Informed choice

March 2012

Spraying @ Occold, Norfolk
Crop spraying in Norfolk. Photo by timparkinson on Flickr
The mainstay of GM crops to date has been their ability to tolerate dousing with the weed-killer, glyphosate (active ingredient of 'Roundup').

If you look for information on the safety of glyphosate, you'll certainly find reassuring “Fact Sheets ... intended to promote informed decision-making”. These describe the low risk attached to exposure to the weed-killer during use. The 'exposure' referred to means, for example, splashes on the skin or eyes, contaminated hands transferring the chemical to food or cigarettes, aerosol inhalation etc.

However, glyphosate is routinely and purposefully sprayed directly onto food crops. In America the situation's worse because, now that there's GM glyphosate-tolerant soya, maize, oilseed rape and sugar-beet on the market, all designed to accumulate glyphosate without injury to themselves, the potential for a presence of the herbicide in food has escalated.

Add to this that:
  • the amounts of glyphosate sprayed onto GM herbicide-tolerant crops has increased annually due to the emergence of resistant 'superweeds'
  • genetically-transformed crops are rarely rotated now with crops requiring alternative management
  • glyphosate persists in the soil and can be re-absorbed by subsequent plants
  • aerial spraying frequently contaminates non-target food crops
  • many crops, such as wheat, barley, oats, beans, oilseed rape, flax, lentils, soybeans and chickpeas, may have glyphosate applied a few days before harvest to facilitate crop removal and to clear the ground for the next crop; in this case the quantities used must be large enough to penetrate the crop canopy
  • many of the crops to which glyphosate is applied before harvest are feed crops, but no regular monitoring of glyphosate residues in meat, milk or eggs has taken place in the EU in recent years
  • glyphosate can be present in air, rain and groundwater (see WHERE DOES ALL THE GLYPHOSATE GO? - January 2012).
All these could add up to rather a lot of chronic, low-level (but increasing) dietary exposure to this weed-killer.

There are a number of recognised ways in which glyphosate could cause harm to humans. Inside us, glyphosate could disturb our physiology because it binds the metal ions essential for enzyme function. Recently, it has also been implicated in foetal deformities (see ROUNDUP CAUSES BIRTH-DEFECTS - GMFS News Archive, October 2010 ).

Rather than taking steps to limit our increasing exposure to a chemical whose range of harmful effects are only now becoming clear, the EU is progressively allowing more and more glyphosate into our food.

The latest increase in permitted glyphosate residue levels came about after a shipment of Canadian lentils was withdrawn from the European market because it was found to be contaminated with 10.5 mg/kg of the chemical. This amount is over one hundred times the current maximum allowed in the EU which seems to be set at a default level of 0.1 mg/kg. However, it's also two-and-a-half times the Canadian maximum residue level. There seems no excuse whatsoever for a crop destined for export from Canada to Europe to be so excessively contaminated.

EU regulators, instead of telling Canada to get its house in order and stop trying to poison us, are planning to change the law to accommodate the pesticide (and safety be damned).

The suggested new maximum residue level (MRL) under consideration is either 10.0 mg/kg (not enough to legalise the incident which sparked the move in the first place) or 15.0 mg/kg (nearly four times Canada's MRL). Neither of the proposed MRLs are based on safety considerations, but aim to please Monsanto. The biotech company wants to ensure that the use of its pet, money-spinning, herbicide by its North American customers isn't jeopardised by export market rejection.

The trick used to legalise glyphosate-contaminated lentils is actually the third such hush-hush, Monsanto-friendly change in legislation to have taken place in the EU. The first two involved wheat and soya.

The bigger picture is that consumers of 'conventional' produce are being exposed to an ever-increasing cocktail of chemicals in their food, and GM is very soundly exacerbating it.

One US farmer, civil-rights activist and author, Will Allen, has pointed out some awful truths about conventional Californian produce. (See examples below)

Average pesticide use on California produce, 2006
(Environmental Protection Agency figures)

Usage - 279.44 pounds of pesticide per acre (the highest on any fruit or vegetable) of which:
  • two of the top five pesticides are probable carcinogens
  • all of the top five pesticides cause multiple birth defects.
Residues - 92.3% of berries had pesticide residues; 69.2% of berries has two or more
residues; some berries had as many as 8 residues.

Usage - 102 pounds of pesticide per acre of which:
  • all three of the top pesticides cause birth defects
  • two of the top pesticides are probable carcinogens.
Residues - 81.7% of carrots had pesticide residues; 48.3% had two or more residues;
one sample had 6 residues.

Usage - 76 pounds of pesticide per acre of which:
  • two of the top five pesticides are probable carcinogens
  • three of the top five pesticides cause birth defects
  • one of the top five pesticides is an endocrine disruptor.
Residues - 96.6% of peaches had pesticide residues; 86.6% had two or more residues;
42 different pesticide residues were detectable on the fruit; as many as 9
residues were found on a single sample.

Allen has suggested that all fresh produce should carry a 'Surgeon General's Warning' that pregnant women, children and elderly are at risk from eating it.


Perhaps it's time to start demanding “glyphosate-free” labels? After all, in order to “allow consumers to fully exercise their choice”, French food companies will shortly be able to label their products “GMO-free”. And, testing for the presence of glyphosate is much more straightforward than tracking genes.

No matter how much fiddling with pesticide residue levels and GM laws the regulators get up to, the people of the EU should have the right to exercise informed choice in what they eat. 

  • Food Herbicide Residues Set to Rise As Much As 150 Times, GM Freeze Release 8.02.12
  • Will Allen and Ronnie Cummins, Is This Factory Farming 's Tobacco Moment? Organic Consumers Association, 8.04.10
  • Will Allen, Whole Foods or Half Foods? Organic Consumers Association 12.02.12
  • Rudy Ruitenberg, French companies can use 'GMO Free' labels, officially,, 1.02.12
  • Glyphosate General Fact Sheet, National Pesticide Information Center, September 2010
  • Herbicide Options to Enhance Harvesting FAQ, Government of Saskatchewan Agriculture Department, October 2010.

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