Is Roundup Harmless ?

Roundup - we use it everywhere! Whereever you might see a little piece of cooch-grass sprawling over that concrete path or snaking its way up the trunk of a tree, then you can count on the council spray guy to show that pesky weed who is boss! and of course we are all happy to live in a little paradise where cooch-grass knows its limits!

But what do we know about Roundup? Surely the safest herbicide ever invented? It can only harm plants of course!

Roundup was invented by large multinational chemical company Montsanto, but when the patent licence expired, Montsanto started investing in genetic research to develop round-up resistant crops, these can be sprayed with roundup without killing the crop. This is why the term 'roundup' and controversy surrounding its use is sometimes confused with the issue of GM safety.

Monsanto, and therefore political leaders, biochemistry lecturers and scientists globally say that the weed-killer Roundup (glyphosate) is harmless. The label says that once Roundup makes contact with the soil, it becomes inactive.

In 2012, Professor Gilles-Eric Séralini published a study on rats fed Roundup-ready maize for 2 years or exposed to Roundup for the same period, in the journal "Food and Chemical Toxicology"1. These rats developed higher levels of cancers and died earlier than controls. Immediately, Séralini was heavily criticised for designing his study poorly. Monsanto said that "This study does not meet minimum acceptable standards for this type of scientific research".

Here are the criticisms in a nutshell and Séralini's responses:2

1. The French researchers were accused of using the Sprague Dawley rat strain which is said to be prone to developing cancers. In response Séralini and his team say these are the same rats as used by Monsanto in the 90-day trials which it used to get authorisation for its maize. This strain of rat has been used in most animal feeding trials to evaluate the safety of GM foods, and their results have long been used by the biotech industry to secure approval to market GM products.

2. The sample size of rats was said to be too small. Séralini responded that six is the OECD recommended protocol for GM food safety toxicology studies and he had based his study on the toxicity part of OECD protocol no. 453. This states that for a cancer trial you need a minimum of 50 animals of each sex per test group but for a toxicity trial a minimum of 10 per sex suffices. Monsanto used 20 rats of each sex per group in its feeding trials but only analysed 10, the same number as Séralini.

3. No data was given about the rats' food intake. Seralini says the rats were allowed to eat as much food as they liked.

4. Séralini has not released the raw data from the trial. In response he says he won't release it until the data underpinning Monsanto's authorisation of NK603 in Europe is also made public.

5. His funding was provided by an anti-biotechnology organisation whose scientific board Séralini heads. But he counters that almost all GM research is funded by corporates or by pro-biotech institutions.

Apparently none of the scientists criticising Séralini saw the irony in condemning the very same study design used by Monsanto in the original study proving that Roundup was harmless.

The following claim was made by Sir Graham Watson in a question to the European Parliament3. If true this is very concerning:

"Germany, in its draft assessment report that formed the basis of glyphosate’s approval in 2002, minimised and dismissed findings of birth defects in lab animals in the industry’s own studies...
— repeatedly resorted to ‘historical control data’, which will have an artificially wide range of variability, to ‘disappear’ findings of malformations in exposed groups of animals when compared with concurrent controls;"

If the studies on both sides are badly done, there is no basis for an opinion on whether Roundup is harmless or otherwise. Clearly however it is NOT harmless, as drinking the stuff straight causes death. Blood and urine concentration is associated with clinical outcomes (the more Roundup present in your blood or urine, the harder it will be to keep you alive)4.

In a study on rat testicular cells (in vitro), at lower non toxic concentrations of Roundup and glyphosate (1 part per million or "ppm"), the main endocrine disruption resulted in a testosterone decrease by 35%5. According to this article6, the US is increasing limits on allowable glyphosate in food crops from 200 ppm to 6,000 ppm. That's 6000 times more than the 1ppm at which endocrine disruption is observed in rat testicular cells.

Until further research is done, the precautionary principle would suggest not to put 30 times more Roundup in your food. Organic is looking more attractive all the time.


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