Ignore the Ominous Headlines About Glyphosate In Food

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It began with dire warnings about breakfast cereals. But that’s okay, since I don’t eat them. However, now they’re going after beer and wine. Time to draw the line! No more herbicide hysteria!

“They” are various environmental groups who fill their coffers by stirring up scares. The latest involves the herbicide glyphosate, an ingredient in Roundup made by the agriculture company Monsanto. Monsanto was recently acquired by the Germany’s Bayer AG.

So a few months back we got “WEED KILLER INGREDIENT FOUND IN CHEERIOS, QUAKER OATS AND OTHER BREAKFAST CEREALS,” an all-caps headline in Newsweek. Now the media is focusing on alcoholic beverages, although the New York Daily News did kind of have a cute headline declaring “Glyphosate: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore.”

Don’t be surprised if you see more ominous headlines about glyphosate turning up in more foods. It’s the world’s most widely used weed killer—the most widely used pesticide of any kind, in fact—and it’s been around for over four decades. 

So it’s bound to appear in trace amounts in virtually any grain product. It’s even been found in “organic foods,” either because of contamination from sprayed fields or because organic farmers are secretly using it. It’s so widely used because it works so well and so cost-effectively. Without it, that bowl of Cheerios you ate this morning or the Bud you’ll drink tonight might be might be prohibitively expensive.

But does that mean you’re being poisoned?  Fear not.

First, at risk of stating the obvious, unless you’re a pod person from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, you’re probably not a weed. In fact, toxicity is often quite specific to certain species. For example, saccharin was once given a warning label because it was considered a rodent carcinogen and therefore possibly a human one. The FDA dropped the label requirement when researchers discovered it wasn’t even a “rodent carcinogen” generally, but only harmful to certain rodents.  Rizzo the Rat better avoid it, but Mickey Mouse could harmlessly gorge himself on artificially-sweetened cheese.

Second, even regarding we homo sapiens, as the centuries-old expression goes, “the dose makes the poison.” With an extremely sensitive test, your drinking water will probably be found to contain trace elements of cyanide and arsenic because they’re ubiquitous. But don’t spit out your Perrier. Those tiny amounts are easily contained by your body’s natural defenses, like shooting bullets at Godzilla.

The glyphosate fear-mongers don’t claim the chemical is a direct poison, rather that it causes cancer. But as it happens, this chemical has been studied. And studied. And studied. And here’s what the major health and environmental agencies say:

·       The EPA, in a late 2017-draft report, concluded: “glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans” when “used according to the pesticide label” and that its scientific findings are “consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by a number of other countries as well as the 2017 National Institute of Health Agricultural Health Survey.”

·       The European Food Safety Authority found it it “unlikely that [glyphosate] posed a carcinogenic hazard to humans.” As with the EPA, the terminology is guarded and conservative as well it should be. After all, it’s often impossible to prove a negative.

·       Granted, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the World Health Organization's (WHO) cancer research arm, in 2015 classified glyphosate as "probably carcinogenic to humans." It added, though, “evidence was limited.” But IARC tends to be overly cautious. In fact, a later WHO report rejected IARC’s conclusion. In May 2016, a joint study from that organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization concluded thatglyphosate exposure through diet was unlikely to pose a cancer risk.

Regarding brewskies specifically, the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment has stated that glyphosate residues in beer are essentially a given, but “in order to absorb a harmful quantity of glyphosate, an adult would have to drink about 1,000 liters of beer a day”—264 gallons. That is a lot of trips to the bathroom.

Hysterias usually have a traceable origin. This one began last August when a court awarded $289 million to a former glyphosate sprayer who claimed the chemical was responsible for his contracting terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). That’s a cancer of white blood cells. (On appeal it was reduced to $78 million, and is currently being appealed to overturn the entire decision.) But experts are actually kept off juries. These “12 good men and true” only knew he sprayed a lot of the stuff and later got sick. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc. Fact is, NHL has always been extremely common in the U.S;  about 1 in 47 Americans will contract it, of whom very few will have been professional herbicide applicators.

Now to conclude on an ironic note. Alcohol, like many natural chemicals, is a “known human carcinogen” according to the EPA. Yes, beer and wine. At high levels they can also cause cirrhosis, kidney disease, and other nasties. As for those sweetened cereals, overconsumption of sugar may be a serious direct contributor to heart disease, as well as clearly the obesity epidemic and all the harm that causes.

But just listen to your grandmother: Everything in moderation. And while grandma probably didn’t say it, also ignore activist groups with their alchemy of turning fear into gold. 

Michael Fumento is an attorney, author, and journalist who has been writing on ethanol for over 30 years – and having absolutely no evident impact! He has no financial interest in any energy or agricultural field. (No pun intended.)

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