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Daily News Blog

29
Apr

Glyphosate-Based Herbicides and Sustainable Agriculture Do Not Mix!

(Beyond Pesticides, April 29, 2021) Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) are incompatible with sustainable agriculture goals, according to a recent scientific literature analysis by scientists at Tufts University, Massachusetts. Glyphosate is the most commonly used pesticide active ingredient worldwide, appearing in many herbicide formulas, including Bayer’s (formerly Monsanto) RoundupTM. The use of this chemical has been increasing since the inception of crops genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate. However, studies demonstrate glyphosate is the main contributor to human, biotic, and ecosystem harms as toxicities from herbicides are now double what it was in 2004. 

The National Academy of Sciences identifies four goals of sustainable agriculture—productivity, economics, environment, and social well-being for future generations. However, pesticides like glyphosate are ubiquitous in the environment, putting the health, economy, and food/resources for future generations at risk. Therefore, research like this is vital for understanding how chemical use can undermine sustainable agriculture goals to protect humans, animals, and environmental health. Researchers note, “[W]hether or not GBHs are viewed as essential or unessential to contemporary agriculture, and notwithstanding their role in non-tillage agriculture, this study shows that glyphosate-based herbicides do not reach the bar of agricultural sustainability, with respect to humans and the environment, making the system they are part of unsustainable.”

Researchers thoroughly examined ~3,000 scholarly sources to analyze whether GBHs meet sustainable agriculture goal standards. Scientists noted any impacts GBHs applications have on human health, non-tillage agriculture, soil quality, aquatic ecosystems, and beneficial/non-target species. Researchers used various viewpoints on agricultural sustainability as a guide for sustainability standards:

  • “Promoting agroecology [ecological processes in agriculture systems].
  • Protecting the resource base of natural systems for future generations, including and especially the soil.
  • Protecting biodiversity.
  • Enhancing the quality of life and health of farmers, farmworkers, and society as a whole.”

This paper finds that GBHs do not contribute positively to sustainability, violating enough criteria to make conventional agricultural systems using GBHs unsustainable. Studies regarding “glyphosate toxicology” have been increasing since 2005. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), glyphosate is a “possible human carcinogen,” therefore, GBH use decreases the quality and health of farmworkers and society. Although studies demonstrate the starkest example of GBH toxicity among animals, indicating a risk to humans, many in vitro studies provide evidence that GBHs are toxic to human cells. Further, the review finds ingredients in RoundupTM are just as toxic as glyphosate itself, causing DNA damage at low concentrations. Thus, various formulas of GBHs can have devastating effects on human health. 

This paper demonstrates that the combined use of GBHs and glyphosate-tolerant, genetically modified/genetically engineered (GM/GE) crops contributes to an increase in glyphosate-resistance weeds. The presence of these weeds increases soil tilling to rid of the invasive plants, making GBHs unsustainable. Furthermore, glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA are commonly detectable in agricultural soils. These compounds can disrupt microbial communities responsible for standard soil function, increasing pathogen spread while decreasing plant growth and productivity. Beneficial/non-target organisms suffer the consequences of GBH exposure, too. Aquatic organisms like fish, crustaceans, and amphibians experience oxidative stress, birth deformities, and behavioral changes. GBHs disturb the cognitive abilities and gut health of bee pollinators and completely decimate milkweed habitats Monarch butterflies solely rely on for reproduction, thus impacting populations. 

The first introduction to sustainable agriculture was from the United Nations’ 1987 report Our Common Future (the Brundtland Report). The report outlines protecting Earth’s natural resources for future generations, equal income allocation from food production, and supporting small-scale farming. The report emphasizes the challenges of sustainable agriculture, highlighting, “[it] is to raise not just average productivity and incomes [from resources], but also the productivity and incomes of those poor in resources… Land use in agriculture and forestry must [use] scientific assessment of land capacity, and the annual depletion of topsoil, fish stock, or forest resources must not exceed the rate of regeneration.” However, a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report establishes that pesticide use does not adhere to sustainable agriculture goals. It fails to minimize the adverse effects of chemicals and waste as increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers—driven by rising demand for food, fiber, fuel, and feedstock crops—puts public and environmental health at risk.  

Clean air, water, and healthy soils are integral to ecosystem function, interacting between Earth’s four main spheres (i.e., hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere) to support life. However, toxic pesticide residues readily contaminate these spheres, frequently existing in soils, water (solid and liquid), and the surrounding air at levels exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set standards. Scientific literature demonstrates pesticides’ long history of adverse effects on the environment, including wildlifebiodiversity, and human health effects. Pesticides can present acute and long-term health impacts worldwide, especially to farmers, 44 percent of whom experience pesticide poisoning every year. Moreover, a 2020 study finds ~385 million cases of non-fatal unintentional pesticide poisonings and 11,000 deaths annually. Pesticide exposure can produce a plethora of adverse health effects, including cancers and neurological, immunological, and reproductive effects, among other health impacts. Most notably, pesticides are immensely harmful to pollinators. Over the last decade and a half, increasing scientific evidence shows a clear connection between the role of pesticides in the decline of honey bees and wild pollinators (i.e., wild bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, bats, etc.) alike. The agricultural industry relies on insect pollinators to aid in plant pollination and sustain annual crop yield. Globally, the production of crops dependent on pollinators is worth between $253 and $577 billion yearly. Hence, pesticide use fails to support sustainability goals, decreasing agricultural and economic productivity and social (human/animal) and environmental well-being.

Almost five decades of extensive glyphosate use has put animals, human, and environmental health at risk, thus fails to meet sustainability goals this paper addresses. The chemical’s ubiquity threatens 93 percent of all U.S. endangered species, with specific alterations on microbial gut composition and trophic cascades. Although the direct impact pesticides have on pollinators is concerning, the indirect impacts pesticides have on pollinator habitats are equally troublesome. Glyphosate use on mono-crop agriculture and genetically engineered crops can drift onto and destroy adjacent habitats. Habitat destruction results in loss of species biodiversity and stable ecosystem processes that are integral to sustainability. The review indicates extensive glyphosate has impacts on soil quality and function, as well as weed resistance. Researchers note the use of tilling to reduce glyphosate-resistance weed persistence in fields. However, over-tilling can result in soil erosion, which a 2020 study finds is an issue among glyphosate use. Continuous pesticide use leaves the dirt bare and more susceptible to decay from lack of organic material, altering the storage compartments of soil sediments from pesticide sinks to sources. Thus, chemical use stimulates soil erosion, responsible for the soil-based emergence of toxic legacy chemicals. Even farmers employing regenerative agriculture practices like cover crops and no-till to reduce runoff into water end up using over 50 percent more pounds of GBHs to rid cover crops between 2009 and 2016.

Similar to this paper, past studies find a strong association between glyphosate exposure and the development of numerous health anomalies, including cancerParkinson’s disease, and autism. Although EPA classifies glyphosate herbicides as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” stark evidence demonstrates links to various cancers. Thus, EPA’s classification perpetuates environmental injustice among farmers, especially in marginalized communities. According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, a lawsuit—filed by the National Black Farmers Association against Bayer/Monsanto—argues that Black farmers are, essentially, forced to use Roundup (glyphosate). Therefore, these farmers incur the risks of developing non-Hodgkin Lymphoma or other cancers (or health impacts) because of pesticide demands and the industry’s “grip” on U.S. agriculture. The lawsuit maintains that the chemical company knowingly failed, and continues to fail, to warn farmers adequately about the dangers of the pesticide.

Not only do health officials warn that continuous use of glyphosate will perpetuate adverse health effects, but that use also highlights recent concerns over antibiotic resistance. Bayer/Monsanto patents glyphosate as an antibiotic since exposure hinders enzymatic pathways in many bacteria and parasites, serving as an antimicrobial. However, glyphosate kills bacterial species beneficial to humans and incorporated in probiotics yet allows harmful bacteria to persist, leading to resistance. Similarly, glyphosate-exposed soils contain a greater abundance of genes associated with antibiotic resistance, as well as a higher number of inter-species transferable genetic material. Therefore, the use of antibiotics like glyphosate allows residues of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria on agricultural lands to move through the environment, contaminate waterways, and ultimately reach consumers in food. Antibiotic resistance can trigger longer-lasting infections, higher medical expenses, the need for more expensive or hazardous medications, and the inability to treat life-threatening illnesses. Resistance to pesticides is also growing at similar rates among GE and non-GE conventionally grown crops. This increase in resistance is evident among herbicide-tolerant GE crops, including seeds genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant. Although one purpose of GE crops is to reduce pesticide use, an increase in resistance can result in additional pesticide use to compensate. 

Although this study reviews GBHs and sustainability, the authors suggest that all herbicide-based agriculture, regardless of herbicide, is inconsistent with sustainability goals. If one competent of an agricultural system is unsustainable, then the entire system is unsustainable. Therefore, agricultural systems must commit to regenerative organic agriculture and land management to meet future sustainability goals and alleviate the effect these chemicals have on humans and wildlife. Organic agriculture is necessary to eliminate toxic chemical use and ensure the long-term sustainability of food production, the environment, and the economy. Organically managed systems support biodiversityimprove soil healthsequester carbon (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), and safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. There are claims that organic agriculture cannot sustain global crop production. However, scientific studies argue organic yields are comparable to conventional and require significantly lower inputs. Additionally, glyphosate levels in the human body reduce by 70% through a one-week switch to an organic diet. Therefore, purchasing organic food whenever possible—which never allows glyphosate use—can help curb exposure and resulting adverse health effects. Learn more about how consuming organic products can reduce pesticide exposure and the harmful health and environmental impacts of chemical-intensive farming produces.

For more information about organic food production, visit Beyond Pesticides’ Keep Organic Strong webpage.

To learn more about how organic the right choice for both consumers and farmers, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage on Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture

Help Beyond Pesticides educate and build the movement that will bring long-needed protection to humans, animals, and the entire environment by attending the National Pesticide Forum this spring. Cultivating Healthy Communities will bring together expert scientists, farmers, policymakers, and activists to discuss strategies to eliminate harms from toxic chemical use in favor of non-toxic organic solutions. It begins with a pre-conference session on Monday, May 24, and continues every Tuesday beginning May 25, June 1, June 8, and ending June 15, 2021. Registration is open today and available through the webpage on this link. It starts with US.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: GMWatch, Tufts University

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