Is Glyphosate Really Dangerous?

Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide the world. It is primarily used in agriculture, helping farmers around the world to keep their fields free of undesired vegetation before they begin to sow seeds and plant new crops. Glyphosate is the most studied herbicide in the world, too. It has a very high degradation rate not just in the soil. Minimal residues of the substance which analyses have yet found are also eliminated quickly from the body through the kidneys. It is important to know that the herbicide affects a metabolic pathway that is only present in plants and microorganisms.

Despite all of its very good qualities, glyphosate has become the focus of a wide public debate in recent years. The main issue being addressed in this discussion is the chemical’s presumed environmental and health risks. Below, you will find a list of answers to the most frequently asked questions about glyphosate.

Why is glyphosate so important?

Just as other companies, businesses in the agricultural sector need to be economically viable. That is why they have to manage their most important capital, the soil, efficiently, and treat it well. Glyphosate is a highly efficient, economic way for farmers to plant their crops. Farmers who apply the herbicide can produce yields that are up to 22 percent higher thanks to lower weed cover in comparison with non-glyphosate farming practices. This in turn means approximately 25 percent higher profitability. Source

Glyphosate also has a very good ecological and carbon footprint: it facilitates zero tillage farming, a practice that prevents erosion, promotes the development of humus and soil organisms and helps reduce CO2 emissions. Glyphosate is used for “stubble treatment” purposes to eliminate unwanted vegetation and to prepare the next planting season. This work can also be done by tilling, which, however, takes more time and requires more diesel fuel. The Kleffmann Group has determined that German farms would produce an additional 100,800 tons of CO2 if they did not use glyphosate.

Does glyphosate cause cancer?

In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialist agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in a reversal of its own past classification. “Category 2A: probably carcinogenic” means that some evidence of an elevated potential for harm exists, but that researchers cannot rule out the possibility that cancer cases could also be attributed to other factors. It should also be noted that the assessment was at all times related to glyphosate exposure at a farmer’s workplace and not, for example, the uptake of very small quantities of glyphosate in food. Next to glyphosate, the IARC lists a number of other things in the same category – hot beverages heated above 65° Celsius, red meat, shift work and the hairdressing profession.

The important thing is that the IARC assesses only the fundamental potential for harm of a substance. Factors such as the area of application, the dose used or direct contact play no part in this assessment. The IARC does not comment on whether there is a specific link between an allegedly carcinogenic active ingredient and correct use of a crop protection product.

A large number of scientific studies, evaluations by regulatory bodies all over the world and decades of practical experience, on the other hand, all confirm that glyphosate is safe.

More than 800 studies have concluded that glyphosate is safe when used in accordance with the label instructions. This was recently confirmed yet again by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) group in the United States. The United States Environmental Protection Agency EPA, the European Food Safety Authority EFSA, the European Chemicals Agency ECHA and all the other regulatory bodies worldwide have also concluded that glyphosate is safe and “not carcinogenic”.

Long-term study with 50,000 persons

One of the more than 800 safety studies performed with glyphosate was part of the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). Source For 25 years, this study has been continuously monitoring farmers in Iowa and North Carolina who regularly use crop protection products. It is publicly funded; the researchers work at the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Environmental Protection Agency and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, all of which are government bodies in the United States.

The observation study was commissioned by the U.S. government in order to determine the impact of agricultural practices, lifestyle and genetic factors on the health of farmers and their families.

The data has been used to carry out various evaluations seeking to identify a possible relationship between the use of specific products and various forms of cancer and other health impairments. The long-term study that followed approximately 50,000 pesticide applicators, 45.000 of whom use regularly glyphosate, found no association between glyphosate use and cancer. Source

The fact that the study focused on end products containing glyphosate also invalidated assumptions that the additives present in the products could cause cancer.

The IARC did not use this study to assess glyphosate since it had not yet been published when the IARC’s final report was written. Source

Does glyphosate harm insects?

Critics like to label glyphosate as a “species killer” that wipes out the plants that insects need to live. This process reduces biodiversity, they argue.

The fact is that glyphosate is a total herbicide. This means it kills all plants that come in contact with it, unless the plants have been genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate. But it is also true to say that glyphosate is primarily applied in areas that are used for agriculture, i.e. fields that are not suited as a habitat and source of food for insects in the first place. Fields where wheat or corn are grown cannot at the same time be flowering meadows that provide food to insects. As a result, the cultivation of agricultural produce and, above all, the expansion of farmland will always have a negative impact on biodiversity. This principle has applied from the very beginning and has nothing to do with the discussion about glyphosate.

Glyphosate itself has an effect only on plant organisms. Bayer is not aware of any studies that demonstrate a harmful effect of glyphosate on insects or other animals.

What is glyphosate doing in food in the first place?

In recent years, reports about traces of glyphosate that were found in food or beverages, such as baked goods, beer and oat flakes have regularly appeared. The reason that these residues have been increasingly reported has nothing to do with farmers becoming careless in their application of glyphosate. Rather, the increased discoveries of the chemical can be traced back to the enormous technical progress that has been achieved in analytical technology. It is now analytically possible to measure even a fraction of a sugar cube in a body of water the size of Lake Constance.

It was Paracelsus who introduced us to the principle: the dose makes the poison. This is possibly the reason that critics of glyphosate rarely cite specific totals when they discuss the residues of glyphosate found in food. These totals are usually measured at the microgram level, that is, one millionth of a gram or 0.000001 gram. Glyphosate has a lower toxicity level than cooking salt or baking powder. As a result, such small concentrations pose absolutely no risk to people’s health.

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