer.
BPA was first synthesized in 1891, but manufacturers began formulating plastic with it to make it more durable and transparent in the 1950s. Over the years, BPA became an ingredient in almost everything plastic, including water and baby bottles, food storage containers, DVDs and contact lens cases. But then, new research led consumers to question the safety of BPA and demand an alternative.
It turned out BPA can leach from plastic containers into the food and water we eat and drink, leading some scientists to warn that the BPA we ingest might be responsible for health problems like cancer and premature puberty. Consumers also filed lawsuits claiming injuries from BPA, not unlike the lawsuit pending against Monsanto now, and states like Washington, Minnesota and Connecticut instituted bans against the controversial ingredient.
Today there is still no widespread scientific consensus that BPA is dangerous—some scientists point to studies showing harm at low doses, but others are skeptical about extrapolating risk from animal studies and question whether there's a sufficient health risk to warrant regulatory action. But back then, manufacturers wanted to appease their panicked consumers, especially parents concerned with exposures to infants, so they scrambled to come up with new BPA-free formulations of their infant feeding products. Ultimately, the FDA didn't need to ban BPA for baby products because the industry had stepped up to create a new standard of BPA-free plastic. A happy ending for consumers, right? Not really.
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Manufacturers needed BPA to make their plastic durable, so the industry couldn't just eliminate it without coming up with a replacement that could achieve the same effect. So, yes, manufacturers gave consumers their BPA-free plastic, but all they really did was replace BPA with BPS, or Bisphenol S, a chemical that is nearly identical to BPA only far less tested and likely just as worrisome. Today, there's plenty of BPA-free plastic on the market, but consumers aren't any safer for it.
Now that glyphosate is following a path similar to BPA, becoming the subject of lawsuits and regulatory action from the State of California, will agricultural businesses respond like baby bottle manufacturers did and quickly come up with a glyphosate-free alternative? Maybe. A group called The Detox Project has already created a "glyphosate-free" certification for growers to "verify your product does not contain the world's most used herbicide." But if farmers stopped using glyphosate, would our food be any safer? Not likely.
Just like those baby bottle manufacturers who needed BPA to make their plastic durable, farmers need herbicide to control weeds. Weeds are a significant challenge for crop farmers, whether conventional or organic. Andrew Kniss, a scientist at the University of Wyoming who studies weed management, writes, "if farmers stopped using glyphosate, weeds wouldn't just stop growing, so something else must be done to control them. There will be costs to that decision." So, just as with BPA, if farmers were to stop using glyphosate, they'd likely just turn to another herbicide, one that's probably not any safer or less toxic.
Critics are right that glyphosate use has increased since the 1980s, when Roundup first became a best-selling herbicide, but that increase also corresponds to a decrease in several other herbicides on the market. Matthew Lee Loftus who blogs at the Credible Hulk, illustrated this trend with data from the US Geological Survey that shows a decrease in herbicides like cyanazine and alachlor. According to Loftus, the rise in glyphosate "coincided with the phasing out of other herbicides, most of which were significantly more toxic than glyphosate."
But what about IARC's classification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen? Well, IARC's "confusogenic" classification system aside (note that processed meat is also a probable carcinogen, per IARC), consumers are inconsistent in how we feel about carcinogens. Alcohol, for example, is a known carcinogen, and we do regulate it but no one seems to be calling for an outright ban on gin and tonics.
It's also no surprise that the public doesn't have much confidence in the regulatory system's approach to these chemicals. In the US, the process for evaluating and regulating chemicals is slow and often confusing to the public. In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority reviewed the existing evidence on glyphosate and disagreed with IARC's classification. But when the US Environmental Protection Agency released a safety report on glyphosate last year saying the stuff was not likely carcinogenic, it inexplicably pulled the report hours later. (The report was ultimately published.)
Alison Bernstein, a professor in the neuroscience department at Michigan State who studies the role of environmental exposures in Parkinson's disease, believes both BPA and glyphosate are studies in misguided activism. "Consumers, scientists and regulators all want safer products, but when activists bypass this process and don't consider exposures in the larger context of available alternatives, it can lead to products that are worse for human and environmental health."
In order to have science-based regulations, we have to suffer through a thorough yet frustratingly slow process. Ultimately, how much risk consumers should tolerate is a challenging question upon which scientists will reasonably disagree, but it's best that disagreement play out in the scientific community. What the case of BPA makes clear is that when we sidestep that challenging process and opt for an industry-driven solution, the result isn't better for consumers. What we get is something that is designed to make consumers feel better, not satisfy the rigorous requirements of science.
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