Roundup ready... or not?

Roundup is the popular weed killer used by homeowners and farmers alike, but controversy around the pesticide is growing as people question the safety of the product’s active ingredient, Glyphosate. 

Zach Johnson, who calls himself the Minnesota Millennial Farmer, has known about glyphosate his entire life. He’s the fifth generation on his family’s land in central Minnesota and says he depends on Glyphosate to take care of the weeds on his genetically modified corn and soybeans.   

Other farmers, like Raymond Herold, wonder if it may have caused their cancer, but he also has doubts.  

“I can’t say. I don’t know," said Herold who was diagnosed with stage 4, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma last year. "The doctor didn’t tell me that.”

Herold is now one of 3,500 famers and agricultural workers nationwide who are suing Monsanto, the maker of Glyphosate.

Glyphosate has been the active ingredient in Roundup, another Monsanto product, since 1974. Today, it’s available in hundreds of generic formulations from a dozen companies, and accounts for 25% of all pesticide use worldwide. It was discovered by John Franz, a Monsanto scientist who got his PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Minnesota.

By itself, Glyphosate is a relatively simple molecule and breaks down easily. It works by targeting an enzyme found in plants but not found in humans or animals.  For decades, it’s been considered non-toxic--a scientist once famously claimed it was safe enough to drink.

The game changer for Glyphosate came in the mid-90’s, about the time Monsanto’s patent on it was set to expire--and when the company developed genetically modified corn and soybeans. Farmers could now spread Glyphosate all they wanted and it would only kill the weeds, but not the crop.

“It’s really a growth hormone," said Prof. Paul Capel of the University of Minnesota, who has researched the presence of Glyphosate in rivers and streams of the Upper Midwest. “In this part of the world, in the Midwest, we put it on 60 to 80 percent of the total landscape and we’ve never done that with a chemical before. It is forcing the environment to react somehow and is it a benign reaction or something more serious? I don't think we know."


The controversy over Glyphosate began two years ago in Europe when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), convened a panel of eleven scientists to review the research, concluding that Glyphosate was a “probable human carcinogen,” based on “limited evidence in humans,” and “sufficient evidence in experimental animals.”  

Critics point out it puts Glyphosate in the same category as chemicals found in table salt, red meat, and fermented vegetables, while Reuters recently uncovered early drafts of the IARC report showing revisions that edited out studies, some financed by Monsanto, that failed to show a cancer link.  

As a result of their findings, the European Union is now considering a ban on Glyphosate.  

In the U.S., California followed IARC’s lead, calling Glyphosate “a probable carcinogen,” with warning labels to appear in 2018. For the last year, the Minnesota Health Department has been reviewing Glyphosate as a “pesticide of concern.”  Even MDH admits, the evidence is not clear cut.

“As we’ve been looking through the evidence, one of the things we realize there’s a study saying ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for every health condition you can imagine," said Sarah Johnson, a research scientist from the MDH. "It’s very difficult to determine what’s going on.”


Glyphosate, some experts say, is too important to the modern economy to take away. 

"This product has been studied extensively by the EPA over and over again--by the European Union, the regulatory authorities in Japan, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Germany,"  said Scott Partridge, Monsanto’s Vice-President for Global Strategy. "It has been looked at over and over again and it is safe." 

As for the controversy over RoundUp products--which bring in $5 billion annually for Monsanto--Partridge blames the lawyers representing farmers with cancer.  

“Unfortunately, it’s [a game of] follow the dollars and the plaintiffs’ lawyers believe they have found a way to make money,” said Partridge.


As part of that litigation, lawyers got their hands on hundreds of internal Monsanto documents and emails.

The so-called “Monsanto Papers” include an email from an executive discussing how useful a certain regulator with the EPA could be. Another questions the safety of RoundUp, which contains other chemicals. 

"You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen," a Monsanto executive wrote. "We can make that statement about Glyphosate and can infer that there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer."  

The emails also show Monsanto orchestrating a campaign to discredit a French study of rats fed Roundup that showed it caused tumors, cancer, and early death. Monsanto claimed the rats were prone to tumors anyway, and the study was retracted. The editor of that journal later got a contract with with the company. 

Monsanto claims the emails are misunderstandings, taken out of context or simply a company defending its brand.    

Carey Gillam wrote Whitewash, a book about Monsanto’s protection of a product that brings in $5 billion a year.  

“Follow the money,” said Carey Gillam, author of Whitewash, a book about Monsanto’s efforts to defend Glyphosate. “They have a very vested interest in spinning the science, pushing the science that they pay for, that they interpret and then tell the regulators how to interpret."  


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is currently reviewing Glyphosate, has generally gone along with Monsanto and that doesn’t look like it'll change.  

As the New York Times recently reported, the EPA’s new director for its pesticide review board, Dr. Nancy Beck, came from the American Chemistry Council--the main industry trade group.   

Small amounts of Glyphosate have also been found in breads and cereals and residue detected on fruits and nuts.

And yet, the EPA, the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture do not regularly test for Glyphosate. In fact, they never have because it has always been considered non-toxic.

"It’s the fact that they think it’s safe that keeps them from testing,” said Professor Stephanie Seneff, a researcher and professor emeritus from MIT. 

Seneff has published papers describing how Glyphosate interferes with gut bacteria and may be responsible for rising rates of everything from Autism and gluten intolerance.

“Our digestive system is really getting disrupted due of our exposure to Glyphosate,” she said.

Critics accuse her of junk science, say she doesn’t have the correct background for her research and that she’s confusing correlation with causation.

“If you take it from the standpoint of what’s going on, Glyphosate is your prime candidate,” said Seneff.

As for the farmers using it and many consumers who are at risk of exposure, most brush off the possibilities.

"I'm concerned more about the known carcinogens, like sunshine, bacon, and beer," Johnson said.

Famers like Johnson say if they didn’t use Glyphosate, they'd simply use pesticides that everyone agrees are more toxic--even though that might happen anyway.

There are now at least 15 weeds resistant to Glyphosate, which leads to a big question: Are people resistant too? Will they adapt?

The lawsuits against Monsanto are being consolidated in federal court in California. The first case is scheduled for trial next year. 

The controversy over Glyphosate is threatening Monsanto’s proposed merger with German pharmaceutical giant, Bayer. It’s a $66 billion deal that would create the world’s largest seed and pesticide company.