If a Weed Killer Might Cause Cancer, Should It Be Banned?

Activists want the EPA to revoke the license for the herbicide glyphosate, while others are calling for additional research and a more systemic solution.
March Against Monsanto in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, in Washington, D.C., on May 24, 2014. (Photo: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr)
May 3, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

For a brief period on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency said that the herbicide glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s wildly popular weed killer Roundup, does not cause cancer. The report, which was pulled from the government website regulations.gov later in the day, is the latest wrinkle in an ongoing debate over the herbicide that was declared “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Contrary to that widely publicized declaration, the EPA study said glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

The agency said it pulled the report “because our assessment is not final,” according to a statement. Each of the 86 pages was marked “final” at the top, according to Reuters.

The hemming and hawing over glyphosate and its effect on human health is a decades-old story at the EPA, which declared the herbicide a carcinogen in the 1980s only to later walk back that claim. More recently, it has eased its tolerance levels for glyphosate residue on foods—levels the Food and Drug Administration is tasked with testing for but has only done in one year (2011) since glyphosate was first made available in the 1970s. But now, with pressure from food and environmental groups as well as consumers concerned with the residues of a possible carcinogen found in foods ranging from oats to beer to organic eggs, glyphosate has entered the popular discourse on food, safety, and public health.

On Wednesday, that conversation will be on display in front of the White House, where backers of a petition to have glyphosate’s EPA permit revoked—resulting in a ban on its sale—will hold a protest and deliver nearly 90,000 signatures to the EPA. “Glyphosate should not be in our consumer products in any amount,” the petition reads. “It is not safe as previously claimed.”

The groups behind the petition aren’t very concerned that the EPA would appear to be moving toward affirming glyphosate’s safety, if the pulled report is anything to judge by. “The bottom line is still that thousands of people signed a petition saying that they want this product off of the market. They don’t want it to be poisoning their communities, their waterways, their airways—that remains,” said Miranda Decker, a member activism coordinator with Care2, which worked on the petition with a coalition of groups that include Moms Across America, Friends of the Earth, Beyond Pesticides, and the Organic Consumers Association. “We still know that the World Health Organization has declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen,” she said.

Glyphosate, which has skyrocketed in use since the mid-1990s, when Monsanto’s first herbicide-resistant seeds were introduced, has become a sort of extension of activists’ fight against GMOs. But unlike genetically engineered corn, soy, and other crops, which have never been linked to public health risks, here we have one of the most respected public health groups in the world saying the chemical those crops are treated with could cause cancer.

When it comes to other issues related to genetically engineered foods—conversations around consolidation of the seed business, copyright issues, and the increased use of pesticides that the broad adoption of GMO crops has engendered—“those things seem sort of out there and are not personally connected,” said Paul Towers, organizing and media director at Pesticide Action Network North America. “But if they drive up glyphosate use, and I am going to be ingesting more, and my children are going to be ingesting more” of a probable carcinogen, that becomes more relatable—and scary.

But Towers said that “it’s just the chemical of today,” and the focus on banning or limiting glyphosate use misses the larger issue. “Yes, there are concerns around the health harms,” he said, “but I think the bigger problem—and potential solution—lies with the USDA supporting a better agricultural system that doesn’t rely on these chemicals.” If farmers were to wake up tomorrow and not be able to use glyphosate, they would either turn to an older herbicide with well-documented health risks, such as 2,4-D—one of the key components in Agent Orange—or new chemicals would be developed, with unknown consequences for human health and the environment.

Glyphosate, and the growing conversation around its outsize role in modern farming, is still of interest and concern to Towers, but “not solely because of the specter of a cancer risk,” he said. “Because it’s a warning light of a broken system.”

“I think our biggest concern remains the kind of system that agriculture gets stuck in—the pesticide treadmill of overuse, misuse, developing or encouraging invasive pests or invasive weeds that we then need to bring in the next chemical in order to deal with,” Towers added. It’s a process that’s already happening with glyphosate, which weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to, requiring farmers to either apply more of the chemical or switch to stronger herbicides.

Although the EPA study was quickly pulled down, it was available long enough for Monsanto to jump on it and use its findings to lend further support to its claims that glyphosate is safe and does not cause cancer. The company told Reuters that the report counted as “official classification” of glyphosate as a noncarcinogen. However, a number of food and environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, have pointed out that the EPA’s review was largely of industry-funded research on glyphosate.

That’s partly why the scientific community is not calling for a ban but more research. In a “statement of concern” published in the journal Environmental Health, a coalition of scientists called for “new investments in epidemiological studies, biomonitoring, and toxicology studies” to determine the health effects of both the increased use of glyphosate and consumers’ increased exposure to the chemical.

Emily Marquez, a staff scientist at PAN, also said that the WHO designation should result in additional investigation.

“Researchers have also raised additional concerns between glyphosate and liver and kidney problems, birth defects, and hormone disruption,” she wrote in an email to TakePart. “These warrant additional scrutiny and potentially action by EPA.”

But it’s a ban, not more research, that protesters will call for on Wednesday.

“We’re not going to just lie back and say that Monsanto can just keep steamrolling the people’s concern, or having corporate studies outweigh studies coming out from all over the world saying that this is probably dangerous to human beings,” Care2’s Decker said. “We are not willing to let the EPA continue to appease them.”