July 2021 was not a good month in the court of public opinion for Bayer AG, the owners of Roundup, the world’s leading herbicide. The beginning of the month saw the release of the book Toxic Legacy: How the Weedkiller Glyphosate is Destroying Our Health and the Environment by Stephanie Seneff, PhD, Senior Research Scientist at MIT. The end of the month had Bayer’s executives announcing that they were withholding $4.5 billion dollars in second quarter earnings1 in expectation of settling thousands of US Roundup lawsuits. This announcement came one month after the company said it was paying $10.9 billion dollars in Roundup lawsuits2 already decided by the courts.
That is a lot of money being paid out for a product that is likely in your shed or garage right now. So, why is Roundup in the news? In a word, cancer. Something that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suspected as far back as 1985. But the product is still in the marketplace even after the World Health Organization classified glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup) as “probably carcinogenic to humans” in 2015, and the California Environmental Protection Agency designated glyphosate as a “known human carcinogen.”
The reason it is still available for use is twofold. First, the company invested a lot of money in the creation of GMO Soy, Corn and Cotton. GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organisms, and in this case, the plants were modified so they could withstand the use of Roundup while it kills everything else around the plant. The second reason is that after 1985, Monsanto (the company bought by Bayer in 2016) heavily lobbied the US EPA for 6 years during the research for a “Roundup Ready” corn and soy product to change the cancer classification for glyphosate to “Evidence of Non-Carcinogenicity for Humans.” That status change was done based solely on research provided by Monsanto. That status remains to this day, despite exposés done by several publications including the New York Times3 done in 2017 showing a 30 year trail of collusion between the chemical company and the US EPA.
Leaving a cancer-causing chemical on the market is bad enough, but research is showing that glyphosate has much broader effects on human life. The Toxic Legacy book documents links glyphosate exposure even at low doses to reproductive issues as well as neurological and autoimmune diseases. The Kirkus Review4 writes “Comparisons will be made to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring – and they should be …. A game-changer that we would be foolish to ignore.” Silent Spring and Toxic Legacy both highlight the dangers of an omnipresent chemical that have indiscriminately sprayed across the planet with global implications.
The implications also come back to our hometown. In 2019, the Environmental Working Group studied foods marketed to children5, including General Mills Cheerios. Glyphosate residues were found in all of the oat-based cereal and snack products sampled, and in the case of Cheerios, the residue levels were about 5 times higher than the levels considered safe by the researchers. The risk level used by the researchers is slightly higher than the risk level the EPA considered acceptable in 1990, but the residue levels tested on the product is well within the levels used today. In addition to lobbying the EPA on their cancer classification, they asked for raising the acceptable glyphosate levels to be raised. The EPA now considers residue levels 300 times higher than in 1990 as acceptable.
Part of the reason Monsanto sought the raise in the allowable glyphosate residue levels was that the company began to encourage farmers to use glyphosate near the harvest date as a desiccant on grain crops. This effectively kills the plant and triggers the plants to release seeds for easier harvest. In terms of our Cheerios dilemma, it ensures that the harvested grains will have the maximum levels of glyphosate. Once harvested, washing the grains will not remove the residue, and processing the grains into a processed food product does not eliminate or break down the residues.
On their website, General Mills has a webpage to address the question of glyphosates in their products6. In their response, “The trace amounts of glyphosate some have claimed to find in Cheerios are much lower than the amount that the EPA considers safe for human health in oats. We work closely with farmers, suppliers, and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the crops and ingredients we use in our foods.” Note that the response from the company does not address the use of herbicides (weedkillers) on the crops. It also does not address that the levels for glyphosate that the EPA uses today is 300 times higher than when the 1990 level that was set by independent research; their products would not meet the 1990 residue levels.
The response from Quaker Oats (with similarly high residue levels) was similar. The response from Kellogg’s was very different. On their website7, they say that they are currently working to eliminate the use of the use of glyphosate as a grain desiccant in its supply chain by 2025.
The rise in rare, chronic diseases over the past 40 years has been blamed on the Western-style diet with the dependence on highly processed foods, including refined grains. The research in the Toxic Legacy book makes a compelling argument that much of the increase is directly linked to glyphosate. Ideally, the EPA would ban the use of the weedkiller causing all of the problems. But with its legacy of collusion with the producer of Roundup® it’s unlikely to take action in the short term. That’s why my call from the “City That Smells Like Cheerios” is for General Mills use its purchasing power to have their suppliers to stop using glyphosate on their crops.
If you would like to support the call to make our breakfast cereals safer, please sign on to the following petition Tell General Mills and Quaker Oats: Get Roundup® Our Of Our Breakfast Cereals!
John S Szalasny is a Sierra Club Niagara Group Executive Committee Member