Photo from online Roundup advertisement
Part 1: The history of Roundup and how it affects our food
The world looked very different in the 1980’s, the decade I spent in medical school and family practice residency. Even though my job was mainly with the ill, people in general then seemed so much healthier than today. Back then, most cancers and all Alzheimer’s disease, autism and auto-immune diseases were rare. Why have they become so prevalent in the last three decades? For the last few years I have been looking through research to find answers. What I keep bumping into is the link between the introduction of Roundup and the increase in illness.
It’s not only physicians of my vintage that are alarmed at the rapid increase in previously-rare diseases. Veterinarians are witnessing a surge in livestock infertility and miscarriages. Dogs are getting cancers at an unprecedented rate. Plant pathologists tell of previously confined plant diseases, like bacterial wilt and fusarium, which are now rapidly spreading across the country. Although there are many poisons in our environment today, when we understand the history of Roundup and how it works, it becomes clearer why it’s a major factor in making us sick. We can then use this knowledge to keep ourselves and our families healthy.
Roundup’s history: Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, was patented as a “descaling agent” in the 1960’s by Stauffer Chemical Company. Its purpose was to clean industrial pipes and boilers by binding, or “chelating” residual minerals. In areas where the used-glyphosate was discarded, plants died. Monsanto Corporation quickly saw its herbicide potential and bought glyphosate for herbicide use in 1969.
The FDA and USDA required no independent safety studies before allowing glyphosate on the market. Monsanto’s convincing argument was that humans don’t have the chemical pathway that glyphosate interrupts to kill plants and bacteria. Therefore, in 1974, the sale of glyphosate began as “Roundup.” It was marketed to both farmers and homeowners as a weed-killer.
In addition to the mineral-binding component, glyphosate, Roundup also contains “adjuvants”-like surfactant. A surfactant breaks the surface tension of water and allows Roundup to enter all parts of a plant. As you will see in Part-2, surfactant also has a major role in making us sick.
Roundup’s use as an herbicide was limited at first because it couldn’t be used directly on crops without killing them. When Monsanto developed glyphosate-resistant soybeans and corn in 1996, the use of Roundup soared. This was also the beginning of previously rare diseases becoming common.
Crops that are genetically engineered to be glyphosate-resistant have come to be known as GE (genetically engineered) or GMO (genetically modified organisms). Most GE crops were developed to be used with Roundup and are called “Roundup Ready.” When these crops are sprayed with Roundup, they don’t die. However, Roundup does become “systemic,” or everywhere in the plant–including in what we eat. It’s now believed that GE crops are not harmful in themselves. Research shows that it is the Roundup in the GE crops that make us ill.
Roundup is everywhere: There are four main reasons there has been such a rapid increase in the amount of Roundup used since 1996: “Roundup Ready” soybeans and corn grew to become almost 100% of the United States’ market by 2014. Secondly, weeds rapidly gained resistance to Roundup–the first resistant weeds were reported in the late 1990’s. To counteract this resistance, the amount of Roundup used in each field has doubled since 1996. Thirdly, the number of GE crops has grown to include sugar beets, canola and potatoes in addition to the original soybeans and corn.
Finally, the use of Roundup is no longer limited to GE foods. It is now used extensively as a pre-harvest desiccant to “dry down” crops. Non-GE crops like wheat, oats, barley, and sugar cane are sprayed with Roundup about a week before harvest so their foliage will be dry and easier to harvest with a combine.
Monsanto originally told the Food and Drug Administration that Roundup did not stay in the soil or the crops. It’s become clear that this is not true—high residuals have been found in the soil and then in waterways after it rains. It also resides in the entire plant and grains that are harvested and we ingest. Because Roundup is in food and water, it’s should not be a surprise that it is found in human urine, breast milk, central nervous system and bone marrow. Urban dwellers are as vulnerable as their rural counterparts in this regard.
If Monsanto found it so easy to convince our government that Roundup couldn’t hurt humans or other mammals, then why should we be concerned? To answer that, we’ll look first at what is now known to happen to plants and then our bodies when contaminated with Roundup.
Roundup makes our food less nutritious: Besides pleasure, the main reason we eat food is for its caloric and mineral content. As we know from its history, Roundup’s main ingredient, glyphosate, chemically binds to minerals and makes them inactive. When it binds the minerals in soil, these nutrients can’t become part of the plants which are our food. Roundup’s success at binding minerals was apparent when the USDA decreased the weight of a bushel of corn by two pounds since the use of Roundup began. That’s two pounds of minerals lost per bushel.
Fewer minerals in plants mean fewer minerals for our bodies. We’re familiar with calcium and phosphate for our bone structure, and potassium to keep our hearts beating. But our bodies also need a trace amount of other minerals, like manganese, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, and selenium to serve as enzymes and co-enzymes for the hundreds of chemical reactions in our bodies. When Roundup is used on crops, these minerals stay in the soil instead of becoming part of our food.
A second way Roundup makes our food less nutritious is by killing the soil’s bacteria. These bacteria are an essential part of the soil-food web that delivers the minerals from the soil into plants. In 2010, Monsanto patented glyphosate as an antibiotic—and antibiotics kill bacteria. Glyphosate could never be marketed as an antibiotic because it only kills “good” bacteria and not the “bad.” But glyphosate’s role as an antibiotic continues in the soil, resulting in even less nutrition in our food.
Part 2 will describe how Roundup directly affects our bodies.
Mary Lou retired as a physician and now homesteads with her husband, Tom, south of Columbus, Ohio. Her book, Growing Local Food can be bought through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482.
All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.