Are EPA approved levels of glyphosate residue in our foods too high?

Carrots, Woodley Wonderworks for Flickr CC
Carrots, Woodley Wonderworks for Flickr CC

WASHINGTON, April 6, 2014  – Acceptable levels of glyphosate residue found in fruits and vegetables have been increased by The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  This happened in 2013 when the media was clamoring against the Senate’s passing of the so-called “Monsanto Protection Act,” the EPA quietly promoted the rule change regarding glyphosate levels without much attention from the media or public.

Regulation raises glyphosate levels in oilseed crops, which include sesame, flax, and soybean, from 20 parts per million (ppm), to 40 ppm.  It also raises the allowable glyphosate contamination level for sweet potatoes and carrots from 0.2 ppm to 3 ppm for sweet potatoes and 5ppm for carrots, that’s 15 and 25 times the previous levels.

The change in tolerance levels affects several other agricultural products, including animal feed, root crops and fruit trees.  While the regulation is effective beginning May 1, 2013, there was an open comment session, closing July 1, that received over 10,800 comments against the proposed change in regulation.  It is unlikely, however, that the comments will have any bearing on the decision, which is already final.

Glyphosate, a powerful herbicide, is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer, and is the word’s best selling herbicide, used in over 150 crops in over 90 countries.  Today glyphosate can be found in products like Roundup, Touchdown, Rodeo, and others.

Monsanto began marketing glyphosate under the Roundup trade name in the 1970s.  Roundup quickly became popular and gained even wider use with the introduction of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crops, which are genetically modified (GM) to withstand glyphosate, enabling farmers to use more of the herbicide to kill weeds without harming the crops. According to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), use of glyphosate has tripled since 1997, due largely to Monsanto’s introduction of Roundup Ready crops.

By 2007, glyphosate was the most widely used herbicide in US agriculture and second most widely used herbicide in the home and garden sector.  In that year, the agricultural sector applied 180 to 185 million pounds, the home and garden sector applied five to eight million pounds, and industry, commerce and government applied 13 to 15 million pounds of glyphosate.

The rise in tolerance levels for glyphosate residue came as a result of a petition prepared by Monsanto in early 2012.  While FDA did not perform independent tests on whether higher residue levels of glyphosate were dangerous to humans or the environment, it relied on tests and data provided by Monsanto.

Alarmed, many activists believe that a rise in tolerance levels will allow farmers to spray food with more chemicals, which will increase health and environmental risks.  While Monsanto (and by default the EPA) guarantees the safety of glyphosate in general and Round Up in particular, recent independent studies conclude the opposite.

Even the EPA’s technical factsheet on glyphosate states that chronic long-term exposure can cause kidney damage and reproductive effects.  It also states that and there is “inadequate evidence” as to whether it can cause cancer.

A 2013 MIT study argues that glyphosate residue in food and water induces disease by disrupting normal cellular detoxifying functions.  According to the study, “negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.”  The damage is manifested in increased risk of gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, autism, infertility, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

In another recent European study, commissioned by Friends of The Earth (FoE) and GM Freeze, volunteers from 18 countries submitted urine samples to be tested for traces of glyphosate.   All of the volunteers lived in cities and had never used or handled glyphosate prior to the test.  Laboratory tests concluded that 44% of people had traces of glyphosate in their urine. The rate of positive samples varied by country, with Malta, Germany, the UK, and Poland having the highest rates and Switzerland and Macedonia having the lowest rates.

Finally, who other than Monsanto will benefit from this raise in tolerance levels in the long run?  While farmers may benefit for a short while because being able to spray more herbicide may give them a larger crop yield, it may be possible that other countries will refuse to import U.S. produce due to the higher tolerance levels.

After all, it was a little over a month ago that Japan refused to buy U.S. wheat after a strain of unapproved Monsanto GMO wheat was unexplainably found in an Oregon field.  A week before that China incinerated three shipments of U.S. corn after discovering it contained unsanctioned GMO corn.

It is unclear whether the EPA took the above independent and other studies into account when making its decision to raise glyphosate residue tolerance levels in many of the foods we eat.  Monsanto and corporate agriculture will argue, as they usually do, that the new tolerant levels are “insignificant” and could not harm humans.  Many disagree.

The bottom line is that the items in your produce department may be a little more poisonous today than they were a few months ago.

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