New Crops Present New Dangers
This year as you shop for corn seed or starts, pay close attention to the packaging. A number of seed companies are promoting the same Roundup Ready corn seed for home growers as is already used by many commercial growers. Advocates claim that inserting Roundup resistant genes into crops such as soybeans, alfalfa, and corn, helps farmers produce larger crops with less work. In fact, as the past decades have revealed, Roundup use creates as many or more problems than it solves.
Roundup is Monsanto’s best selling broad spectrum, systemic herbicide, popular with both home gardeners and commercial growers. Its active ingredient is called glyphosate, more specifically the isopropylamine salt of glyphosate. An inhibitor of enzyme production, glyphosate works by destroying cells of plants in active growth and is not effective as a pre-emergent herbicide. Glyphosate has itself been found variably toxic for variable amounts of time, ranging from as little as a few days in sunny fields to several years in forest environments.
What Harm Can It Do?
In animals (including humans), glyphosate has a teratogenic effect, causing fetal mutations and birth defects. Probably due to their combinations of ingredients, ingested Roundup formulations can damage lungs, kidneys, and the liver, and may kill outright, and glyphosate is toxic to human skin. It is also a recognized endocrine disruptor and in combinations such as Roundup preparations can cause genetic damage.
Inactive Ingredients Can Also Do Harm
Many folks are surprised to learn that so-called “inactive” ingredients in pesticides may in fact be harmful. Because they are not considered to be the primary or active ingredient, these additional ingredients are not rated by the EPA. For instance, Roundup’s primary surfactant (sticking agent) is POEA (polyethoxylated tallow amine), recognized as toxic to a wide range of wildlife, including frogs and fish. A potent surfactant, it also carries other toxic ingredients directly into the living cells of both plant and animals (including people).
No Testing Required, Evidently
Many American fondly imagine that the EPA is indeed a protective agency. When I give talks on pesticide toxicity, somebody always says something like: “But they wouldn’t allow harmful products to be marketed, right?” First of all, “they” are an overworked, understaffed agency subjected to significant political pressure. Second of all, American law requires only that the professed active ingredients of a toxic product be tested. Furthermore, the EPA does very little of the testing itself, relying instead on test reports commissioned by product manufacturers. Really.
However, few if any commercial pesticides involve a single ingredient, and few if any are tested for any additional toxicity that may be present in the specific combinations sold to the public. Thus, none of the various forms of Roundup were ever tested by the EPA, though glyphosate is EPA rated with Class 3 toxicity (dangers for oral and inhalation exposure).
Overuse Creates Superweeds
Because Roundup Ready crops offer resistance to Roundup products, commercial farmers can spray entire crops and kill only the weeds. However, just as overuse of antibiotics has created increasingly deadly strains of resistant bacteria, so Roundup has created Superweeds. Repeated exposure to glyphosate herbicides have selected for highly resistant strains of common crop pests, including running grasses, pigweeds, and water hemp.
Though Australian farmers were the first to identify such superweeds, Ag departments in at least 13 US states have confirmed herbicide-resistant crop weed problems encompassing over 100 kinds of weeds in more than 60 species. The problem is spreading worldwide: Argentinian farmers must now contend with herbicide-resistant Johnson grass (a nightmare in any form), while illicit Bolivian coca crops are increasingly resistant, and Chinese farmers report superweed problems as well.
French Farmers Fight Back
Some states have attempted to hold Monsanto responsible, starting in 1996, when New York State’s attorney general filed suit against Monsanto for false and misleading advertising of glyphosate products in stating that Roundup and other glyphosate-based herbicide sprays were “safer than table salt” and “practically non-toxic” to wildlife, from mammals to fish and birds.
In 2001, French environmentalists filed suit against Monsanto for claiming Roundup to be biodegradable and stating that sprayed field soil retained no toxins. Since the European Union rates glyphosate as “dangerous for the environment” and “toxic for aquatic organisms,” Monsanto was convicted of false advertising in January 2007, a ruling that was confirmed in 2009.
Losing Battle For Farmer’s Rights
In Canada and the US, farmers have been successfully sued by Monsanto for “stealing” their proprietary genetic engineering when wind-blown pollen infected non GMO crops in neighboring fields. Farmers who painstakingly developed and saved their own strains of crops such as soybeans, corn and rye not only had their own stock contaminated but had their crops seized as contraband and were usually forced to compensate Monsanto for the “theft” as well. For even worse consequences check out this report: Contaminating the Wild? Gene Flow from Experimental Field Trials of Genetically Engineered Crops to Related Wild Plants.
Eating Herbicide in Your Food
Unless you are buying exclusively organically raised food, changes are good that you are feeding yourself and your family with herbicide residues. Indeed, given the problems of wind-traveling and polinator-carried GMO genetic material, even some organically grown crop are very likely contaminated. Because glyphosate is a systemic toxin, it is quickly absorbed into every particle of a plant. In one study, annual crops such as carrots and lettuce that were planted in fields a full year after they had been treated contained measurable pesticide residues.
Unknown and Accidental Results
What else might be waiting to be revealed? The more we learn about genetic engineering, the more obvious its extreme complexity becomes. While scientist have been operating under the assumption that a given gene manipulates a single function, we now know that genetic interactions are not so simple. Newer research focussed on networked genomes shows that our early bioengineering attempts produced accidental and unrecognized dangers, some of which are only now becoming apparent.
What Can We Do?
So far, most grassroots attempts to expose and stop potentially or already harmful GMO practices have focussed on Monsanto, the largest agricultural biotech player. However, Monsanto is not alone. Among the largest companies that are engaged in similar work are Bayer CropScience, BASF, Dow AgroSciences, Dupont Biotechnology, Syngenta Biotechnology, and Ventria Bioscience. Numerous smaller player are also working in the bioengineering arena.
Though Monsanto has been the overall winner in most of the citizen action attempts, there is a growing awareness that all is not right in the biochemical kingdom. Even so, Monsanto and its kin companies continue to wield bigger guns and produce more political pressure than grassroots activists can muster.
So What CAN We Do?
As always, we can vote with our pocketbooks, refusing to buy GMO seed or plants or foodstuffs. We can let our preferred vendors know about our feelings and we can boycott companies that continue to promote products we feel are dangerous and/or irresponsible. This might include grocery stores, box stores, restaurants and fast food chains, plant nurseries, seed companies and so on.
Is this really worth fussing over? Consider this quote from the Environmental Working Group: “If Monsanto hid what it knew about its toxic pollution for decades, what is the company hiding from the public now? This question seems particularly important to us as this powerful company asks the world to trust it with a worldwide, high-stakes gamble with the environmental and human health consequences of its genetically modified foods.”
For more information about Monsanto’s Roundup-Ready crops, visit these links: