Within the past few weeks, the media has been abuzz with the news headlines similar to, “Don’t feed your kids Cheerios! They’ll be poisoned with glyphosate.” While it definitely grabs a reader’s attention, what are these headlines really saying? Can something the majority of Americans eat since the age of one year really be hurting you? What is glyphosate and why is it necessary? Of course, as controversial as it appears to be, when there’s a debate science isn’t too far behind giving us the facts.
First, what is glyphosate? Glyphosate is a widely-known herbicide that effectively controls any other types of vegetation that is competing for the same space as a farmer’s crop and is also sold under name brands like Kleenup, Roundup, Rodeo, and Vision (Levesque & Rahe, 1992). This particular herbicide is also known to have low toxicity to mammals (Franz et al., 1997), but has the potential to expose mammals and humans through the ecosystem (Richards et al., 2005).
Herbicides are a large part of the agriculture life. Farmers need to control weeds so that they have an increase in marketable crops. More importantly, if weeds were left uncontrolled, this situation would reduce the world food productions by as much as 40% (Oerke, 2006)! That is nothing to laugh at considering most of the world is left starving as it is (world hunger affects 815 million people according to the World Food Programme in 2017).
What is the big deal about this herbicide then? It has long been a conversation, and confusion, as to whether or not this herbicide is linked to cancer. What created the recent stir was a report from an environmental advocacy group published on August 15 of this year stating that glyphosate was found in trace amounts on cereals like Cheerios. Additionally, a California jury decided that Monsanto will pay a former groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal non-Hodgkin lymphoma $289 million in damages for failing to warn him of the herbicide’s cancer risk. However, this decision wasn’t based on only science.
There are organizations who have evaluated glyphosate’s cancer risk. In 2015 the European Food Safety Authority stated that it was not likely to pose a cancer threat. Similarly, in May 2016 a joint report between World Health Organization and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization stated exposure through a diet was unlikely to pose a cancer risk. The state of California states exposure below 1.1 milligrams per day does not pose a risk. This means you would need to eat 12 servings of cereal with the glyphosate exposure PER DAY to have a risk at all.
So do scary news headlines work to sell articles and papers? Yes, this is why these statements jump out at you. Should you be worried of getting cancer from your morning bowl of Cheerios? According to the science, no, not unless your version of a bowl of cereal is five gallon bucket full of it.
Franz, J. E., Mao, M. K., & Sikorski, J. A. (1997). Glyphosate: a unique global herbicide. American Chemical Society. Washington, D. C.: American Chemical Society.
Levesque, C. A. & Rahe, J. E. (1992). Herbicide interactions with fungal root pathogens, with special reference to glyphosate. Annual Review of Phytopathology, 579-602.\
Oerke, E. C. (2006). Crop losses to pests. The Journal of Agricultural Science, 144(1), 31-43.
Richard, S. Moslemi, S. Sipahutar, H., Benachour, N., & Seralini. G. (2005). Differential effects of glyphosate and Roundup on human placental cells and aromatase. Environmental Health Perspective, 113(6), 716-720.
Wardle, T. (2017) Primary barriers to regulating potentially carcinogenic pesticides in the United States: A case study of glyphosate. Urban and Environmental Policy