Regular reports in the media point to the importance of what's living inside our guts to the health of the rest of our body, and our mind.
Our innards contain a wealth of diverse and interacting microbes, known collectively as the 'microbiome'. An unhealthy microbiome has been linked to Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, cancer, asthma, infection, diarrhoea, and depression in humans. In bees (which, unlike humans, can be subject to experimentation), a healthy microbiome seems necessary for normal growth, normal metabolism, normal life-span, and resistance to pathogens.
Some vital nutrients and healthful substances (such as anti-inflammatories) are generated by the life in the gut.
Scientists have been working on how to 'correct' an unhealthy microbiome using faecal transplants from healthy donors and 'drugs' consisting of healthy cocktails of microbes. In the short-term, these tactics show promising results. However, at least one researcher in the field has cautioned that we don't know whether the observed absence of 'good' bugs in the gut is causing the disease or if it is, in face, a result of the disease. These are vital questions to be answered because the bug replacement therapies will only be meaningful if they are curing the problem and not just one symptom of an unhealthy diet.
There are certainly a number of substances present in the modern diet which may be adversely affecting the microbiome. One of these is glyphosate herbicide used on most commercial GM crops and widely applied in agricultural and urban environments. Glyphosate, itself, has anti-microbial action, and even more so when formulated into 'Roundup'.
An experiment on 23 species of bacteria found in the microbiome of chickens showed that highly pathogenic types, such as Salmonella and Clostridium, are highly resistant to Roundup, while beneficial bugs (some of which suppress the 'bad' bugs) are killed. Elsewhere, tests on the microbiome of honey bees, which can be exposed to glyphosate when foraging, showed similar disturbances, potentially affecting their health, their resistance to environmental stressors, and ultimately their effectiveness as pollinators and the success of the hive.
Establishing and maintaining gut health should be a major priority. However, on a normal, modern, western diet, it seems much easier to damage the health of the microbiome with antibiotic substances than it is to avoid ingesting the drugs in the first place.
Bees acquire their gut bugs from the older (glyphosate-exposed) worker bees in the hive. Mammals acquire their gut bugs from their (potentially glyphosate-exposed) mother. If the previous generation has an unhealthy microbiome due to chronic exposure to glyphosate and other toxins, the next generation doesn't stand a chance of starting life healthily.
Most of the materials we're exposed to have received some kind of check that they're not acutely toxic. However, the wealth of potential microbiome disrupting chemicals and GMOs in our food chain all need urgent, realistic, safety testing. Eliminating glyphosate (along with a host of other ubiquitous, damaging chemicals) from our food chain will involve multinational political will, not only to take the runaway biotech industry in hand, but to cure the world of its addiction to its favourite herbicide.
This will be a long process, but the sooner you start raising political awareness by asking for it, the sooner it will happen.
- Erick V. S. Motta, et al., October 2018, Glyphosate perturbs the gut microbiota of honey bees, PNAS 115
- Awad A. Shehata, et al., 2013, The Effect of Glyphosate on Potential Pathogens and Beneficial Members of Poultry Microbiota In Vitro, Current Microbiology 66
- Rhys Blakely, Gut bacteria 'a factor' in mental health, The Times, 5.02.19
- Super poopers who keep a lid on illness, Metro, 7.02.19
- Chris Smyth, 20 new drugs in pipeline to fight superbugs, The Times, 5.02.19
CC photo: NIH Image Gallery on Flickr