Maybe you’ve heard the company name “Monsanto” in the news or sprayed the weeds around your home with Roundup, never thinking twice. Maybe you’ve seen food labeled “organic” or “non-GMO,” but never knew what those labels meant.
Did you know these things are connected? Did you know that the chemical glyphosate found in Roundup has reached measurable levels in our air, rainwater, and bodies? Did you know that this chemical is classified as a probable carcinogen?
A History of Monsanto and Glyphosate
Founded in 1901, Monsanto is an agrochemical company selling genetically modified (GMO) seeds and pesticides. In the early 1900s, Monsanto began creating and selling chemicals and other products such as saccharin, aspirin, detergents, and cleaning products. By the mid-1900s, Monsanto began selling insecticides and other agricultural products, and in 1974, Monsanto created Roundup, a popular household weed killer containing the herbicide glyphosate.
In 1996, Monsanto created the first GMO soybean seed, which was genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. When farmers spray Monsanto’s Roundup, which contains glyphosate, on their crops (grown from Monsanto’s seeds), they are able to kill pests and weeds without killing their crops.
For years, glyphosate was used by farmers and consumers. Because it was and still is so widely used, glyphosate is found in the air, rain, soil, and even in human urine, according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego. It is also found in a large portion of the food supply in the United States, including oats, corn, soy, and sugar—some of the most heavily sprayed crops. Tests from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found glyphosate in many of these foods. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a Group 2A carcinogen in 2015, which means it “probably causes cancer.”
Monsanto recently came under fire as thousands of people have filed lawsuits claiming glyphosate caused their cancer. To date, three separate juries have ruled that Monsanto is at least partially to blame for cancer (most commonly non-Hodgkin lymphoma), and that the company acted negligently by not warning consumers of the dangers of glyphosate. This summer, Monsanto was ordered to pay a California couple $86.7 million in damages because they both developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup for decades. According to court documents, in order to find Monsanto guilty, the jury had to be convinced that they “engaged in conduct with malice, oppression or fraud committed by one or more officers, directors or managing agents of Monsanto.”
In March of 2019, Monsanto was found liable for the development of Edwin Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which occurred after he began spraying Roundup on his property in 1986. Studies and reviews from organizations like Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and others have shown a relationship between glyphosate and cancer, endocrine disruption, toxicity to cells, oxidative stress, genetic mutation, reproductive problems, and hormone disruption.
One of the arguments in glyphosate’s favor, as explained by Marla Cone for PBS NewsHour, is that it can’t harm the human body because the enzyme that it disrupts to kill weeds isn’t made in the human body. However, this enzyme (cytochrome P450) is found in the bacteria that lives in the gut. Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Seneff studied the effect of glyphosate on this enzyme for the journal Interdisciplinary Toxicology and found when this enzyme is disrupted, it can lead to leaky gut, which is associated with problems like vitamin and mineral deficiency, inflammation, poor immune function, and autoimmune disease, among other issues.
Carey Gillam, investigative journalist and author of “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science” began covering Monsanto and other food and agriculture companies in 1998. Gillam notes once she began learning more about Monsanto, “It became apparent that GMO crops were not designed to save the world; they were designed to keep Monsanto’s market share up.”
As a result of the multiple cases raised against Monsanto, classified documents called the Monsanto Papers were released to the public in April 2019, revealing Monsanto covered up their knowledge that glyphosate was harmful and likely carcinogenic. Monsanto tried to manipulate and pay the editor-in-chief of the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal to conceal information and publish that glyphosate is not harmful; Monsanto also avoided telling the public about studies that indicate glyphosate is toxic to humans. The company secretly authored papers showing glyphosate does not cause cancer while ignoring warnings from experts that glyphosate likely does cause cancer. Monsanto also allegedly worked with EPA officials to delay a toxicology review of glyphosate and admitted they manipulated data and knew glyphosate caused hormone disruption.
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says GMO foods sprayed with glyphosate are safe, the FDA does not test the safety of GMOs independently; they rely on the manufacturers of GMO foods to make sure they are safe for consumers.
It would be almost futile to try to control every single thing that goes into and on your body. Unfortunately, there are some cancer and disease risks we can’t control, such as genetic markers. What you can do is focus your energy on what you can control. As Gillam says, “Pesticide exposure is definitely a cause that we can control if we try hard enough.” When you know better, you do better, and armed with this information, you can make small changes to start living a healthier life.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
Stop Using Roundup
Businesses are making it easier than ever. Costco, for example, has removed Roundup from their shelves, and there is a petition for Lowe’s and Home Depot to do the same.
Wear Protective Clothing
If you choose to use Roundup around your home or are required to use glyphosate for your job, make sure your skin is fully covered and shower as soon as possible after exposure. According to Gillam, “Roundup is formulated to […] absorb rapidly into tissue of plants, and it does the same thing on human skin.”
An email from Monsanto revealed moisture helps glyphosate absorb into the skin, so if you’re spraying Roundup on a hot day and sweating through your clothing, you may absorb more glyphosate into your body. If you need to spray Roundup, try your best to spray during the cooler hours of the day to avoid sweating.
Food that is USDA-certified organic is not sprayed with any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or artificial additives, which means these products are not sprayed with glyphosate. Be careful with non-GMO food, though, because it can still be sprayed with glyphosate as a drying agent. The only way to know for sure that your food does not contain glyphosate is to buy items labeled USDA-certified organic.
If you’re looking to make a cost-effective change, focus on buying organic for foods that are most heavily sprayed: wheat, corn, soy, and sugar. Another good strategy is to use the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” list. Every year, the EWG tests produce to determine which have the most pesticide residue (the dirty dozen) and which have the least (the clean 15). Try to buy organic when you buy the foods on the dirty list, and worry less about buying organic when you buy the foods on the clean list.
Be an Informed Consumer
A company that sources their materials and creates their products ethically isn’t going to hide it. If you see a report from a company that contradicts your common sense, look into the information to see if the authors of the report are affiliated with the company or if they are biased in any way. Look at the actual findings of the report as well—do they prove that one thing causes another, or just that they are related? You can also do some fact checking by looking at the date of the report and checking to see if other articles or studies back up the information. Talk to a trusted doctor or expert if the information you’re hearing doesn’t make sense to you.
Fight for Change
Even if you take every single precaution to avoid exposure to glyphosate, you still may be exposed due to its ubiquity. It’s in the rain, it blows through the air from conventional farms to organic farms, and your neighbor might spray it right on your property line. Many people simply aren’t aware of the potential dangers.
Talk to your neighbors, school board, and city council. Inform them of the potential dangers and risks of using Roundup, and start a dialogue. Because of concerned citizens, major cities like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles are in the process of banning and limiting the use of glyphosate. Other towns and cities have started posting signs in parks warning citizens when pesticides are going to be sprayed—it’s the law to give proper notice in 23 states and Washington, D.C.
You can fight for change by voting with your wallets as well. When consumers stop buying products that are unethically sold and manufactured, manufacturers will stop making them.