Glyphosate is a herbicide that inhibits the growth of plants first introduced in 1974. It is the main active ingredient of the popular weed killer, Roundup, owned by the company Monsanto. According to research done by the Department of Agriculture, in 2014, 240 million pounds of glyphosate were sprayed in the U.S. mostly in farms and homes. Labels on Roundup products have safety precautions warning users to avoid digestion, and eye and skin contact. However, the label fails to mention a troubling concern from the scientific community which has resulted in long drawn-out lawsuit.
Recently, California scientists concluded glyphosate as a cancer risk. In 2015, after reviewing several human cancer studies, International Agency for Research on Cancer, a branch of the World Health Organization designated glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic”. Based off this verdict, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment wants to add glyphosate onto its long list of chemicals known to cause cancer. There is also concern about how much glyphosate we’re ingesting. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that American adults could be ingesting more than 5 milligrams of glyphosate every day. However, data on how much glyphosate resides in food is limited due to federal agencies not being mandated to test levels in food and water. The chemical has also been found in the urine of adults and children through biomonitoring studies.
Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency allows for 2 milligrams per kilogram of body weight in adults, which is 127 times greater than what California proposes.
Monsanto is currently trying to appeal this action. Adding glyphosate onto the list would negatively affect Monsanto as they would then be required to place a cancer warning label on all its Roundup products. In 2015, Monsanto made $4.76 billion in sales from herbicides, mostly from Roundup. The bulk of their revenue stems from seed sales and licensing genetic traits.
Monsanto is no stranger to attempting to obscure the nature of its products. Per the New York Times, revelatory documents recently came to light during the ongoing Monsanto trial. The documents revealed that Monsanto could have been aware of the alleged cancerous effects of glyphosate and attempted to influence scientific research and media coverage on the subject. This included Monsanto helping draft an article published in Forbes that countered the WHO's "probably carcinogenic" findings. Forbes has cut contact with the writer as of the discovery of his connection with Monsanto.
This is reminiscent to the time when smoking was a cultural norm and no second thoughts were given to the health risks associated with cigarettes. It wasn’t until the 1950s when research emerged linking tobacco to causing cancer. Tobacco companies responded by placing doubt on the scientific community and reassuring the public of the safety of their products. They did this by hiring industry scientists, publishing their own research, and running advertisements with doctor endorsements. Nonetheless, the Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 required all cigarette products sold in the U.S. to have the warning, “CAUTION: CIGARETTE SMOKING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH”. As years have passed, different legislative actions have required companies to become more detailed in their warning labels, such as detailing cancer and pregnancy risks associated with smoking cigarettes. Nowadays, tobacco products aren’t illegal; people can still choose to use them but with the carcinogenic risk in mind.
The same cultural awareness that occurred with tobacco products could happen with herbicide products if they were also required to include a carcinogenic warning label. Although Monsanto might receive an economic blow from this action, it is a necessary one. Monsanto could focus on making revenue elsewhere such as with seed sales. This would effectively knock down one of the biggest distributors of glyphosate and give Americans a chance to begin a healthier approach to their lawn care. Oftentimes, we become so accustomed to using mainstream products that we forget to question its safety. We are reassured by the thought that if the product did cause harm, surely it would be off the market. However, the general public should be aware by now that isn't always true. People should start questioning what they’re applying to their lawns, not only protecting their health but also teaching a younger generation to be more cautious.