They're calling it a glyphosate "revolution." Consumers around the world are waking up to the fact that they're living in a world awash in the weed-killing pesticide known as glyphosate. And they don't like it one bit.
Over the last several years, some scientists have been warning that the long-touted environmental and health safety promises associated with glyphosate, the chief ingredient in Monsanto's branded Roundup, may not be as iron-clad as asserted. Last year's finding by the World Health Organization's cancer research experts that glyphosate "probably" is a human carcinogen sparked a firestorm that only grows more heated by the day. Consumers in the United States, Europe and elsewhere are now demanding that regulators step up and restrict or ban glyphosate herbicides - the most widely used in the world - to protect both human health and the environment.
Glyphosate's current license for use in the EU expires in June, and the European Union recently delayed making a decision on extending the registration due to the controversy.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is similarly stymied. Last month a petition signed by thousands of Americans was presented to EPA demanding glyphosate be revoked in the United States. A group of U.S. scientists and activists has a meeting scheduled with the EPA on June 14 to try to convince the regulatory agency it needs to restrict or ban glyphosate. The agency is trying to finish a long-overdue new risk assessment for the chemical.
More fuel was added to the fire this week when a coalition of scientists and activists working through what they call "The Detox Project" announced that testing at a University of California San Francisco laboratory revealed glyphosate in the urine of 93 percent of a sample group of 131 people. The group said it used a method known as liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry or LC/MS/MS, to analyze urine and water samples. (The group said it found no glyphosate residues in tap water.) Further data from this public bio-monitoring study will be released later in 2016, according to the group overseeing the testing.
In the urine tests, glyphosate was detected at an average level of 3.096 parts per billion (PPB) with children having the highest levels with an average of 3.586 PPB, according to Henry Rowlands, director of the Detox Project.
Private groups have already been testing foods for glyphosate residues in the absence of testing by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and they have found residues in a variety of products on grocery store shelves. Glyphosate is used widely in production of numerous food crops, most notably with biotech crops genetically engineered to tolerate being sprayed directly with glyphosate. The FDA said in February it would start some limited testing for food residues, but has provided few details.
Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist from London who has been studying glyphosate concerns for years and is supporting the Detox Project, said more testing is needed. "With increasing evidence from laboratory studies showing that glyphosate-based herbicides can result in a wide range of chronic illnesses through multiple mechanisms, it has become imperative to ascertain the levels of glyphosate in food and in as large a section of the human population as possible," he said in a statement.
The Detox Project is billing itself as a platform for consumers to submit their personal bodily fluids for testing. The urine testing was commissioned by the Organic Consumers Association, and one of the objectives is to gather research to determine if eating an organic diet has any effect on the level of synthetic chemicals in people's bodies.
Earlier in May test results for urine samples from members of the European Parliament also showed glyphosate in their systems.
Monsanto and leading agrichemical scientists say glyphosate is among the safest of pesticides on the market, and essential to robust food production. They point to decades of safety studies and regulatory approvals around the world. They say even if glyphosate residues are in food, water and bodily fluids, they aren't harmful.
Support for that argument came last week from a United Nations panel of scientists who proclaimed that a thorough review of the scientific literature made it clear that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic to humans. But the finding was quickly pilloried as tainted because the chairman of the panel, Alan Boobis, also helps run the International Life Science Institute (ILSI), which has received more than $500,000 from Monsanto and other large donations from additional agrichemical interests.
The uproar over glyphosate shows no sign of easing. Next month, the consumer group Moms Across America is launching a "National Toxin Free Town Tour" to crisscross the country to advocate for a pull back on glyphosate and other chemicals seen as harmful.
To be sure, glyphosate, which is used in hundreds of herbicide products globally, is only one of many chemicals pervasive in today's environment. It seems that everywhere we turn, worrisome chemicals are found in our food supply, our water, our air, our land. Heightened consumer awareness about glyphosate comes as consumers are increasingly demanding more information and tighter controls on many aspects of how their food is produced.
Those behind the Detox Project have an agenda, just as do many of the group's pushing for regulatory restrictions, and those supporting continued use of glyphosate. But the concern about glyphosate's impact on human health and the environment cannot be swept aside.
On one of its webpages, Monsanto uses the motto "We May Not Have All the Answers But We Keep on Searching."
The consumer groups pushing for more testing and more regulatory controls on glyphosate are saying the same thing.