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(Beyond Pesticides, April 29, 2021) Glyphosate-based herbicides (GBHs) are incompatible with sustainable agriculture goals, according to a recent scientific literature analysis by scientists atÂ Tufts University, Massachusetts. Glyphosate is the most commonly used pesticide active ingredient worldwide, appearing in many herbicide formulas, including Bayerâs (formerly Monsanto) RoundupTM. The use of this chemical has been increasing since the inception of crops genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate. However, studies demonstrate glyphosate is the main contributor to human, biotic, and ecosystemÂ harmsÂ as toxicities from herbicides are nowÂ doubleÂ what it was in 2004.Â
The National Academy of Sciences identifies four goals of sustainable agricultureâproductivity, economics, environment, and social well-being for future generations. However, pesticides likeÂ glyphosateÂ are ubiquitous in the environment, putting the health, economy, and food/resources for future generations at risk. Therefore, research like this is vital for understanding how chemical use can undermine sustainable agriculture goals to protect humans, animals, and environmental health. Researchers note, â[W]hether or not GBHs are viewed as essential or unessential to contemporary agriculture, and notwithstanding their role in non-tillage agriculture, this study shows that glyphosate-based herbicides do not reach the bar of agricultural sustainability, with respect to humans and the environment, making the system they are part of unsustainable.â
Researchers thoroughly examined ~3,000 scholarly sources to analyze whether GBHs meet sustainable agriculture goal standards. Scientists noted any impacts GBHs applications have on human health, non-tillage agriculture, soil quality, aquatic ecosystems, and beneficial/non-target species. Researchers used various viewpoints on agricultural sustainability as a guide for sustainability standards:
âPromoting agroecology [ecological processes in agriculture systems].
Protecting the resource base of natural systems for future generations, including and especially the soil.
Enhancing the quality of life and health of farmers, farmworkers, and society as a whole.â
This paper finds that GBHs do not contribute positively to sustainability, violating enough criteria to make conventional agricultural systems using GBHs unsustainable. Studies regarding âglyphosate toxicologyâ have been increasing since 2005. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), glyphosate is a âpossible human carcinogen,â therefore, GBH use decreases the quality and health of farmworkers and society. Although studies demonstrate the starkest example of GBH toxicity among animals, indicating a risk to humans, manyÂ in vitroÂ studies provide evidence that GBHs are toxic to human cells. Further, the review finds ingredients in RoundupTM are just as toxic as glyphosate itself, causing DNA damage at low concentrations. Thus, various formulas of GBHs can have devastating effects on human health.Â
This paper demonstrates that the combined use of GBHs and glyphosate-tolerant, genetically modified/genetically engineered (GM/GE) crops contributes to an increase in glyphosate-resistance weeds. The presence of these weeds increases soil tilling to rid of the invasive plants, making GBHs unsustainable. Furthermore, glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA are commonly detectable in agricultural soils. These compounds can disrupt microbial communities responsible for standard soil function, increasing pathogen spread while decreasing plant growth and productivity. Beneficial/non-target organisms suffer the consequences of GBH exposure, too. Aquatic organisms like fish, crustaceans, and amphibians experience oxidative stress, birth deformities, and behavioral changes. GBHs disturb the cognitive abilities and gut health of bee pollinators and completely decimate milkweed habitats Monarch butterflies solely rely on for reproduction, thus impacting populations.Â
The first introduction to sustainable agriculture was from the United Nationsâ 1987 reportÂ Our Common FutureÂ (the Brundtland Report). The report outlines protecting Earthâs natural resources for future generations, equal income allocation from food production, and supporting small-scale farming. The report emphasizes the challenges of sustainable agriculture, highlighting, â[it] is to raise not just average productivity and incomes [from resources], but also the productivity and incomes of those poor in resources… Land use in agriculture and forestry must [use] scientific assessment of land capacity, and the annual depletion of topsoil, fish stock, or forest resources must not exceed the rate of regeneration.â However, aÂ United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reportÂ establishes that pesticide use does not adhere to sustainable agriculture goals. It fails to minimize the adverse effects of chemicals and waste as increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizersâdriven by rising demand for food, fiber, fuel, and feedstock cropsâputs public and environmental health at risk.Â Â
Clean air, water, and healthy soils are integral to ecosystem function, interacting between Earthâs four main spheres (i.e., hydrosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, and atmosphere) to support life. However, toxic pesticide residues readily contaminate these spheres, frequently existing inÂ soils, water (solidÂ andÂ liquid), and the surroundingÂ airÂ at levelsÂ exceedingÂ U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set standards. Scientific literature demonstrates pesticidesâ long history of adverse effects on the environment, includingÂ wildlife,Â biodiversity, andÂ human healthÂ effects. Pesticides can present acute and long-term health impacts worldwide, especially to farmers,Â 44 percentÂ of whom experience pesticide poisoning every year. Moreover, aÂ 2020 studyÂ finds ~385 million cases of non-fatal unintentional pesticide poisonings and 11,000 deaths annually. Pesticide exposure can produce a plethora of adverse health effects, including cancers and neurological, immunological, and reproductive effects, among other health impacts. Most notably, pesticides are immensely harmful to pollinators. Over the lastÂ decade and a half, increasing scientific evidence shows a clear connection between the role of pesticides in the decline of honey bees and wild pollinators (i.e., wild bees, butterflies, beetles, birds, bats, etc.) alike. The agricultural industry relies on insect pollinators to aid in plant pollination and sustain annual crop yield. Globally, the production of crops dependent on pollinators is worth betweenÂ $253 and $577 billionÂ yearly. Hence, pesticide use fails to support sustainability goals, decreasing agricultural and economic productivity and social (human/animal) and environmental well-being.
Almost five decades of extensive glyphosate use has put animals, human, and environmental health at risk, thus fails to meet sustainability goals this paper addresses. The chemicalâs ubiquity threatensÂ 93 percentÂ of all U.S. endangered species, with specific alterations onÂ microbial gut compositionÂ andÂ trophic cascades. Although the direct impact pesticides have on pollinators is concerning, the indirect impacts pesticides have on pollinator habitats are equally troublesome. Glyphosate use on mono-crop agriculture and genetically engineered crops can drift onto and destroy adjacent habitats. Habitat destructionÂ resultsÂ in loss of species biodiversity and stable ecosystem processes that are integral to sustainability. The review indicates extensive glyphosate has impacts on soil quality and function, as well as weed resistance. Researchers note the use of tilling to reduce glyphosate-resistance weed persistence in fields. However, over-tilling can result in soil erosion, which aÂ 2020 studyÂ finds is an issue among glyphosate use. Continuous pesticide use leaves the dirt bare and more susceptible to decay from lack of organic material, altering the storage compartments of soil sediments from pesticide sinks to sources. Thus, chemical use stimulates soil erosion, responsible for the soil-based emergence of toxic legacy chemicals. Even farmers employing regenerative agriculture practices like cover crops and no-till to reduce runoff into water end up using overÂ 50 percentÂ more pounds of GBHs to rid cover crops between 2009 and 2016.
Similar to this paper, past studies find a strong association between glyphosate exposure andÂ the development of numerous health anomalies,Â includingÂ cancer,Â Parkinson’s disease, andÂ autism. Although EPA classifies glyphosate herbicides as “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,”Â stark evidenceÂ demonstrates links to various cancers. Thus, EPA’s classification perpetuates environmental injustice among farmers, especially in marginalized communities. According to theÂ Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting,Â a lawsuitâfiled by the National Black Farmers Association against Bayer/Monsantoâargues that Black farmers are, essentially,Â forcedÂ to use Roundup (glyphosate). Therefore, these farmers incur the risks of developing non-Hodgkin Lymphoma or other cancers (or health impacts) because of pesticide demands and the industry’s “grip” on U.S. agriculture. The lawsuit maintains that the chemical company knowingly failed, and continues to fail, to warn farmers adequately about the dangers of the pesticide.
Not only do health officials warn that continuous use of glyphosate will perpetuate adverse health effects, but that use also highlights recent concerns overÂ antibiotic resistance. Bayer/Monsanto patents glyphosate as an antibiotic since exposure hinders enzymatic pathways in many bacteria and parasites, serving as an antimicrobial. However, glyphosate kills bacterial species beneficial to humans and incorporated in probiotics yet allowsÂ harmful bacteriaÂ to persist, leading to resistance. Similarly, glyphosate-exposed soils contain a greater abundance of genes associated with antibiotic resistance, as well as a higher number of inter-species transferable genetic material. Therefore, the use of antibiotics like glyphosate allows residues of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria on agricultural lands to move through the environment, contaminate waterways, and ultimately reach consumers in food. Antibiotic resistance can trigger longer-lasting infections, higher medical expenses, the need for more expensive or hazardous medications, and the inability to treat life-threatening illnesses. Resistance to pesticides is also growing at similar rates among GE and non-GE conventionally grown crops. This increase in resistance is evident amongÂ herbicide-tolerantÂ GE crops, including seeds genetically engineered to beÂ glyphosate-tolerant. Although one purpose of GE crops is to reduce pesticide use, an increase in resistance can result in additional pesticide use to compensate.Â
Although this study reviews GBHs and sustainability, the authors suggest that all herbicide-based agriculture, regardless of herbicide, is inconsistent with sustainability goals. If one competent of an agricultural system is unsustainable, then the entire system is unsustainable. Therefore, agricultural systems must commit toÂ regenerative organic agricultureÂ and land managementÂ to meet future sustainability goals and alleviate the effect these chemicals have on humans and wildlife. Organic agriculture is necessary to eliminate toxic chemical use and ensureÂ the long-term sustainabilityÂ of food production, the environment, and the economy. Organically managed systemsÂ support biodiversity,Â improve soil health,Â sequester carbonÂ (which helps mitigate the climate crisis), andÂ safeguard surface- and groundwater quality. There are claims that organic agriculture cannot sustain global crop production. However, scientific studies argueÂ organic yields are comparable to conventionalÂ and require significantly lower inputs. Additionally,Â glyphosateÂ levels in the human body reduce byÂ 70%Â through a one-week switch to an organic diet. Therefore,Â purchasing organic food whenever possibleâwhich never allows glyphosate useâcan help curb exposure and resulting adverse health effects. Learn more about how consumingÂ organic productsÂ can reduce pesticide exposure and the harmfulÂ health and environmental impactsÂ of chemical-intensive farming produces.
For more information about organic food production, visit Beyond Pesticides’Â Keep Organic StrongÂ webpage.
To learn more about how organic the right choice for both consumers and farmers, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage onÂ Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture.Â
Help Beyond Pesticides educate and build the movement that will bring long-needed protection to humans, animals, and the entire environment by attending the National Pesticide Forum this spring.Â Cultivating Healthy CommunitiesÂ will bring together expert scientists, farmers, policymakers, and activists to discuss strategies to eliminate harms from toxic chemical use in favor of non-toxic organic solutions. It begins with a pre-conference session on Monday, May 24, and continues every Tuesday beginning May 25, June 1, June 8, and ending June 15, 2021.Â Registration is open today and available through the webpage on this link.Â It starts with US.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.
Source: GMWatch, Tufts University
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