Recently in a Facebook Gardening group, we had a member ask the group if she should use Roundup as a weedkiller. The reaction was swift and fierce, with comments, ranging from “Absolutely not!” to “Only if you want cancer!” There were a lot of exclamation points. She took down her post soon after that.
While she was probably embarrassed by the fierce reaction against her post, I find she is not alone in her confusion. And thank goodness she knew enough to ask before she used it. While many of us are well-schooled about the harms of Roundup, many of us still don’t know its harms, nor do we realize it’s in the food we are eating. And most people don’t realize that it is harming honey bees. (No surprise here. Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, generates news stories declaring its safety. And most mainstream news outlets simply do not talk about it.) So let’s dig in.
What Is Roundup?
Roundup is a systemic, broad-spectrum weedkiller. A systemic chemical means that it will reach every cell of the plant and cannot be washed off. The “active” ingredient in Roundup is glyphosate. Yet Roundup also contains “inert” ingredients as well (current laws in the United States allow chemical companies to not disclose the “inert” ingredients in a product.) Recent studies have shown that these “inert” ingredients react with glyphosate to make Roundup even more toxic and more easily absorbed than glyphosate alone.
Roundup appeared on the market in 1974, intended as an herbicide to replace DDT. Monsanto the maker of Roundup declared it safe for humans and animals (no surprise there). It quickly became our nation’s go-to weedkiller and was used by gardeners, homeowners, and agriculture. It became the most used agricultural chemical in America–about 300 million tons are used in a year. Since 1974 we have dumped 1.8 million tons of Roundup on U.S. lands.
Of course we use more of it because of Monsanto’s clever marketing scheme, called GMOs. Here’s how it works: You genetically modify crops so that they can resist Roundup and call them “Roundup ready” crops. You sell the seeds to farmers. Then farmers grow them and can spray their crops with Roundup to kill their weeds, without killing their crops. GMO crops such as corn, wheat, sugar beets and soybeans are sprayed with Roundup several times a season to kill the weeds. GMOs drive Roundup sales.
Glyphosate is so pervasive in our agriculture that unless you are eating all organic foods, you are probably ingesting it. Testing has found glyphosate residues in 93% of Americans tested. Children had the highest levels of glyphosate.
Harm to People
Despite the initial claims that Roundup was safe for people, subsequent studies have shown significant harm to human health. Seventeen of the world’s top cancer researchers, on behalf of the World Health Organization (WHO), unanimously voted to classify Roundup as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” In addition the report further concluded that glyphosate exposure caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells, as well as hormonal and enzymatic effects in mammals.
Over years of scientific study on Roundup and glyphosate, scientists have documented the health effects of Roundup and/or glyphosate. Are you ready for the long list? Here are some noted health effects of Roundup: ADHD, Alzheimer’s Disease, Autism, Birth Defects, various forms of cancer, Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance, Colitis, Depression, Diabetes, Heart Disease, Hypothyroidism, Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, Kidney Disease, Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), Liver Disease, Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s Disease, Pregnancy/reproductive problems and Obesity.
If you have been following the story of Roundup and Monsanto, then you probably know of the court case (DeWayne Johnson vs. Monsanto) from last year that awarded Johnson a $289-million judgment (this award was later reduced to $78.6 million) against Monsanto. The jury not only found that Roundup caused Johnson’s terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that Monsanto had been hiding evidence of its harm. Incredibly, there are an additional 9,000 (approximate) Roundup cases pending against Monsanto.
Harm to Bees
When we think of chemicals harming bees, neonicotinoids have gotten most of the attention. But Roundup needs more attention. Here are a sampling of independent studies that suggest a harmful effect on bees.
A 2014 study on honey bees found that Roundup caused poor memory and a decreased ability to smell and find food. Bees also exhibited poor learning performance. Results from bees’ memory and navigational skills were found to be impaired again in a 2015 study In October 2018, the National Academy of Sciences published a study illustrating how glyphosate altered the bee microbiome, increasing the bees’ susceptibility to infection by pathogens. After a bee has been exposed to Roundup the chemical comes back with them to the hive, eventually poisoning the hive.
Don Huber, plant pathologist and professor emeritus, describes how glyphosate immobilizes key nutrients in plants, eventually killing the plant. “Roundup Ready” GMO plants absorb less mineral nutrition without dying. Less nutrients in the plant means less nutrition in the pollen and nectar that bees eat. (This also means less nutrition for people in our food crops.) He considers Roundup a biocide, not just an herbicide.
Consider too that when the FDA tested honey for glyphosate, all samples had glyphosate in them–even the organic, mountain honey.
Harm to the Environment
Its been long acknowledged that Roundup has contributed to the widespread decline of monarch butterflies by killing their host plant, Milkweed (Asclepias) –especially through the Midwest.
A 2015 study also showed that Roundup harmed earthworms, fresh water snails, amphibians, and amphipods. Glyphosate is water soluble and has been detected in surface and groundwater wherever it is used.
Roundup is toxic to some microorganisms in the soil, such as legume module bacteria for nitrogen fixation, as well microorganisms that help with plant nutrient uptake. These microorganisms are critical for healthy soil and healthy plants. Roundup also stimulates soil pathogens. In high-clay soil Roundup may survive for a number of years.
What Is Our Government Doing?
Here in the U.S., the EPA has declared glyphosate not to be carcinogenic for humans. Environmental harm, including potential harm to bees, is not addressed. (The EPA chooses to use the studies that Monsanto submits to them.) Yet several cities and counties across the country have banned glyphosate or limited its usage in public spaces. California’s Proposition 65 added glyphosate to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
The rest of the world has been quicker to condemn Roundup. Twenty-seven countries around the world have followed with bans on glyphosate and Roundup. The United States needs to follow their lead.
What You Can Do
- Ask the EPA to ban Roundup by signing this petition.
- Stop using Roundup if you use it. Nor do you want to reach for another chemical herbicide. Instead seek out organic methods that will save our pollinators and your health. Mulch can be used to prevent weeds from germinating. Solarization, the method of “cooking” weeds and their seeds with a tarp, does a great job. There is also smothering with straw and, yes, pulling. If you have questions about any of these organic methods, drop me a comment below.
- Plant pollinator plants in your yard (without any chemicals) to help the bees.
- Vote with your fork and choose wisely at the grocery store. Avoid processed foods which are likely to contain oils, soybeans or wheat products grown with Roundup. For example, non-organic breads often contain Roundup. Choose organic and non-GMO when possible.
- Consider getting active in your town politics to ban Roundup and glyphosate in your local area.
- And let’s all relax a bit about the weeds. Their elimination is not worth risking serious health problems or environmental damage.
- Share this information with your friends and family.