Roundup Red Alert! What You Need to Know about the Pesticide Poised to "Push Us All Off of the Cliff"

The USDA just approved another GMO crop dependent on dousings of the pesticide Roundup. Here's what scientists say everyone who eats needs to know about this not-so-benign chemical.

February 3, 2011

Healthy crops need healthy soil, but Roundup kills off soil microbes that help plants grow.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced its decision to allow farmers who favor genetically engineered seeds to grow GMO alfalfa, also known as GE alfalfa, anywhere they'd like—even right up against a field of organic or non-GMO crops. Due to the very real risk that genes from GMO alfalfa will transfer to and contaminate the nation's organic and non-GMO alfalfa crops through cross-pollination, organic and conventional farming groups, dairies, consumer, and food-safety groups have united to send a clear signal that a large portion of the population doesn't want GMO-laced food.


But aside from the dire consequences for agriculture and consumer choice regarding GMO contamination—most Americans don't want GMOs in the food chain—the approval of GMO alfalfa raises other serious human health concerns involving the pesticide Roundup (generic chemical name: glyphosate). The new GMO alfalfa has been genetically manipulated in labs to withstand heavy sprayings of Roundup (created by Monsanto, the developer of the GMO seeds), a chemical commonly marketed as "safe" and "biodegradable," but one that scientists are actually learning has unhealthy effects on the human body, livestock animals we eat, and crops themselves. In fact, France’s highest court recently found Monsanto guilty of false advertising for claiming Roundup to be biodegradable. In reality, it takes months, or even years, depending on soil conditions, to break down.

Millions of pounds of Roundup are dumped over and around food crops every year, and many people also use it to kill weeds in the yard or in household driveway and sidewalk cracks. No matter the route of exposure, science suggests we need to keep this chemical out of the food chain, not step up its use on more GMO crops.

Here's what everyone—mothers, fathers, farmers, grocers, and anyone who eats—needs to know about Roundup:

Most Americans are unknowingly eating Roundup every day.

Roundup is systemic, meaning it's taken up inside the plants exposed to it. Using veggie washes on your produce may remove some surface pesticides, but Roundup is likely in the actual vegetable, grain, fruit, or nut if it's sprayed on a field before plants are grown, or if it's sprayed around fruit and nut trees. “It’s the most abused chemical we’ve ever had in agriculture,” says veteran plant pathologist Don Huber, PhD, professor emeritus of Purdue University. “We’re using chemical quantities we never would have imagined in the past.”

GMO "Roundup Ready" crops, like most of the soy and corn grown in this country and used in the majority of non-organic foods, tend to contain higher concentrations of Roundup. That's because farmers are having to use two to five times more of the chemical than a normal herbicide application, to kill weeds growing resistant to the overused chemical. (Note—GMOs, as well as Roundup and other toxic synthetic chemical pesticides, are banned in certified-organic farming.)

Roundup creates conditions for estrogenic toxin and neurotoxin buildup in food—and in us.

Huber, one of the world's top researchers of glyphosate, says we're in "epidemic mode" right now in terms of plant diseases induced by Roundup use. These plant diseases could affect humans and livestock eating the diseased plants, too. As Jeffrey Smith, founder of the Institute for Responsible Technology, points out, some of the fungi that thrive on glyphosate produce harmful toxins that can enter the food chain, either in human food or animal feed. Smith cites a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that links one such fungus, Fusarium, in the food chain to certain cancers, a blood disorder, and infertility in animals. Smith says USDA researchers have found a 500 percent increase in Fusarium root infection when glyphosate is used on Roundup Ready soybeans. (This toxin can also appear in corn, wheat, and other crops.) "Like glyphosate, Fusarium toxins accumulate in our bodies, too," says Huber.

And when looking at all of the possible negative effects of Roundup, Huber says the repercussions of introducing Roundup Ready technology to another crop, like alfalfa, could be disastrous. "If indications hold true, we're set up for the greatest disaster that this country or the world has ever seen, that will dwarf any major famine or drought that has ever been recorded," says Huber. He believes going through with the newly approved GMO alfalfa plantings will "push us off of the cliff" in terms of irreversible damage to the food supply. It would be impossible, he says, to reverse widespread GMO contamination, particularly in a perennial crop like alfalfa, which also grows feral along roadsides and yards.

Roundup weakens plants and kills soil.

Huber and other plant pathologists have linked the use, or as Huber likes to say "abuse," of Roundup to more than 40 plant diseases. Glyphosate binds to vital nutrients in the soil, inhibiting a plant's uptake of micronutrients like manganese, magnesium, and zinc that are necessary for human and livestock survival. Roundup also wipes out beneficial soil microorganisms in addition to promoting toxins that stave off plant prosperity. Huber says Roundup doesn't directly kill the plant; rather, similar to the AIDS virus in humans, it creates conditions that make the plant susceptible to other diseases.

Roundup kills human cells.

In 2009, a study published in the journal Chemical Resarch in Toxicology outlined Roundup's ability to kill human umbilical cord vein, embryonic kidney, and placental cells in concentrations typically found in food or livestock feed. This study was important because it found the entire Roundup formulation (the stuff actually sprayed on food and in our yards), was more damaging than the active ingredient glyphosate itself. In other words, the so-called "inert" ingredients in Roundup apparently make it more deadly. Those other ingredients, such as surfactants, allow the pesticide material to cross barriers that would otherwise protect living tissue from it. “The pesticide ingredients bypass the liver, where they would normally be cleaned out,” explains Warren Porter, PhD, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Roundup may make us infertile.

We hear a lot about harmful estrogenlike chemicals in household products, but Roundup, Porter explains, may increase exposure to male hormones. Studies in monkeys have found that glyphosate exposure in utero disrupts the enzymatic activity of hormone-regulating aromatase. This can create higher levels of male hormones like testosterone in women, a main symptom of polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS. PCOS is the leading cause of infertility in women in the U.S., and many women spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments to conceive.

Roundup is creating superweeds that break farm equipment and promote the use of even more toxic pesticides.

Just like bacteria become resistant to drugs when we overuse medicine, weeds grow resistant to overused chemicals. "More use of Roundup is going to lead to more resistant weeds, which will then mean you'll start to use more and more glyphosate, and then move on to more toxic chemicals," explains Michael Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Consumer Union. "We've already seen this before with Roundup Ready soybean crops in this country."

Roundup is wrecking not just our food, but our water, too.

A study published online in 2009 in the journal Ecotoxicology discovered that Roundup runoff throws off the natural balance of microflora in the water, and turns clear water cloudy. That means Roundup exposure might not be limited to food, but could also taint drinking supplies, too.

If you want to take action to keep Roundup-dependent crops out of the food chain, including proposed GMO sugar beets, support efforts by the organic community to unite against GMO approval.