“That Monsanto thing” everyone keeps banging on about

A friend recently asked me why I’m so obsessed with “that Monsanto thing.” He was referring to glyphosate, the highly popular pesticide chemical I’ve been writing about a lot lately. “That thing” crops around the world are being sprayed with, “that thing” farmers are exposed to directly on a regular basis, “that thing” that you and I are eating through our food.

I’m obsessed with it because a fascinating debate has erupted around this small molecule: After 40 years of being on the market, its safety uncontested, now some people are saying that it might actually be harmful to us.

The debate over its safety has sparked protests, caused outright disagreement between the agencies we trust to tell us whether a chemical is safe or not, and not to mention a tonne of lawsuits against Monsanto.

Some concerns are based on legitimate scientific research. A handful of studies suggest that glyphosate might have very subtle toxic or even behavioral effects on animals like zebrafish, nematode worms, or water fleas – at certain doses, and over certain periods of time. The researchers doing these studies are careful in the interpretation of their results. They caution that the poison is in the dose, and that their lab animal might not be reflective of another.

But beyond that, the debate seems to have spiraled out of control. Wild, scientifically unbacked claims that glyphosate, um, causes autism, frequently make the rounds in anti-GMO circles. Or any study funded by anti-GMO lobbying groups, for that matter. And on the other side you have Monsanto, forever insisting that its favorite pesticide ingredient has no negative effects at all.

Personally, I try to take all of this with a pinch of salt. What troubles me most is the lack of transparency in the pesticide regulation process.

It’s not like Monsanto just started selling glyphosate pesticides at whim – Fact is, they had to do a lot of studies to get it approved for sale. The thing is, though, that none of those industry studies are made public, nor the full recipe of the pesticide formulation (they only have to declare glyphosate, the active ingredient, on the label, not the rest). This makes it very hard for most scientists to study the molecule or its formulation.

I get it. It’s proprietary information. But in an age with so much public distrust towards the agencies that are supposed to tell us what’s safe or not, with wild theories and money-backed claims floating around, and nobody really has a handle on what “that thing” actually does, who are we, the public, supposed to trust?

I don’t know, but I took a stab at answering some of these questions, and untangling some of this science around this strange little molecule in two pieces for The Scientist and The New Food Economy. Enjoy!

 

We’re asking the wrong questions about glyphosateThe New Food Economy, May 2018. It’s not enough to talk about how safe glyphosate is. We need to consider what “safe” actually means—and who gets to define it.

How toxic is the world’s most popular herbicide, Roundup? The Scientist, Feb 2018. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is designed to be toxic to plants, but scientists observe some untoward effects on animals in the lab.