Spraying pesticide on rice in Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam. (Image Credit: Flickr)

Spraying pesticide on rice in Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam. (Image Credit: Flickr)

If you had any doubts about the GM crops affecting your health (at least when it comes to the pesticides they bring to your plate), water, soil and air, now you can put some of those doubts to rest. Glyphosate, the pesticide with the highest production worldwide, also known commercially as Roundup, has been classified as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Discovered in 1970 and first commercialized by Monsanto in 1974, glyphosate is a systemic pesticide that targets all annual and perennial plants. Used extensively with GM crops, glyphosate is also used in home and urban applications, as well as forestry.

Aside from extensive agricultural applications, and that means almost three quarters of a pound to an acre of cultivated land in the U.S., glyphosate is applied pretty much everywhere that plants grow wildly when they should not: roadsides, campuses, cemeteries, golf courses, storage areas and public waterways. Or, around people’s homes, to prevent weeds from invading patios, driveways and rockeries.

A recent pesticide combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D called Enlist Duo has also been recently approved by the EPA, thus increasing the exposure rate with every application. 2,4-D, one of the four ingredients that constitute Agent Orange, has been at the center of attention for many good reasons. Some Canadian provinces have banned the pesticide, in part due to fears that weeds will become resistant to it just as they have to Roundup. 

The evidence of carcinogenicity for glyphosate is relatively limited in humans, yet the evidence is mounting. A recent study has shown that even low concentrations of glyphosate can cause an endocrine response and induce human breast cancer cell growth, which potentially puts the chemical into the endocrine disruptor category.

This study only reinforces the conclusions of an earlier one that linked glyphosate to endocrine disruption. The toxic effects were found at much lower concentration levels than the usual agricultural applications.

Glyphosate is one of the main contaminants of surface water, a 2012 study pointed out, and at high concentrations it has been hown to be toxic for mature rat testicular cells, capable of inducing necrosis. At lower concentrations it causes a testosterone reduction by 35 percent.

Glyphosate contains arsenic as well, approximately 1.9 mg per kilogram, which a study found in high concentrations in water and soil in the areas where synthetic fertilizers are used. Arsenic may be one of the main causes of chronic kidney disease, which has become an epidemic in certain areas where synthetic agricultural chemicals are used on crops.

An online survey which was met with skepticism by many, found that in Canada more than one million acres of farmland now have glyphosate-resistant weeds. The chemical was found in many Midwestern streams and, given its ubiquitous use, there will be more coming.

While the adverse health effects associated with glyphosate are still under study, the chemical has been banned from being sold to private individuals in Holland, and more countries seem to want to abide by the same rules.

The classification of glyphosate by IARC as a probable carcinogenic comes at a time when the Chemical Industry Bill is being discussed in the Senate, prompting an uproar from environmental groups at the permissive nature of the bill towards polluters.

The number of chemicals present in our immediate environment is increasing. Industrial and agricultural developments seem to allow for few ethical and environmental concerns to be addressed. Whether they are or not, nature will follow its course and the effects will become more visible as time progresses.

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