06 Mar 2009

Origins: Roundup

by Karen Feridun

On January 27, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made an announcement that disappointed food safety activists everywhere. "After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa." With that, the USDA granted it non-regulated status. As its name implies, Roundup Ready alfalfa is genetically-modified to withstand the effects of Monsanto’s well-known herbicide, Roundup. The USDA’s initial attempt to deregulate the use of the genetically-modified seeds in 2005 resulted in a string of legal actions and a Federal court order for the agency to take a closer look at the alfalfa. By the way, if you don’t know who produces the Roundup Ready seeds, the answer is Monsanto. That’s right, the same company that makes the herbicide genetically modifies seeds to resist it. As herbicides are sprayed, they drift onto unintended targets, killing them. By developing resistant plants, Monsanto was able to market their new seeds to farmers while boosting sales of Roundup.

Genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) are at the center of a debate that continues to be waged despite the USDA’s stance on Roundup Ready alfalfa. Critics of GMOs maintain that insufficient testing has been done to really understand the effects of genetic engineering. Their concerns range from the human health consequences of eating GMO foods to the potential for developing antibiotic resistant bacteria to the risk of unexpected mutations increasing the toxicity found in foods. Proponents of GMOs point to increased yields and the built-in resistance that allows farmers to stop spraying with chemicals. Because GMO foods aren’t labeled, buying organic is always posed as the alternative for those who’d like to avoid them. Unfortunately, a process called gene flow can prevent that from being a reliable alternative.  Despite the fact that, until the deregulation, GM crops were kept separate from traditional and organic crops, gene flow was able to occur thanks to migration and the dispersal of seeds and pollen. In an interview with Rodale Press, Don Huber, Ph.D. said, "Just from the gene flow, within five years of Roundup Ready alfalfa, there will be no such thing as non-Roundup Ready alfalfa, regardless of restrictions government puts on it." Dr. Huber, professor emeritus at Purdue University, serves as the American Phytopathological Society Coordinator for the USDA’s National Plant Disease Recovery System. The recent removal of restrictions speeds up the process, thereby putting at increased risk the integrity of not only organic alfalfa, but of organic dairy and beef products that come from the cows that graze on it. In an interesting twist, however, gene flow may end up saving the organic industry.

The Center for Food Safety (CFS) announced on January 31st that it would be taking the gene flow issue to court. The CFS filed the original lawsuit after the USDA’s 2005 announcement. Among the legal actions that followed was a Supreme Court ruling that found gene flow harmful and, therefore, illegal under current environmental protections. The CFS plans to use gene flow as the basis of its next lawsuit. It’s likely that the war against Roundup Ready alfalfa will go on for several years. After all, the war on the use of Roundup itself has been going on for years and continues with no end in sight.
Dr. John Franz, a Monsanto chemist, invented a compound he called glyphosate in 1970. It was a powerful herbicide that proved to be so effective at killing perennial weeds that Monsanto fast-tracked its development and resurrected a discontinued product name they still owned to expedite that part of the process. Roundup was introduced in 1974. It sold for $60 a gallon. Farmers are reported to have complained that they paid less for their land. Nevertheless, sales took off and, before long, Roundup was patented in 115 countries. Today, Monsanto’s glyphosate products can be found in 130 countries. Roundup has been the top-selling herbicide worldwide for over two decades. According to the EPA’s Pesticide Market Estimates report that lists active ingredients, rather than brands, 90 to 98 million pounds of glyphosate is used annually in the U.S. alone. Those figures are alarming to the environmental researchers and activists who have long contended that Roundup is dangerous.

Swedish researchers, Lennart Hardell, M.D., PhD. and Mikael Eriksson, M.D., Ph.D. have been studying the toxic effect of pesticides for decades. In 1999, the Journal of the American Cancer Society published the results of research they conducted linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In 2009, glyphosate was among the chemicals the EPA selected for inclusion in its Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP). Scientists believe that the growing number of thyroid and reproductive disorders they’re seeing in fish and wildlife may be linked to chemicals that come from pesticides and other sources. Another study published in 2009 looked at the combination of ingredients in Roundup, particularly the surfactant POEA (polyethoxylated tallow amine). The researchers from the University of Caen in France found that “’the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels’ found on Roundup-treated crops, such as soybeans, alfalfa and corn, or lawns and gardens.” Two members of the Caen research team published more recent findings that demonstrate that Roundup is “toxic to human placental JEG3 cells within 18 hours with concentrations lower than those found with agricultural use.” Roundup’s critics point out that their results are particularly concerning because, rather than reduce the use of herbicides, Roundup-resistant strains may make farmers feel free to use the herbicide more liberally. The results also highlight another issue, that of pesticide labeling.

Despite the research on pure glyphosate, it has long been viewed as having relatively low toxicity. The common wisdom was that the surfactants and other chemicals used in Roundup, individually and in combination, posed more of a threat than the glyphosate, yet only the active ingredients in pesticides and herbicides appeared on the label. Everything else was grouped together under the category of inert ingredients and was not listed. The Code of Federal Regulations [40 CFR 156.10(g)(2)] states the following labeling requirements for the ingredient statement on a pesticide label. “The label of each pesticide product must bear a statement which contains the name and percentage by weight of each active ingredient, the total percentage by weight of all inert ingredients….” The EPA’s Consumer Labeling Initiative changed that, slightly. Active ingredients are still the only ones listed, but the word “other” has replaced the misleadingly benign word “inert”. Advocates of pesticide labeling don’t think the change in terminology goes far enough, preferring to see all of the ingredients stated clearly on the label. Whether consumers understand the distinction between “other” and “inert” is also a concern. Oddly, it was the same group, the Consumer Labeling Initiative, who discovered in their survey of consumers that they did not understand that the signal words, “caution”, “warning”, and “danger”, referred to different levels or types of toxicity.

Monsanto has always asserted that Roundup is safe. The company has regularly responded to criticism by issuing releases called Backgrounders. A quick Google search of Backgrounders about Roundup pulls up about 20 documents. Among them is one from July 2002 entitled “Authoritative Sources for Glyphosate Information” wherein they site EXTOXNET, a collaboration of University of California-Davis, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, Cornell University, and the University of Idaho. Following the accompanying link takes the reader to a page, across the top of which is a disclaimer that the information may be out of date because it hasn’t been updated since 1996. Coincidentally, that is the same year the New York’s Attorney General successfully sued Monsanto for falsely advertising Roundup. The company could no longer claim that Roundup was biodegradable or environmentally friendly. They could no longer claim that Roundup would not wash off or leach into the soil. They could no longer advertise that, "Roundup can be used where kids and pets'll play and breaks down into natural material." In 2009, the French Supreme Court ruled against the company in a very similar lawsuit.

Monsanto is no stranger to controversy. Among its products over the years are saccharine, PCBs, DDT, aspartame, bovine growth hormones, and Agent Orange. Incidentally, Agent Orange began its life as an herbicide the company called Lasso. Several companies manufactured Agent Orange, but Monsanto’s contained dioxin at a level several times higher than that of its competitors. Many people don’t associate Monsanto with the electronics industry, but from 1959 until 1989, the Monsanto Electronic Materials Company made silicon for use in semiconductor manufacturing. That division’s facility became part of the Hillview-Porter Superfund site. Another lesser-known venture was the first plastic soda bottle, Cycle-Safe, introduced in 1975. It was banned by the FDA after about a year over concerns that the plastic was leaching into the soft drinks, posing a cancer risk. For those of us whose mothers watched daytime television when we were young, our earliest memories of Monsanto were the stain-resistant carpeting ads. Funny story. The research into the possible toxicity of carpet chemicals came about after carpeting was installed at the EPA and employees got sick.

Perhaps the most remarkable project the company has ever been involved with was the one called the Manhattan Project. Yes, that Manhattan Project. Monsanto’s research into plutonium and polonium helped in the development of the atom bomb. Because their work was done in Dayton, Ohio, it was dubbed the Dayton Project. Only four years ago were the cancer-stricken workers at the Dayton facility finally given hope that they might be compensated for their illnesses thanks to their inclusion in the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s Special Exposure Cohort. It means that those workers no longer have to prove that they were sickened on the job over 60 years ago to receive compensation.

The relationship between Monsanto and the government has been explored in the recent documentaries Food, Inc. and The World According to Monsanto. Monsanto contributed $470,000 to federal candidates in the 2010 mid-term election, but its influence in government doesn’t stop there. One example is Michael Taylor. The one-time Monsanto attorney became a deputy commissioner at the FDA in 1991 where his decisions facilitated the approval of genetically-modified crops. After leaving the FDA, Taylor returned to Monsanto where he became the vice president of public policy. Donald Rumsfeld was CEO of Monsanto’s Searle Pharmaceuticals and a member of Ronald Reagan’s transition team when the company’s controversial aspartame was approved. Clarence Thomas who spent three years as a Monsanto attorney did not recuse himself from and, in fact, ruled with the majority on, the Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms case that paved the way to deregulating Roundup Ready alfalfa. Even Tom Vilsack stirred up a controversy when he flew to campaign stops on a Monsanto jet.

Combine Monsanto’s political influence with its growing domination of the seed market and it’s easy to see why critics have offered up this new company slogan, “Monsanto: No Food Shall Be Grown that We Don’t Own.”

Next time, Silly Putty


In a stunning reversal, USDA chief Vilsack greenlights Monsanto’s alfalfa, by Tom Philpott, Grist, January 27, 2011

Roundup Ready Alfalfa History, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, December 16, 2010

Dragging Monsanto to Justice, by Laetitia Mailhes, Care2, January 30, 2011

Why You Can Now Kiss Organic Beef, Dairy and Many Vegetables Goodbye
The USDA ruled that farmers are now free to plant GE alfalfa, and USDA won't even keep track of who plants it where. The implications are huge., by Ari LeVaux , AlterNet, January 28, 2011

Factsheet: Monsanto’s Sordid History, Center for Food Safety, no date

Monsanto Back in Court: Center for Food Safety Challenges GMO Alfalfa Ruling, by Jeremy Bloom, Red, Green, & Blue, January 31, 2011


USDA Decision on GE Alfalfa Leaves Door Open for Contamination, Rise of Superweeds, Center for Food Safety press release, January 27, 2011

End of Organics? Monsanto’s GMO Alfalfa Approved, by Jeremy Bloom, Red, Green & Blue, January 28, 2011

Gene Flow in Alfalfa: Biology, Mitigation, and Potential Impact on Production, Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, 2008

Supreme Court’s ruling on Monsanto’s GE alfalfa: Who won?, by Tom Laskawy, Grist, June 21, 2010

2000 – 2001 Pesticide Market Estimates: Usage, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

A Brief History of Roundup® Herbicide, Monsanto company website, October 3, 2007

Genetically Engineered Alfalfa Could Be Growing in U.S. Fields by Spring: Eating genetically  engineered Roundup Ready crops makes pigs infertile. So what's going to happen to farm animals (and us) if GE alfalfa is approved?, by Leah Zerbe, Rodale.com, December 20, 2010

Gene Flow definition, The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2010

Hazards of the World’s Most Common Herbicide: New scientific studies link Roundup (glyphosphate), the most widely used herbicide in the world, to a host of health risks, such as cancer, miscarriages and disruption of human sex hormones, By Cheryl Long, Mother Earth News,
October/November 2005

Monsanto unpopular on its home turf, Combat Monsanto website

From Big Ag to Big Organics: Welcome to Monsanto’s Brave New World, by Jeremy Bloom, Red, Green, and Blue, January 29, 2011

Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear, by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele, Vanity Fair, May 2008

Monsanto’s Government Connections, Red Ice Creations website

Food and Agriculture Biotechnology Industry Spends More Than Half a Billion Dollars to Influence Congress, Food and Water Watch Issue Brief, November 2010

Monsanto’s Wikipedia entry

Herbicide Factsheet: Glyphosate, Journal of Pesticide Reform, 24(4), Winter 2004

A Case-Control Study of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Exposure to Pesticides, by Lennart Hardell, M.D., PhD. Department of Oncology, Orebro Medical Centre, Orebro, Sweden and Mikael Eriksson, M.D., PhD, Department of Oncology, University Hospital, Lund, Sweden, Cancer, March 15, 1999, 85(6)

New Study Links Monsanto’s Roundup to Cancer

Differential Effects of Glyphosate and Roundup on Human Placental Cells
and Aromatase, by Sophie Richard, Safa Moslemi, Herbert Sipahutar, Nora Benachour, and Gilles-Eric Seralini, Laboratoire de Biochimie et Biologie Moleculaire, USC-INCRA, Université de Caen, Caen, France, Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2005, 113(6), pp. 716 – 720

EPA’s EDSP webpage

Glyphosate Formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells, by Nora Benachour and Gilles-Eric Seralini, University of Caen, Laboratory Estrogens and Reproduction, UPRES EA 2608, Institute of Biology, Caen 14032, France, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105

Male Pesticide Exposure and Pregnancy Outcome, by David A. Savitz, Tye Arbuckle, Diane Kaczor, and Kathryn M. Curtis, American Journal of Epidemiology, 1997,146(12), pp. 1025-1036

Weed-Whacking Herbicide Proves Deadly to Human Cells: Used in gardens, farms, and parks around the world, the weed killer Roundup contains an ingredient that can suffocate human cells in a laboratory, researchers say, by Crystal Gammon and Environmental Health News, Scientific American,com,  June 23, 2009

Glyphosate Technical Factsheet, National Pesticide Information Center, no date

Federal Ingredient Statement Requirements 40 CFR 156.10(g)(2)

Pesticide Registration (PR) Notice 97-6: Use of Term "Inert" in the Label Ingredients Statement,by Daniel M. Barolo , Director Office of Pesticide Programs, U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, no date

EPA’s Consumer Labeling Initiative

Risks From Lawn-Care Pesticides Including Inadequate Packaging and Labeling, by John Wargo, Ph.D.
Yale University, Nancy Alderman, MES & President, Environment and Human Health, Inc., and
Linda Wargo, MES, Environment and Human Health, Inc. 2003

Authoritative Sources for Glyphosate Information, Monsanto Backgrounder, July 2002

EXTOXNET Glyphosate entry

Attorney General of the State of New York, Consumer Frauds and Protection Bureau & Environmental Protection Bureau, In the matter of Monsanto Company, respondent. Assurance of discontinuance pursuant to executive law § 63(15), 1996

Silicon to Soybeans, Metro, May 11 – 17, 2000

Monsanto Loses Plastic Bottle Fight, Chemical & Engineering News, 1977, 55 (39), p 6

Carpeting, Indoor Air Quality, and the Environment, by Nadav Malin, Environmental Building News, November 1, 1994, 3(6)

Monsanto’s Greatest Hits, Metro, May 11 – 17, 2000

Cancer-stricken workers may be compensated Monsanto employees worked on the atomic bomb in the '40s and were exposed to radiation, by Tom Beyerlein, Dayton Daily News, February 28, 2007

Monsanto Gave $470,000 to Candidates For Mid-Term Elections, Most Won, by Anthony Gucciardi, ShatterLimits.com, November 5, 2010

The World According to Monsanto synopsis