Glyphosate 101: Gaining Food Safety Insights

You may have recently read news about glyphosate, a widely utilized pesticide, and concerns about the safety of it being used and potential consumer exposure. With this increased focus on glyphosate, we thought it would be good to address some food safety considerations that may be on your mind.

What is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a pesticide that has been used for crop protection since 1974. It is widely used in farming practices because it is considered non-toxic to consumers and animals, and is effective for broad-range weed control. However, those attributes come with an important caveat: Glyphosate, like all pesticides, must be used as prescribed on the pesticide product label.

As one of the most widely used agricultural compounds, glyphosate has been the subject of numerous toxicological research experiments to establish the safety for both consumers that could encounter glyphosate and for field workers applying this pesticide to crops. For the past 40 years, the safety of glyphosate has been reviewed and confirmed by the scientific community and multiple government agencies. The findings from these reviews reveal that, when used properly, glyphosate does not cause adverse human health effects.

Studies also indicate that at low levels (pesticide residues that can be found in foods, discussed below), glyphosate does not act as a carcinogen, endocrine disrupter or a developmental toxicant. Although there have been reports of farm worker safety being compromised due to specific exposure scenarios, the use of glyphosate by farm workers to tend to crops is regarded as safe when done with regulated protocols. In the case of farm or field workers who may be exposed to high levels of glyphosate during the mixing or application of the products, there are guidelines to help support safe handling and application.

Who Monitors and Regulates Pesticides?

The use of pesticides, including glyphosate, 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 it most recent statement on glyphosate safety, on January 2020 the EPA announced, “ EPA has concluded its regulatory review of glyphosate—the most widely used herbicide in the United States. After a thorough review of the best available science, as required under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, EPA has concluded that there are no risks of concern to human health when glyphosate is used according to the label and that it is not a carcinogen.” In addition, in September 2016, the 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.”

Various international safety reviews in recent years also have supported EPA’s recent conclusions:

  • Glyphosate has been thoroughly assessed by European Member States, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) have both ruled that glyphosate is not a carcinogen.
  • In May 2016, a UN joint working group of experts from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through diet.”

What is pesticide residue?

It is possible for trace amounts of glyphosate to remain on foods after they have been harvested. As with any pesticide, small quantities known as “residues” can sometimes be present on produce after it leaves the farm, and the EPA has developed strict limits (or “tolerances”) for them. The FDA and USDA share responsibility for monitoring levels of pesticide residues in and on foods. Pesticide residues, if present at all, should be within safe levels (as determined by the EPA) for both adults and children.

The website has a “safe produce” calculator that shows how much of food can be eaten before reaching a minimal level of health concern. For example, a child could consume more than 180 servings of strawberries in one day (a feat that is all but physically impossible) without any adverse health effect from pesticide residues, even if the strawberries had the maximum pesticide residue levels identified by FDA or USDA.

Final Thoughts

While there have been reports of occupational hazards associated with glyphosate use, for the general consumer, glyphosate use has been scientifically deemed safe. We will continue to monitor the scientific consensus and government regulators to ensure that our food system remains reliable and secure.