It’s been a bad couple of weeks for Roundup. First, American jurors ordered the weedkiller’s manufacturer, Monsanto, to pay R4229 million to a terminally-ill former school groundsman who contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2014, which he said was caused by repeated exposure to Roundup and a similar Monsanto product, Ranger Pro.
Then reports came out that glyphosate, an active ingredient in Roundup, was found in dozens of popular children’s breakfast cereals and snack bars.
The report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) - an influential American public health organisation - found glyphosate in all but two of the 45 oat-based foods it sampled. Leading brands, which are also available in South Africa, were fingered, including Kellogg’s and Cheerios.
Compiled by Dr Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist commissioned by the EWG, the report detected “hefty levels” of glyphosate in both conventional and organic cereal - 31 samples were above their own health benchmark of 150 parts per billion, which it said had an adequate margin of safety.
Glyphosate, a herbicide linked to cancer by California state scientists and the World Health Organisation (WHO), was found in all but two of 45 samples of products made with conventionally grown oats.
EWG noted in April that internal emails obtained by the non-profit organisation US Right to Know revealed that the Food and Drug Administration had been testing food for glyphosate for two years and had found “a fair amount”, but the FDA had not released its findings.
“Each year, more than 250 million pounds of glyphosate are sprayed on American crops, primarily on ‘Roundup-ready’ corn and soybeans genetically engineered to withstand the herbicide. But when it comes to the food we eat, the highest glyphosate levels are not found in products made with GMO corn,” it said.
Glyphosate is also sprayed just before harvest on wheat, barley, oats and beans that are not genetically engineered, to kill the crop and speed up the drying process so it can be harvested sooner.
Dr Olga Naidenko, the EWG’s senior science advisor for children’s health, says glyphosate contamination is inescapable. “In fact, as we know from tests conducted by University of San Francisco scientists, glyphosate is detected in the urine of 93% of people tested. This means that people routinely ingest glyphosate with diet. Yes, it is flushed out every day and every day a new dose of glyphosate comes in with the food many people eat.”
Roundup has been on the market for decades: the California jury found that Monsanto has known all along about the product’s toxicity and not only failed to warn consumers, but actively schemed to publicly discredit the evidence. It’s reported to be the first of thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a WHO agency, reviewed extensive US, Canadian and Swedish epidemiological studies on glyphosate’s effects on human and animal health. It’s classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.
California’s also listed glyphosate as a chemical known to cause cancer.
Monsanto vice-president Scott Partridge has said his company would “vigorously defend” its product.
Monsanto, which was founded in 1901, recently merged with German-based Bayer. Monsanto developed the artificial sweetener saccharin and has produced agrochemicals since the 1940s. Ie produced “Agent Orange”, which was used by US forces in Vietnam, and DDT, the toxic insecticide. Roundup was launched in 1976.
Should South African consumers be worried? Well, yes, and no.
Food safety expert Linda Jackson, a director at Food Focus SA, says government regulations are strict about what may be sprayed on crops. The Department of Agriculture and Forestry regulates what may be sprayed; the Health Department regulates maximum residual levels allowable in food.
“Regulation 246 allows a permissible limit on certain crops and certain pesticides only. These are micrograms per kilogram: minute amounts in food. In theory, there is a stringent programme, but in practice, how it is being monitored is always uncertain.”
The Health Department failed to respond to questions about its monitoring programme by my deadline.
Bettina Genthe, a microbiologist in the Natural Resources and the Environment Research Area at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, says the recommendations are simply not followed, because glyphosate is being used on other crops, too and cross-contamination is rife.
“It’s indiscriminately sprayed because of the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that Monsanto has made. Roundup has been around for a long time, so people use it liberally, believing it must be safe.”
Genthe did her own calculations of the EWG study and found the numbers simply didn’t add up.
At a glance, she said, the calculations appeared incorrect. “They talk about ‘no significant risk level’ for glyphosate, of 1,1 milligrams per day for an average adult of about 70kg.
“They then make some calculations that don’t seem to be correct by a few orders of magnitude - or 100 times.
“I worked out the max ingested from the oats in the article and see it is a few hundred times lower than what is considered as safe. My first take is that the author did not consider that parts per billion ug/kg, and not mg/kg, which is what seems to have been used in the calculation.” She’s concerned about build-up in our systems and widespread exposure.
“We need to be concerned about responsible use. I’m far more concerned about the farmworkers who are constantly exposed through inhalation. We need to change our behaviour and think about what we are doing to the Earth.
We really went wild in my youth - we exposed ourselves and our children to things our parents weren’t exposed to. They’ve done studies on blood from the umbilical cord and found over 200 chemicals in it that shouldn’t be there.”
Genthe’s advice is not to panic, but be aware: “I don’t want to say don’t worry. Nowhere on this Earth is clean any more.
Glyphosate contamination is not as alarming as the article says, but there is still reason to change our behaviour.” Professor Chris Elliott, a Northern Ireland-based food security expert who led an independent review of the UK’s food system after the horse meat scandal, told me: “All chemicals have associated risks. I’m much more worried about human exposure to natural toxins than the man-made variety.
“Mycotoxins are responsible for multiple deaths and massive loss in quality of life, especially for children, each year. “If these were man-made chemicals, there would be uproar. As they are produced by nature and mainly affect Africa, they seem to get much less attention.”
Jackson says with any pesticide, consumers must read the label for use and safety instructions. “Your granny used to tell you to wash your apple before you ate it - there could be micro-organisms or pesticide residue.”
* Georgina Crouth is a consumer watchdog with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected], tweet her @georginacrouth and follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ConsumerAgonyAunt