Andreas Späth

Garden weed killer ‘probably’ causes cancer

2015-03-30 07:20

Andreas Wilson-Späth

What’s more shocking than the sheer number of industrial chemicals we’re in contact with on a daily basis – tens of thousands – is how very little we know about their potential effects on our bodies and health.

Just a week or so ago, the United Nation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a statement and published a report in the respected, peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, announcing that one of the world’s most popular herbicides, glyphosate, is ‘probably’ carcinogenic. ‘Probably’ because to scientists nothing is ever 100% certain. For the rest of us, let’s just say that chances are very, very good that exposure to glyphosate increases a person’s risk of contracting cancer.

In addition to glyphosate, the IARC report also identified two insecticides (malathion and diazion) as ‘probably’, and two more (parathion and tetrachlorvinphos) as ‘possibly’, cancer-causing.

Let’s put this in a bit of context. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in a commercial herbicide called Roundup, which was first introduced by multinational giant Monsanto in the 1970s, is now also produced generically by other companies, and is the most widely used weed killer in the world. Monsanto, of course, is the controversial outfit that gave us Agent Orange. They’re really good at killing stuff.

Today Roundup/glyphosate is used very widely in agriculture. Monsanto (and others) make heaps of money every year from selling so-called Roundup Ready genetically modified crops, including maize, soya beans, cotton and canola. These crops are engineered to be resistant to glyphosate, the idea being that farmers can simply douse them in the stuff to kill off any weeds without harming the crop plants themselves.

Globally, commercial farmers spray tens of thousands of tonnes of glyphosate on millions of hectares of fields every year. In addition, glyphosate is also a common weed killer sold to domestic gardeners, municipalities, golf course owners and the like.

All considered, there is a whole lot of glyphosate in our environment and much of it is intimately involved in producing the food we eat.

There is some controversy over the new IARC report and Monsanto has strongly contested its scientific voracity, suggesting that it “does not establish a link between glyphosate and an increase in cancer”. But then that’s what they would say in defence of a massively lucrative cash cow like Roundup, wouldn’t they? Cigarette companies used to say the same thing about their product.

Supporters of chemical agriculture will tell us that there simply isn’t another way to grow all of the food we need to feed the planet’s ever-growing population. Millions of farmers and food growers around the globe who practice more biological cultivation methods would beg to differ, of course, but even if it were true, how much sense does it make to grow the food that nourishes us on a daily basis in a way which will ultimately kill us?

Yet another reason to go organic!

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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