Monstanto’s Glyphosate: A Science Conundrum

Monsanto.   Oh yes, it’s high time we sunk our teeth into the monolith that is one of the most controversial, popular mega-corporations on the face of this planet.  On one hand, society benefits from the $412 million dollars Monsanto sinks into R&D every three months. We get Golden Rice and its potential benefits in low income countries and of course our round up-ready soy and corn crops which constitutes 94% and 89% of our annual crop production respectively.  This certainly does its part given that corn and soy is the USA’s number one cash crop.  

They are an integral part of our export market and the company’s fingerprints could be found on every imaginable non-organic farm possible.  This of course, brings in controversy in Gilgamesh-epic proportions.  From global food security, to it’s past dabbling with Agent Orange,  and their incredibly aggressive lawsuit practices.  One item on the anti-Monsanto hit list that seems to appear more often than not is their production of herbicide and herbicide resistant crops.

Pictured: Monsanto Lawyer. No he can’t actually fight, but he listens to a lot of Lil Wayne.

The primary ingredient of this herbicide is Glyphosate and it has three general aspects of concern each ultimately involving the sanctity of human health: bio accumulation, anti-bacterial effects, and carcinogenicity.  Each one of these aspects, of course, has a rebuttal not only by both Monsanto and independent scientists, adding to the immense gradient of grey which is glyphosate toxicology.  This review will look into the pervasive  arguments on both sides of the metaphorical fence and see which seems to have more merit.

Bioaccumulation

Bioaccumulation seems like something that happens before a mystical zombie virus gets released haphazardly upon an unsuspecting human population, but rather, it is a biological phenomenon that is often best explained with a food chain.  A more common example would be to cite mercury in tuna.   We have the capacity to rid mercury from our body, but if the rate of its elimination from our body is slower than the rate we ingest it, we will have a bioaccumulation of mercury.  This applies for all species and even the environment.   Which is where glyphosate becomes a bit more problematic.

I could’ve made this in Microsoft Paint, but someone went ahead and did it for me.

Let’s start with the obvious. Glyphosate, sprayed on our plants continuously, can permeate into our environment through water streams, wind, and the food chain.  The evidence has been clear since its introduction, and Monsanto has publicly recognized this since its own toxicological report was published in 1985.  However, at the time, the scientific community displayed no real concern for glyphosate, as this was an acid that targeted a specific chemical reaction in plants that allowed them to produce the essential amino acids they need to grow.  Additionally, glyphosate posed little acute toxicity to the animals they were tested on, and was shown to have a difficult time entering out water supply due to its low half life, and thus its usage eventually expanded to become the most used herbicide of all time.

Now here’s where opponents of glyphosate like to fire back.  First and foremost, glyphosate is at some point, able to infiltrate our oceans and is capable of accumulating in our marine life.  This is concerning as it’s impossible for scientists to develop a toxicological profile for all marine life present in the sea, and thus there is a large question mark over whether or not this has the potential to become an issue in the long run.  Furthermore, glyphosate is sprayed on the crops we consume, and it doesn’t completely wash off under water, meaning we ingest a trace amount of it when we consume produce from farms using Round Up.

Whoa there, we did not need to go THAT morbid

From here there are two definitive conclusions that can be made once glyphosate has made its way to the natural environment and the species within it, or specifically, us humans.  For humans, its ability to cause acute or immediate harm is still up for debate, as there have been signs that it could accumulate in breast milk, or cause adverse effects in our intestine or the endocrine system.  The conclusion is clear. We need more clinical research and data in order to bolster our understanding of this chemical.   When it comes to its ability to adversely affect other species, the data is a lot more concise due to a difference of ethical research standards (we can dissect animals).  From Tilapia,  to earthworms, and even zebra fish, there is mounting proof that this chemical does indeed make it to the environment and is capable of doing harm.

Bacterial Impact 

All living things require bacteria for their survival, even the most minute insect or pond scum (I’m looking at you Trump) necessitates a diverse and healthy bacterial colony to survive.   For mammals, its our gut and saliva bacteria that does the heavy lifting, making sure what we eat or drink doesn’t kill us.  Even for plants, bacteria is necessary for their day to day functioning. It really doesn’t come as any surprise that these helpful microbes could even be the reason why our cells have organelles.

Recent literature has unearthed the fact that glyphosate’s ability to reach parts of our ecosystem has even broader implications, in particular, its ability to kill off bacteria.   At first it seemed that this was something that couldn’t be possible in humans. After all, all of the toxicity tests were done properly and a very wide dose tolerance was observed across a plethora of common lab species.  However, there seems to be increasing evidence that glyphosate can adversely affect gut bacteria once ingested, such as this study reporting how “good” chicken gut bacteria were highly susceptible to the presence of glyphosate (dysbiosis).  Remember how glyphosate is able to stick around and bioaccumulate in animals due to its residue on commonly consumed produce?   Well chickens, pigs, sheep, and cows are all able to accumulate glyphosate in their tissue, which we consume, and they can also excrete the chemical in their feces and urine.

These are actually Cheetos Puffs, but I promise they look identical to bacteria under a microscope

Now granted that this is typically a small amount of glyphosate we’re talking about here, it would take about 450 grams just to kill an 80 kg human.  However, there is a theoretical danger at play that is magnified by the prevalence of Round Up usage on farms. That danger is the biomagnification effect.   Much like bioaccumulation can infect food chains, biomagnification is the concept that a toxin can in fact increase in concentration as it moves up the food chain, a concept that once again we’ve proven to be true through studies on mercury.  So if glyphosate sticks to our plants, and is able to move up our human food chain back to us and our consumption of livestock, there is a window of risk if individuals consume glyphosate tainted produce or meat on a consistent basis.   Trust me when I say that there is research looking into the effects of trace levels of glyphosate on human gut bacteria.  Seriously, trust me on this.  If you haven’t caught on, every word in the previous sentence is a link to a separate article.

Carcinogenicity

Let me start by saying that on March 20th, 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer officially listed glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.  In fact, in response to this, the California Environmental Protection Agency added glyphosate to their list of Prop 65 chemicals, and any product sold in California containing glyphosate must provide a warning of its possible carcinogenicity.

Studies on this topic are abundant, given that this is a hot button topic and from a public health standpoint, glyphosate affects millions if not billions of people.   The literature is dense with studies on the chemical’s ability to induce tumor growth in vitro (on cell models) for prostate cancer and breast cancer.   Just take a quick google scholar search and recognize this for yourselves.  However, this is where I’ll also have to be impartial to the pro-cancer stance.

In vitro studies, epidemiological studies, and animal models ultimately lack the weight of a full blown clinical study.  This is something that the world could benefit from, but is expensive, ethically unsound, and also lobbied against.  Thus, this demonstration of association until now can only be taken with a grain of salt until more solid research is to reach publication.

Summary

In my personal opinion, I think the new research is clear. The risk associated with this product is more than enough to merit heavy regulation.  However, we as consumers must remember that this is a technology founded during the 1970’s, a time when the environmental health movement was most absolutely in its infancy.  It’s use in modern farms allowed for unparalleled levels of production and the growth of America as the world’s greatest producer of soy and corn. There have admittedly been benefits to its introduction, and it is difficult to judge whether its net good could outweigh its net bad in the long run.   However it is our prerogative to live towards a sustainable standard for the betterment of the coming generations, and glyphosate becoming an absolete technology is certainly a step in the right direction.

Well I never specified which generation now did I?
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