GLYPHOSATE is a chemical which was first introduced in 1974 by Monsanto, the American company who invented it for use as a herbicide (their patent expired in 2000 meaning glyphosate can now be produced by other manufacturers too). Monsanto branded its product ‘RoundUp’.

HOW GLYPHOSATE WORKS / Glyphosate works by blocking enzyme pathways in certain plants, preventing them making certain proteins vital for their life and growth. It kills both the leaves and the root systems of, for example, rhizomatous plants (eg. couch grasses) whose underground creeping roots are otherwise hard to control (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

OTHER USES OF GLYPHOSATE / Farmers can spray Glyphosate on crops like wheat and barley about a week before harvest to encourage even ripening, increase combine-harvester efficiency and reduce crop-drying costs. Once absorbed into the grain, glyphosate cannot be removed through washing, or broken down by cooking, being frozen or through processing (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

GLYPHOSATE & GMO / Some crop staples like soya, maize and wheat have been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, eg.  in Monsanto’s ‘Round-Up Ready brand of herbicide (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

POSSIBLE HEALTH RISK / In 2015 a United Nations study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organisation (WHO), suggested there was evidence that glyphosate is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’, specifically an increased risk of developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among farm workers via “occupational exposure” to the chemical when applying it. In 2016 co-analysis by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation and the WHO found that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”. This view was supported by the European Food Agency, which also concluded that glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer in humans. (Private Eye Issues 1389, 1459).

LIMITATIONS OF HEALTH RISK SAMPLING / Workers may handle various pesticides whilst working in the field, making it harder to directly link any single pesticide with any single alleged health abnormality.

GLYPHOSATE ‘CANCER-CAUSING’ IN 2018 RULING / In August 2018 Dewayne Johnson, a 46-year-old former groundskeeper, won a landmark legal case, when a San Francisco jury agreed that exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller had caused his cancer and that the company failed to warn him of the health hazards from exposure. The jury further found that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression” and was responsible for “negligent failure” and internal Monsanto documents showed the company knew or should have known that its product was “dangerous”. Monsanto said it intended to appeal to the jury’s verdict.

‘In the first case of its type, Mr Johnson’s lawyers argued that Roundup, a weedkiller made by Monsanto, a chemicals giant recently purchased for $63bn by Bayer, a German rival, had caused his cancer. To the industry’s shock, on August 10th the court decided in Mr Johnson’s favour, ordering Bayer to pay him $289m in damages. The case centred on whether glyphosate, an ingredient in Roundup, causes cancer. Bayer denies that, and has the backing of many. Although the World Health Organisation declared in 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic”, America’s Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union consider it safe to use. Most reputable scientific studies find that glyphosate poses no risk to humans. Yet there is a correlation between farming work and incidence of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. More research is needed to find whether there is a causal link to glyphosate exposure, or whether it becomes toxic when mixed with other chemicals, says Robin Mesnage, a toxicologist at King’s College London,’ (‘Bayer Beware,’ The Economist 18th August 2018, p51).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Private Eye, Issue 1459, ‘The Agri-Brigade’, 15-22 December 2017 p15.

Private Eye, Issue 1389, ‘The Agri-Brigade’, 03-16 April 2015 p11.