Fast Take: Don’t glyphosHATE, Let's Communicate

This week, self-proclaimed consumer product “experts” released a report that examined the residue presence of glyphosate, an herbicide that is widely used by growers (as it is the main ingredient in many commercial weed-killers, such as Roundup), in a variety of common foods. Before you “join the frenzy” that these groups and others are trying to create, let’s insert some logic into the conversation and ask and answer a few simple questions.

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is an herbicide that has been used for crop protection since 1974. It is widely used because it is non-toxic to humans and animals; does not persist in the environment; and is notably effective for broad-range weed control, which increases yield and quality of crops, reduces soil erosion, and enhances harvesting efficiency.  As one of the most widely used agricultural compounds, it has been the subject of numerous toxicological research experiments. For the past 40 years, the safety of glyphosate has been reviewed and confirmed by science and multiple government agencies. The findings from these reviews reveal that glyphosate is not a carcinogen, an endocrine disrupter, or a developmental toxicant.

Isn’t the use of glyphosate regulated?

These “experts” want us to believe that glyphosate is used irresponsibly and the government is not involved in the oversight and regulation of our food system, but that could not be further from the truth. The use of pesticides is closely monitored and regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, these agencies ensure that we do not consume pesticide residues at harmful limits.

Has the safety and potential health impact of glyphosate exposure been examined?

Yes, time and time again. You may recall the March 2015 scientifically controversial conclusion by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic." But, in November 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released a comprehensive review that concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” And in September 2016, the U.S. EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs released its "final report" on glyphosate, which concluded: "[T]here is not strong support for the 'suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential' cancer classification descriptor based on the weight-of-evidence.” Also notably, in May 2016, the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) Panel of Experts on Pesticide Residues in Food and the Environment and the World Health Organization (WHO) Core Assessment Group of Pesticide Residues (JMPR) concluded that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through diet.”

So what does this new “research” mean?

First, let’s be clear that this consumer product report is not peer-reviewed research—you know, the standard method that goes into publishing new scientific findings. While the report touts that the methods were performed by an “FDA-registered” laboratory (which does not mean FDA supports the results of this study, nor does it give it any formal credibility), the report’s findings overlook some important information about the safety of glyphosate and about potential pesticide residue exposure via food consumption or otherwise. In addition, in review of the “data” on the reported levels of glyphosate in the listed food, one must consider if the levels of glyphosate have been measured by a scientifically reliable method, if the samples were handled and treated properly, and if the measurements have any relevance to a health concern.

Conclusion

Because the report’s experimental methods, research approach, and computational findings have not been scientifically peer-reviewed or supported by USDA, EPA or FDA, we suggest that this type of information be taken “with a large grain of salt.” Instead, be an informed reader and rely on credible sources of information that benefit from decades of scientific research about our food supply. 

This blog includes contributions from Dr. Megan Meyer, PhD in nutritional immunology.

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