Glyphosate is the main ingredient in Roundup, the best-selling herbicide in the world. It is used in over 90 countries and on approximately 150 crops. Every year, farmers spray almost a pound of glyphosate upon their harvests, hoping to dissuade weeds from growing and spreading. These herbicides make their way into runoff and groundwater, polluting it. A 2002 survey conducted by the US Geological Survey (USGS) found that glyphosate was present in 36 percent of its water samples from nine Midwestern states. Aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA), the degradation ingredient found in Roundup, was identified in 69 percent of the samples.
In recent years, speculation about Roundup’s ability to cause cancer has risen, with most of the focus narrowing to glyphosate itself. According to the EPA, the herbicide is non-carcinogenic. Californian officials and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) disagree. In a 2015 report of its findings, IARC claimed there is “sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals” and that glyphosate “caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells.”
The findings make sense. After all, workers in the agricultural sector experience higher numbers of Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and cancers of the lip, stomach, prostate, skin, brain, and connective tissues compared to average members of society.
While the feud continues, new evidence is causing many to think twice about the EPA’s assessment. In 1985, the EPA originally classified glyphosate as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” That phrase was changed in 1991 to “evidence of non-carcinogenicity in humans.”
Adding to the many raised eyebrows is the not-sketchy fact that Monsanto Co., Roundup’s manufacturer, is responsible for the creation of Roundup Ready crops, which are resistant to glyphosate. In fact, these genetically modified seeds have led to glyphosate use tripling in agriculture since 1997. This is where that eyebrow might just fly off your forehead; the Office of Pesticide Programs, the very organization in the EPA responsible for regulating and maintaining safety among pesticides, received almost 30 percent of its operating budget from Monsanto in 2016. Furthermore, the studies used to review and permit pesticides rely on data provided by the manufacturers themselves.
The fight continues. At the start of the year, talk spread of eliminating funding to the IARC’s research center in response to its 2015 evaluation. Just last month, a federal judge in California barred officials from requiring cancer warnings on products. Meanwhile, lawsuits concerning Roundup are continuing to rise. “There are many allegations that Monsanto has known and disguised Roundup’s harmful effects for years,” says Edward Lake, attorney and co-founder of the law firm Gacovino Lake & Associates. “We’re one of many trying to get to the bottom of it.”
But time is not a friend for people like Christine Sheppard, one of 800 cancer patients with proceedings against Monsanto. “They didn’t take away my life, thank goodness,” said Sheppard in an interview with CNN, “but they took away our dreams, our savings.”
Unfortunately, Sheppard’s story is only one of many.