For many, glyphosate conjures up images of vast industrial monocultures, genetically engineered crops, and huge global industries and corporations. But glyphosate in particular, as the world’s most widely used herbicide, has and continues to have many other applications, and its full impacts on human and environmental health are poorly understood.
No matter on which side of the “GMO debate” one falls, or how toxic or carcinogenic one believes glyphosate itself to be, or how long glyphosate residues actually stay on plants and within different types of soils, any fair assessment shows that there have been grave misuses and overuses of this “organophosphorus ” chemical compound (specifically a “phosphanoglycine”), with insufficient consideration for its potentially far-reaching consequences.
If one believes in the “green revolution,” and further supports a world full of vast genetically modified (GM) soy, corn, cotton, sugarbeet, alfalfa, canola, wheat and other cash-crop monocultures, then glyphosate was and is something of a miracle weed-killer. According to this viewpoint, these crops can feed (and in the case of cotton, cloth) the growing billions around the world, and glyphosate can help make sure no unwanted intruders get in the way.
Of course, for those that appreciate the diversity both of nature, including its trillions of invisible and mostly forgotten microorganisms, and diets that are based around numerous different whole foods, the above vision is particularly appalling.
The technology of genetically engineering foods (what has become known as genetically modified organisms, or “GMOs”) is poorly understood by the public, and distorted on both sides of the debate to generate fears, hopes, and/or sales. The basic science behind the technology of genetic engineering may in fact be an important tool in a world of advancing climate change and prolonged droughts, but it needs to be transparently studied and debated on a case-by-case basis. As with many technologies, it is the way in which GMOs have been developed and implemented that is the main problem, not the basic science.
Such is the case with the synthesis/discovery of glyphosate by Monsanto in 1970, which branded the chemical as “Roundup” for commercial use in 1974, and subsequently developed and continues to develop “Roundup Ready” crops that are resistant to glyphosate, through the technology of genetic engineering. Soy was the first Roundup Ready crop developed in 1996, and then corn in 1998, and although Monsanto no longer has exclusive patent rights to the glyphosate formula (it became publicly available in 2000), their patented GM seeds have helped generate a “virtuous cycle” where the seeds grow sales of Roundup, which generates more seed sales. These Roundup Ready crops were intended to thrive under a simplified industrial system, where short-term yield is valued above integrated and sustainable future planning. Glyphosate’s ability to kill a wide range of plants that were not engineered to be resistant to its powers, made it the ideal chemical to spray on these monocultures.
What goes on below the soil and in the ecosystems that border these industrial farms, and also what happens to humans over the long-term when eating these foods and potentially inhaling or consuming the glyphosate residues, is what makes this simplified industrial model so suspect for Roundup Ready crops (not to mention that a growing number of weeds are evolving a resistance to glyphosate). Also the numerous misuses of glyphosate outside of its “appropriate” setting on an industrial monoculture, has caused sweeping harms, and is something that the public and policy makers need to be much more aware of when regulating the sale and use of this chemical compound.
The indiscriminate aerial spraying of glyphosate in Colombia under the umbrella failure of “Plan Colombia” that was aimed at the eradication of coca plantations (coca being the base ingredient of cocaine), is a particularly egregious example of the misuse of glyphosate. Incredibly, despite the failures of Plan Colombia in curtailing cocaine production, and the poorly understood but widespread environmental and social impacts that were wrought by the aerial spraying of glyphosate, as of 2019 the Colombian government, supported by the United States, is re-initiating the “strategy” of aerial fumigation of glyphosate.