Little Drop of Poison

As I’m sure you know from what I’ve written previously, I’m not really a fan of synthetic chemicals used in agricultural production because of the environmental, social and health costs associated with them, which of course we don’t pay for in real terms in our productivist economy. I also just don’t want to eat or drink that stuff. It’s like a little drop of poison in that which is meant to nourish us. At a more fundamental level, I disagree with their use because I think that it shows an ignorance and disdain for the principles that govern ecological systems, while degrading the cultural aspect of farming. True connection to the land comes from nurturing and caring for it, understanding how it can be supported, not conquering and taking from it. Just like any good relationship.

However, I don’t believe in jumping blindly in and cursing everyone who uses them. To a large degree, the agricultural system in the western world has been built around their use through policy initiatives and demand for low-cost food by consumers. At the same time, big business has infiltrated education, research and extension in the agricultural sector as governments pursue an increasingly neoliberal approach. It might seem that this tactic encourages a more efficient agricultural system but in the long run, I would disagree. We may be getting faster and more efficient at creating material goods and services, but this comes at the expense of meeting social and economic sustainability goals. Ultimately we will have to pay the price for this, as we are now starting to see. 

Last week a landmark case concluded in California. Dewayne Johnson was a school groundskeeper who applied various forms of glyphosate around 30 times per year who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the age of 46, he is predicted to be unlikely to live past 2020, leaving behind a family of three children and a wife. On Friday the 10thAugust 2018, Monsanto was ordered to pay Johnson US $289M in damages for their deemed role in causing his cancer through their glyphosate-containing products, the most infamous of which is RoundupTM. His is the first of a number such cases against Monsanto to go to trial in the US, estimated to be in excess of 4 000. How the company seemingly succeeded in fooling the world for decades is a matter that deserves serious consideration, as the impacts from this case will be resounding.

Glyphosate is a broad spectrum weed killer that was introduced to market in 1974. While also commonly used in gardens and parklands, it has become the most widely used agrochemical in farming over the last 44 years, making the repercussions of the outcome of the Johnson case incredibly pertinent to agriculture. 

Glyphosate is systemic, meaning that it’s water soluble, and therefore easily absorbed and transported within organic tissue. It works by inhibiting an enzymatic pathway, known as the shikimic acid or shikimate pathway, responsible for growth in plants, fungi and some bacteria. Inhibition of the shikimate pathway leads to rapid cell death in the affected organism. It’s non-selective, meaning that it will act upon any plant or microorganism that’s exposed to it, killing it within a matter of days. However, genetically modified (GM) strains of crop plants have been developed that are resistant to glyphosate because of their genetic profile, which has seen it even more widely used. Frighteningly, these crops are still able to absorb the chemical but not metabolise it, meaning that trace amounts remain in the end product i.e. GM food.   

There also seems to be a discrepancy between how glyphosate is used in some cases and agricultural industry guidelines. In vineyards, it’s sprayed under vine rows to inhibit weed growth. In theory, it shouldn’t come into contact with the vine itself nor the roots when applied correctly, so the risk of absorption is limited. However, if applied in the wrong conditions i.e. on a windy day, the risk of misapplication is increased. Glyphosate has been found in negligible levels in both beer and wine, including organic wines, indicating that contamination, likely through runoff or wind displacement, is at fault. While the glyphosate concentrations found were lower than what’s deemed to be unsafe for human consumption, it does pose the question: how did it get there in the first place if correct protocols were followed? 

Stringent with-holding periods after glyphosate use across agricultural sectors exist. In 2016, the Grain Producers Australia chairman admitted that he knew of it being used outside of current withholding periods in the grain industry as producers seek to maximise the output of their crops (Grindlay, 2016). While those who grow for export markets stand to lose contracts if glyphosate is detected in their product, the same incentive does not appear to exist for domestic producers.

Healthy soils - the most precious resource in agriculture. Photo by  Gabriel Jimenez  on  Unsplash .

Healthy soils - the most precious resource in agriculture. Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash.

Glyphosate has also been shown to lead to leaching of organic soil carbon, which negatively impacts soil structure and therefore nutrient and water bioavailability to the plant, as well as increasing runoff of nitrogen, which is a groundwater pollutant. This has important connotations not only for waterways, but also for our ability to produce high-quality food crops ongoing. Healthy soils are crucial for agricultural production. In the face of dwindling mineral resources, particularly phosphate, crucial to soil health and our food production systems, we can ill afford to impair our soils’ ability to produce food. 

There has been a growing debate in recent years over the potential human health risks posed by glyphosate use, mainly due to its ability to act as an endocrine system disruptor, from which a number of other health risks seem to stem. The World Health Organisation and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) caused a stir in 2015 when they announced that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” after IARC published an exhaustive review of the publicly available scientific evidence (based on human studies, animal studies, and mechanistic factors), which demonstrated a causal relationship between glyphosate-containing products and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This finding was called into question (largely by agrochemical industry employees and representatives) through what we might call fairly shabby misinterpretations of the review, which cited IARC’s finding of “limited evidence” for a causal relationship to cancer in humans as a sticking point. Not an unsurprising limitation given the origin of most agrochemical research funding i.e. the agrochemical companies themselves. Anyone who’s spent five minutes in the scientific community knows that funding sources influence the scope and subject of scientific research topics. 

Additionally, the difficulty of undertaking a simple cause and effect study in humans would be enormous. Good luck getting a such a study past an ethics committee, not to mention finding participants and, indeed, researchers willing to take part. Instead, the studies used were generally based on incidence of cancer in communities that faced exposure to glyphosate, which relies very much on having a researcher take interest in the right place at the right time, plus get funding to undertake their research. No wonder there’s limited evidence. However, additional evidence from animal studies and mechanistic factors support the finding of a causal relationship. The IARC finding was later defended and verified by 97 scientists and experts in an article published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 

Perhaps one of the most important points highlighted in the IARC’s review is the incidence of glyphosate in the blood and urine of agricultural workers, which is an indicator of its absorption. It has also been found in higher levels in the urine of people who consume conventional produce as opposed to organic produce, possibly giving a clue to the source. One of its derivatives, aminomethylphosphoric acid (AMPA) has been found in human blood following poisonings. Additionally, it has been shown to cause oxidative stress in rodents, induce DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in one study, human residents of several communities were shown to have increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage after spraying of glyphosate formulations. In South America, there has been a reported increase in birth defects since the introduction of glyphosate to rural areas, and a number of other reports of poor health outcomes related to exposure to glyphosate in vitro. In all fairness though, the evidence behind these particular findings has been tentative at best. A systematic review of the current scientific literature shows no causative relationship between glyphosate and adverse pregnancy outcomes in humans, though the study’s authors acknowledge that glyphosate has not been shown notto cause adverse pregnancy outcomes (other than higher incidences of ADHD in children born to glyphosate users). Additionally, there have been studies done with commercial formulations containing glyphosate, diluted to less than agricultural concentrations, that showed birth defects in lab animals.   

Effect of glyphosate injection; left to right: control embryo not injected with glyphosate; embryo injected in one cells only; and embryo injected in both cells. Note the reduction of the eye. From  Science in Society Archive.

Effect of glyphosate injection; left to right: control embryo not injected with glyphosate; embryo injected in one cells only; and embryo injected in both cells. Note the reduction of the eye. From Science in Society Archive.

There is one other confounding aspect of the research around glyphosate use. Much of the lab-based testing has been done with glyphosate in isolation, rather than the formulations used in commercial applications. For instance, RoundupTM is not comprised entirely of glyphosate; it’s glyphosate plus a blend of compounds, which function to enhance the bioavailability of glyphosate, for instance by making it more adherent to plants. The commercial formulations therefore have around 100 times greater efficacy than that which is typically tested in the lab. This completely undermines our ability to put confidence in these findings. They are not falsifiable in a commercial setting and should not be used to determine safe allowable doses in humans.

Dewayne Johnson, from  Stock & Land.

Dewayne Johnson, from Stock & Land.

All of that aside, the most damning piece of evidence in the Johnson trial came from Monsanto themselves. Companies are not obliged to publish the results of privately conducted research; it is left to their own discretion to pick and choose what makes it into the public realm. Yet they do have a legal duty of care to uphold. In the Johnson case, the jury were shown internal emails amongst company executives that demonstrated how Monsanto repeatedly ignored scientific warnings and sought and publicised favourable research, while employees ghost-wrote scientific studies that painted glyphosate in a positive light to be published under the names of scientists. According to one of Johnson’s lawyers, Monsanto had been privy to the knowledge that glyphosate plays a causative role in cancer for years. The jury found Monsanto to not only be responsible for Mr Johnson’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it was also found to have “acted with malice or oppression” and was responsible for “negligent failure” as it did or should have been aware that glyphosate is dangerous to human health. 

Of course Monsanto is planning an appeal of the jury’s finding, the outcome of which will set a further precedent for future cases.

A month ago, a federal judge in the US ruled that cases similar to Dewayne Johnson’s could be brought forward by cancer survivors or relatives of the deceased. While there’s over 4 000 cases against Monsanto currently waiting to be heard, as word about the Johnson case gets out, that number could increase.

From a legislative standpoint, it seems like something has to give as well. In the wake of the IARC’s 2015 findings, there have been small, but incremental changes in how glyphosate is perceived by legislative bodies globally. France acknowledged glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. Its use is banned in Sri Lanka and Ecuador. In 2017, California became the first US state to list it as a chemical known to cause cancer. In 2017, the EU renewed the licence for glyphosate for just five years. Most recently, there’s been the outcome of the Johnson case, which has filled our headlines since last week. It’s seeming increasingly inevitable that glyphosate will be banned. 

However, this will come at no small cost. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that a ban on glyphosate will cause a significant decrease in yields across a range of crops, costing the economy some 630 million euros. In Australia, around AU $17 billion worth, or 68%, of our crops are grown with the use of agrochemicals.

Moving away from using agrochemicals like glyphosate is not going to be an easy process. It’s going to require governments to take ownership in the agricultural research and extension sector. Our farmers need to be willing to adapt and educate themselves on alternative management practices that don’t degrade our natural resource base or pose a risk to human health. We’re going to have to start paying the true cost of producing food and support farmers to achieve their new objectives.  Let’s hope that we learn from the example set by Dewayne Johnson’s case and seize the opportunity to redesign a food future that’s better than our past.

Lou ChalmerComment