roundup: maybe not so safe after all

Back in the early ’80s, before Riverford was organic, it was my job to spray the barley. The chemical cocktail was vile and I regularly suffered headaches, but the government’s directorate assured me the herbicides, insecticides and fungicides were safe for me, the environment and consumers. Over the last 40 years most of those chemicals have been withdrawn, often due to concerns over safety.

Should this have led to a more cautious approach? Should we still rely on short-term studies funded by the agrochemical companies? The systemic, broad spectrum herbicide glyphosate will kill virtually any plant down to the end of its roots. It was developed, patented and brought to market as Roundup by Monsanto in 1970 and has since become the world’s most ubiquitous agrochemical. About 75% of all GM crops have a gene inserted which makes them “Roundup ready”, ie. resistant to glyphosate, which can then be sprayed on the crop to control other weeds; commercial genius.

For decades we were told glyphosate had very low mammalian toxicity, degraded rapidly in the soil and was largely benign in the environment. Over the last ten years there have been rumblings suggesting Roundup can disrupt the endocrine (hormone) system in mammals and questioning environmental safety. Last month a peer-reviewed study was published showing rats fed diets of GM, Roundup ready maize had a massively increased incidence of cancer. Even more disturbingly, those fed Roundup itself suffered the same effects.

It has taken 42 years to unearth the evidence that seriously questions the continuing use of one of the world’s most widely used agrochemicals. How long might it take before we uncover similar evidence for many of the hundreds of chemicals that are still used widely in the production of the food we eat today? Back to veg next week. 

Guy Watson