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Is Glyphosate Hiding Hiding in Your Family’s Food?

There’s a good chance that glyphosate—the most commonly used herbicide in America and a chemical that the World Health Organization has determined is a probable carcinogen—is in your pantry right now — and it could soon be in your family’s breakfast bowls, your children’s lunchboxes, and your mid-afternoon snack. That’s according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, DC-based nonprofit that conducted an analysis of 21 of the country’s most popular oat-based food products, including Cheerios cereal, Nature Valley granola bars, and Fiber One cookies. Not only was glyphosate found in all 21 of the tested products, it was found at levels EWG scientists consider unsafe for children in 17 of them.

This shocking discovery comes on the heels of several recent court cases against agrochemical giant Monsanto concerning its glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup, which have resulted in more than $2 billion in damages being awarded to the plaintiffs — and led to rumors that Bayer AG, the German conglomerate that purchased Monsanto last summer, could be eager to settle additional lawsuits.

Could your family be at risk due to glysophate exposure? This article will explore the science linking glysophate to cancer, the agricultural industry’s reliance on glysophate across a wide range of fields, and how the chemical finds its way into a variety of food products. Finally, we’ll take a closer at the legal landscape concerning glyphosate and the Roundup cases. Read on to learn more.

What Is Glyphosate?

Glyphosate is a chemical herbicide used in a wide range of agricultural applications. It was first brought to the market in 1976 by the agrochemical company Monsanto—which has been the defendant in some of the most high-profile court cases of the last half century—under the brand name Roundup. Since their introduction, glyphosate-based products have become the most commonly used herbicides in America and are ubiquitous worldwide. Popular with everyone from suburban homeowners to commercial landscapers to agricultural professionals of all stripes, Roundup has made Monsanto and its shareholders huge fortunes. In 2015, sales of Roundup alone brought the company some $4.8 billion in revenue, even as it lost marketshare to Chinese competitors. Additional revenue streams come from Monsanto’s production and marketing of genetically modified crops that are nearly impervious to its signature herbicide, allowing farmers to spray their crops with impunity. 

There’s one major problem with glyphosate’s dominance of the herbicide market: multiple studies have linked glyphosate exposure to the development of certain cancers, particularly non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And according to several lawsuits, Monsanto failed to warn consumers of these dangers.

Glyphosates and Cancer

In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research wing of the World Health Organization (WHO), announced the results of a study it had conducted on a variety of agricultural chemicals known as organophosphates. According to their findings, they deemed glyphosate—as well as the pesticides malathion and diazinon—probably carcinogenic to humans. The IARC noted that several studies had previously linked frequent contact with glyphosate with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and that while an Agricultural Health Study had failed to establish a link between the two, the IARC noted that lab tests on rodents had resulted in tumor development. Furthermore, the agency noted compelling “mechanistic evidence,” which showed DNA damage in human cells that had been exposed to glyphosate.

The IARC ranks compounds on a scale of decreasing certainty regarding their link to cancer. Group 1 compounds are definitely carcinogenic to humans. Group 2A compounds are probably carcinogenic to humans, while Group 2B compounds are possibly carcinogenic to humans. Group 3 are not classifiable, and Group 4 are probably not carcinogenic. Glyphosate is classified as 2A, which means the IARC and the WHO consider it very likely to contribute to cancer development.

So How Did Glyphosate Wind Up in My Food?

Because glyphosate-based produts like Roundup are so ubiquitous in modern agriculture processes, it is practically inevitable that fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products would make it to consumers with traces of glyphosate still on them. But this problem may be exacerbated by the long shadow Monsanto casts across the industry. The company produces and markets a range of “Roundup Ready” seeds that have been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate, which allows farmers to spray Roundup on their fields confident in the knowledge that the herbicide will kill intrusive weeds while leaving the crops unharmed. Small wonder, then, that glyphosate was detected in 70% of the urine samples collected in a 2017 study conducted the University of San Diego.

Glyphosate’s applications go beyond killing weeds. It is also used as a desicant, and may be sprayed directly on wheat and oats after harvesting in order to reduce drying time. This helps explain why such high levels of the chemical have been observed in the aforementioned oat products. Additionally, Radio-Canada found that glysophate was found in 90% of tested pizza samples, 88% of wheat flour, 84% of crackers, 84% of fresh pasta, and 80% of dried pasta.

The EWG Study 

Now that we’ve established what glyphosate is, its agricultural applications, and the science linking it to cancer development, we can return to the eye-opening EWG study which found detectable levels of glyphosate in every product their study analyzed. The nonprofit’s scientists contend that glyphosate in excess of 160 parts per billion (ppb) is unsafe for children. Here’s the full list of products they tested, in ascending order of parts per billion:

  • Nature Valley Fruit & Nut Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars, Dark Chocolate & Nut (76)
  • Nature Valley Soft-Baked Oatmeal Squares, Cinnamon Brown Sugar (124)
  • Honey Nut Cheerios (147)
  • Nature Valley Sweet & Salty Nut granola bars, Cashew (158)
  • Nature Valley Biscuits with Almond Butter (194)
  • Nature Valley Granola Peanut Butter Creamy & Crunchy (198)
  • Fiber One Oatmeal Raisin soft-baked cookies (204)
  • Nature Valley Soft-Baked Oatmeal Squares, Blueberry (206)
  • Multi Grain Cheerios (216)
  • Nature Valley Granola Protein Oats n Dark Chocolate (261)
  • Nature Valley Fruit & Nut Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars, Dark Chocolate Cherry (275)
  • Cheerios Oat Crunch Cinnamon (283)
  • Nature Valley Granola Cups, Peanut Butter Chocolate (297)
  • Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars, Peanut Butter (312)
  • Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars, Oats and Honey (320)
  • Nature Valley Baked Oat Bites (389)
  • Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheerios (400)
  • Nature Valley Granola Cups, Almond Butter (529)
  • Nature Valley Crunchy granola bars, Maple Brown Sugar (566)
  • Cheerios Toasted Whole Grain Oat Cereal (729)
  • Honey Nut Cheerios Medley Crunch(833)

 EWG developed their guidelines from research conducted by California state scientists as well as safety factors from the Food Quality Protection Act. While they acknowledge that their benchmarks are well under those issued by both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California’s No Significant Risk Level, they contend their limits better take into account the chronic exposure which leads to glyphostate-related cancer development, as well as the chemical’s increasing presence in our diets.

How Much Glyphosate Is Too Much Glyphosate?

As mentioned in the last section, there is still no general consensus about how much glyphosate is considered unsafe. Unsurprisingly, Monsanto steadfastly claims that the chemical is one of the safest herbicides on the market. An industry group called the Glyphosate Task Force, assembled by agrochemical companies—so take this with more than a few grains of salt—took serious issue with the methodology of the IARC’s study. But Kathryn Guyton, a senior toxicologist with IARC, stands by her agency’s findings. She contends that many of the studies the Glyphosate Task Force cite in their defense come from studies conducted by the agrochemical industry itself, and would never be published in the serious peer-reviewed journals that IARC employed in coming to their conclusion.

Here are some other well-respected organizations and the maximum daily intake of glyphosate they recommend:

  • Environmental Protection Agency: 70 milligrams
  • State of California (proposed): 1.1 milligrams
  • Environmental Working Group: 0.01 milligrams

Considering glyphosate’s credible link to cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, particularly when exposure occurs over years, the more accurate question should be: is any glyphosate too much glysophate? Increasingly, the answer seems to be, yes.

 Surveying the Legal Landscape

Currently, there are more than 11,000 pending lawsuits filed against Monsanto and its parent company Bayer AG concerning Roundup’s link to cancer, and allegations that the company deliberately misled consumers in its marketing of the product. Many of these cases involve multiple plaintiffs. And while the bulk of these cases are brought by agricultural and landscaping professionals, at least one food-related lawsuit has been brought against General Mills by a plaintiff alleging that the company has a duty to disclose to consumers which of its products contain glysophate.

Juries have already awarded plaintiffs more than $2.2 billion in awards, and a federal judge in California has ordered the company to begin mediation proceedings to settle the outstanding cases. Both these facts suggest that many more plaintiffs will bring suit against Bayer. And as these additional lawsuits result in more discovery phases, it’s likely that more information concerning glysophate’s potential health hazards, Monsanto’s aggressive marketing of its highly lucrative product, and its presence in a wide range of food products will emerge. From what we already know, it’s certainly possible that we won’t like what we learn.