What Biotech Pesticides Are Doing to Our Bodies

Roundup weed killer is now turning up in rain and the air. And that has potentially devastating impacts on our health.

September 9, 2011

Thanks to biotech firms, now even our storms are Roundup-ready.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The scientific evidence piling up against Roundup, the best-selling weed killer for home and farm use, is starting to sound a bit sci-fi. The latest damaging evidence against this potent herbicide, once widely believed to be safe, comes from the United States Geological Survey (USGS), which is now detecting glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, in streams, the air, and even rain.


While the concentrations detected in rain and air are thousands of times less than what farmers dump onto field crops, emerging scientific evidence about what these chronic low-level exposures do to our bodies is cause for major concern, particularly among unborn babies and young children. These tiny amounts we're breathing in daily could be altering our hormones and wreaking all sorts of havoc on our bodies, but the human health effects may not show up for years or decades. "We don't fully know what our results mean," says study author Paul Capel, PhD, environmental chemist at USGS. "If we go out to the streams or air, we see it. There's a broader off-field exposure. The significance of that, I don't think we really know."

Pesticide-exposure expert Warren Porter, PhD, professor of environmental toxicity and zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, did the math. He took the air exposure numbers from the USGS study and found some reason for concern. His calculations showed that the levels found in the USGS survey could lead to accumulated levels that could alter endocrine mediated biochemical pathways, leading to obesity, heart problems, circulation problems, and diabetes. Low-level exposure to hormone disruptors like glyphosate (Roundup's main ingredient) has also been linked to weakened immune function and learning disabilities. "This study is just looking at a single day of exposure," he says. "If you consider that our body hormones work in the parts per trillion and you disrupt normal endocrine function, which tends to alter biochemical pathways, you may be flipping biological switches that have long-term impacts. No one has explored whether Roundup has epigenetic impacts which alter gene expression, possibly for a lifetime."

So why the influx of Roundup in the air? Easy. The majority of corn, cotton, canola, and soy crops grown in the United States are genetically engineered to tolerate heavy dousings of Roundup. Interestingly, the same company, Monsanto, developed both the pesticide and the genetically engineered seed created to handle that pesticide—they're sold together as a package. When we eat those crops (or when they're turned into ingredients used in processed foods), we wind up eating the Roundup, too. Roundup is actually taken up inside of food that we eat, so not only are we breathing it in and getting soaked in it when it rains, but we're also eating it at dinnertime.

The Roundup Hall of Shame

In addition to all the things Roundup is doing to our hormones, scientists have linked it to these other problems:

Nutritional Deficiencies
To kill weeds, glyphosate inhibits a plant's ability to take up trace minerals like manganese and magnesium. Those are things humans need to be healthy, and plant pathologists are noting a decline in nutrients in food since heavy pesticide use ensued. “[Glyphosate] is the most abused chemical we’ve ever had in agriculture,” veteran plant pathologist Don Huber, PhD, professor emeritus of Purdue University, told Rodale.com earlier this year. “We’re using chemical quantities we never would have imagined in the past.”

Birth Defects and Infertility
Scientists released a report earlier this summer citing evidence that Monsanto has known about Roundup's link to birth defects since the 1980s, when internal research found mutations in animals exposed to high doses. In a 2005 study involving human placental cells, Roundup affected synthesis of aromatase, the key enzyme that converts testosterone to estrogen. If it's doing the same thing in human bodies, especially fetuses, it could alter sexual development and possibly lead to diseases linked to infertility, like polycystic ovarian syndrome. [Correction: The article previously indicated monkeys were involved in the 2005 study, but it was actually human placental cells.]

Superweed Spawn
Farmers were sold on Roundup Ready crops as chemical dealers promised less work and less chemical use. Unfortunately, as more weeds are exposed to Roundup, they are developing a resistance to it. These hard-to-kill superweeds are emerging, and farmers aren't able to destroy them, even when they dump even higher doses of pesticides on the crops.

Lower Crop Yields
In years of drought (and let's face it, we're experiencing more severe weather extremes these days), chemically treated fields perform worse than organically managed ones, despite promises from chemical companies that Roundup Ready crops perform better in extreme weather conditions. When conditions are more stable, organic farming and Roundup Ready farming methods yield the same amount of a given crop.

So how can you tell the chemical companies to keep Roundup out of our rain and our food?

• Eat organic. Eat healthy, organic food on a budget by purchasing organic fare directly from farmers when it's in season. Choose organic dried beans for a super-cheap and healthy protein source.

• Practice nontoxic weed control at home. Instead of reaching for Roundup or other lawn chemicals to kill weeds, try organic-approved BurnOut—its main ingredients are clove oil and food-grade vinegar. And start setting your mower deck to at least 3 inches. The longer grass length discourages weed growth.

Tags: GMOs

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