Evidence is accumulating that Roundup herbicide affects fertility.
The infamous study by Russian scientist Irina Ermakova, which found that feeding rats on Roundup Ready (RR) soya led to stunted growth, small litter size and pup deaths was dismissed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on the basis that an American study on mice published in 2004 had recorded no pup survival, health or litter size problems at all.
That same year, a preliminary study by an Italian team, also using mouse testis as a bioindicator, appeared in the literature. This team took a close look at subcellular features in the testes of mice fed RR soya. They observed cellular changes typical of those previously linked to stress factors or drugs.
The similarity of the test material of these two studies coupled to their contradictory findings and the FSA's apparent eagerness to ignore studies which suggested GM-linked problems in favour of one which found no problems, led us to take a closer look at the two pieces of research.
In the US paper all background introductory information is derived from Monsanto. The 'Materials' section specifically mentions that “Glyphosate degrades to harmless products, is inactivated rapidly in soil and has low toxicity to animals”. After this statement establishing safety, the weedkiller is not mentioned again and formed no part of the study.
COMMENT Note the side-lining of 'Roundup' in favour of the more innocuous 'glyphosate': this seems to be a typical industry slight-of-hand, and one which scientists shouldn't fall for. The testimonial of safety appearing in the description of the materials was presumably an excuse for the absence of data on pesticide applications or residue levels in the test diet. The authors seem to be trying uncommonly hard to draw attention away from herbicide effects. Was someone steering the FSA towards the US study to make sure it got the right message?
There's no hint anywhere in the US paper of any relevant background reading into other work suggesting reproductive effects linked to RR soya.
The Italian authors on the other hand cite a number of studies indicating adverse reproductive effects from the herbicide, and point out that these suggest glyphosate could have a role in the toxicity they observed. These references were obviously available and relevant to the American team.
The studies noted by the Italians don't make comfortable reading:
- In 1998, a chemical component derived from Roundup was reported to be attaching itself to DNA in mice (Peluso)
- In 2000, Roundup was reported to disrupt steroid production (Walsh)
- In 2001, Roundup was reported to disrupt cell division (Marc)
- Also in the literature at the time:
- In 2001, glyphosate added to drinking water was reported to induce functional abnormalities in the vital organs of pregnant rats and their foetuses, suggesting the herbicide can cross the placental barrier (Daruich)
- And subsequent to these, more evidence has emerged:
- In 2005, Roundup was reported to disrupt endocrine metabolism in placental cells; this finding was confirmed by a later study published in 2007 (Richard, Benachaur)
- In 2009, Roundup was reported to be lethal to human umbilical cord vein, embryonic kidney and placental cells (Benachaur)
Human experiences with glyphosate-containing herbicides are filtering in from abroad. South American countries, caught in the grip of soya monoculture fever, have made many of their communities into unwilling test-animals for the effects of Roundup.
In Argentina, GM crops and their inevitable crop-sprayers are within metres of people's homes. One neighbourhood was declared a health emergency area in 2002 after the provincial ministry of health discovered a high incidence of leukemia and genetic malformations. A study of five towns in close proximity to GM soya found ten times more cases of liver cancer, double the number of pancreatic and lung cancer and three times more gastric and testicular cancer than the national average.
In Paraguay, now the world's fourth largest exporter of soya, a three-year old child died after intense spraying. The same year (2007) an investigation of the areas of greatest soya production revealed 78% of families had health problems linked to frequent crop spraying, 63% of which were due to contaminated water.
Roundup is also being used liberally in Columbia's war on drugs, and, as in all wars, the local civilians have been caught in the cross-fire. Researchers report coca crops there being sprayed with twenty times the maximum recommended dose of Roundup, coupled to a 600-800% higher incidence of DNA damage in people living nearby. The people exposed to the spray, and the subjects of the study, were in neighbouring Ecuador.
COMMENT The South American examples of harm are from very extreme levels of exposure which you're not going to get from your daily soya pinta. However, more limited but cumulative DNA damage from repeated trace doses of the same toxic formulae may simply take longer to kill you.
To go back to Irina Ermakova's rat study in which the levels of harm caused to reproduction and to the pups were so extreme that the work was treated with derision by pro-GM scientists and the scientific press. As the FSA said at the time “there are a number of possible explanations for the results obtained in this preliminary study, apart from the GM and non-GM origin of the test materials. Without information on a range of important factors, conclusions cannot be drawn from this work.” True, so how much Roundup was in the diet of these rats? While all other feeding studies used highly processed RR soya, Ermakova used simple ground soya, along with anything else it might contain. For example, a Japanese team (Teshima et al.), which found no problems in the immune systems of rats or mice fed GM soya chow, used heat-treated soyabean meal, and the American mouse testicular cell study used frozen GM soya chow for the long-term feeding part of the study. Glyphosate is not normally stable at extremes of temperature and the effects of processing the many secret ingredients in the various Roundup formulations are complete unknowns. What was actually fed to the laboratory animals in experiments where the chow had been heated or frozen might be very different from a ground soya paste.
A review of the evidence on the safety of glyphosate and Roundup in 2000 found “There was no convincing evidence for direct DNA damage in vitro or in vivo”, and concluded that, “under present and expected conditions of use” there was no increased risk of cancer or reproductive effects associated with the herbicide. How does the evidence look now? Is it looking like we are eating bits of Roundup in our food and drink, and even in meat and diary, and are creating fertility problems and cancers in the generation just born?
The thorny question of whether 'safe' levels of Roundup are actually safe needs to be urgently revisited in light of science and experience which is suggesting otherwise. Try to jog the FSA's attention, it's a delicate subject which it won't want to tackle, but if enough people ask ...
If you want to explore some of the implications of a world suddenly rendered infertile, read P.D. James chilling novel, The Children of Men.
(This article is adpted from an article which originally appeared on GM-free Scotland in February 2009. The original article is archived here.)
- Irina Ermakova, Influence of Genetically Modified-SOYA on the Birth-Weight and Survival of Rat Pups: Preliminary Study, Paper originally presented to the National Association for Genetic Security symposium on genetic modification, 10.10.05, http://www.mindfully.org/
- Andrew Marshall, GM soybeans and health safety – a controversy reexamined, Nature Biotechnology, 25:9 September 2007
- Ermakova, Leifert, Heinemann, Cummins, Chassy Letters to the Editor, Biotechnology, 25 2007
- Statement on the affect of GM soya on newborn rats, Food Standards Agency Advisory Committee for Novel Foods and Processes, 5.12.05
- Brake and Evenson, A generational study of glyphosate-tolerant soybeans on mouse fetal, postnatal, pubertal and adult testicular development, Food and Chemical Toxicology 42, 2004
- Vecchio et al., Ultrastructural analysis of testes from mice fed on genetically modified soybean, Letter to the Editor, European Journal of Histochemistry, 48:4, 2004
- Peluso et al., 32P-postlabeling detection of NDA adducts in mice treated with the herbicide Roundup, Environment. Mol. Mut. 31, 1998
- Walsh et al., Roundup inhibits steroidogenesis by disrupting steroidogenic acute regulatory (StAR) protein expression, Environmental Health Perspectives, 108, 2002
- Marc, et al., Pesticide Roundup provokes cell division dysfunction at the level of CDK1/cyclin B activation, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 15, 2002,
- Daruich et al., Effect of the Herbicide Glyphosate on enzymatic Activity in Pregnant Rats and Their Fetuses, Environmental Research Section A, 85, 2001
- Richard et al., Differential effects of Glyphosate and Roundup on Human Placental Cells and Aromatase, Environmental ealth Perspectives, 113:6, 2005
- Benachour et al., Time- and Dos-Dependent Effects of Roundup on Human Embryonic and Placental Cells, Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology LLC 2007
- Benachour et al. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells, Chemical Research in Toxicology, 22(1) , 2009
- Williams et al., Safety Evaluation and Risk Assessment of the Herbicide Roundup and Its Active Ingredient, Glyphosate, for Humans, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, 31:2, April 2000
- Paz-y-Miňo et al., Evaluation of DNA damage in an Ecuadorian population exposed to glyphosate, Genetics and Molecular Biology, 30:2, 2007
- Lisbeth Fog, Aerial spraying could damage locals' health, www.scidev.net/news, 17.05.07
- Marcela Valente, Residents Say “Stop the Spraying!”, Inter Press Service, 17.11.06
- Marco Castillo and others, Campesino Leader Charged for Confronting Crop Spraying, www.lasoyamata.org 2;7.03.08
- David Vargas, Effects of soy expansion in Paraguay, www.lasojamata.org, 8.11.07
- Who Benefits from GM Crops, Friends of the Earth Europe, February 2009