Glyphosate: Its history and consequences of use

 What brought me to this path of study originally was a deep concern for the Earth and our food systems. The most prevalently used herbicide/pesticide, glyphosate, could be playing a critical role in our environments degradation and the debilitating of human health. I was initially introduced to this information with the documentary What’s With Wheat (5). A fascinating and wonderfully educational documentary. Additionally, Thierry Vrain provides an exceptional explanation of the history of glyphosate and its use (4). I will briefly summarize Vrain’s points and hopefully add a bit to the conversation. However, this is an incredibly vast topic and the health implications are extensive.  

Glyphosate, the active component in Round Up, was originally used in the 1960’s as a descaling agent to clean the pipes of industrial boilers. After the cleaning the chemical agent had to be removed and disposed of. Once discarded on the Earth it was noted that glyphosate did an excellent job killing the vegetation upon which it was dumped. Thus, in the 1970’s Monsanto re-patented glyphosate as a herbicide. Of important note, every GMO crop is Round Up Ready. In 2005 glyphosate was patented and designated as a desiccant, meaning to dry, because of its harvest aiding properties. Subsequent with this was the beginning of glyphosate’s use upon a crop one week prior to harvest. Finally, in 2010 a patent that was applied for in 2001 was granted designating glyphosate as a antibiotic (4).

Crops have been genetically modified to withstand the toxic effects of glyphosate. Thus, sparing the death associated with the chemical. Of note, there are numerous cases of oral ingestion in human leading to death (2). Examination of glyphosate residue has previously been shown to be at low levels in plants treated with glyphosate. Upon, this realization downstream metabolites of glyphosate have begun to be used as a marker. Namely, glyphosate’s major metabolite, Aminomethyl phosphonic acid (AMPA). Interestingly, a gene has been inserted in roundup ready plants to increase the breakdown of glyphosate into AMPA. In what I would imagine an attempt to mask the extent to which residual glyphosate is held in the plant matter (3).  

Bai and Ogbourne (1) state that glyphosate and AMPA are considered to be low risk to mammals as they are both excreted through feces and urine having a half-life of 3-15 hours. However, this doesn’t take into account chronic exposure. When chronic exposure is examined quickly it becomes obvious that there are toxic effects. In mice given glyphosate daily for 90 days liver and kidney damage was noted (1; 3; 4). Further damage is done upon the offspring of glyphosate consuming organisms with damage to reproductive organs, increased androgen production, heightened gonadal activity, and decreased fertility being observed (1; 3; 4).

The notion that glyphosate could alter our genetics and have genotoxic effects was previously rejected due to the evidence being related to the high doses that were used to obtain the results. However, with chronic exposure being examined more and more this is no longer the case. Thus, the hypothesis that glyphosate could be a carcinogen has been debated (1). However, when some of the effects of glyphosate exposure are thought of with a systems mindset it doesn’t seem a far stretch to include on the list of carcinogenic chemicals we are exposed to on a daily basis. With its stimulatory effects on DNA, the resulting hypermethylation could upset the balance between cell proliferation and apoptosis, and additionally silence tumor suppressor genes. While hypomethylatory effects can lead to the activation of oncogenes (3). Additionally, there is research indicating glyphosate as a causative agent in the proliferation of breast cancer cells (1; 4) 

Vrain (4) uses data to highlight the rising numbers of autism being seen with the corresponding increase in glyphosate use. Evidence for glyphosate’s deleterious effects on acetylcholinesterase has been found. Decreased acetylcholinesterase activity has been seen in mice exposed to low doses of glyphosate to impact the ability to clear choline byproducts from the synapse causing significant neurological disorders (3).

As you can expect from the patent as an antibiotic, glyphosate has extremely negative effects on bacteria. Unfortunately, the antibiotic effects of note from glyphosate seem to target families of beneficial bacteria while sparing  several pathogenic strains (3; 4). Glyphosate shows, at levels of 1ppm, to kill bacterial strains in the families of Bacillus, Enterococcus, Bifidobacteria, Lactobacillus, and Campylobacter. Frighteningly, pathogenic bacteria such as Salmonella, Clostridium spp., as well as C. Difficile (3; 4). To add to the increasing concern from the rampant use of glyphosate (it is the most widely used herbicide there is), once bacteria start to become resistant, they also become resistant to other antibiotics and antimicrobial agents.

Historically, plants have relied on their own protective measures (the secretion of chemical compounds to deter predators). The response to threats in the environment that plants have are conveyed to us when we eat them. This can prime our immune system to pathogens in the environment and aid our resiliency. Staying as close to nature and the Earth as possible is always the best idea.

References:

(1) Bai, S. H., & Ogbourne, S. M. (2016). Glyphosate: environmental contamination, toxicity and potential risks to human health via food contamination. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 23(19), 18988–19001. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-016-7425-3

(2) Gress, S., Lemoine, S., Séralini, G. E., & Puddu, P. E. (2015). Glyphosate-Based Herbicides Potently Affect Cardiovascular System in Mammals: Review of the Literature. Cardiovascular Toxicology, 15(2), 117–126. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12012-014-9282-y

(3) Van Bruggen, A. H. C., He, M. M., Shin, K., Mai, V., Jeong, K. C., Finckh, M. R., & Morris, J. G. (2018). Environmental and health effects of the herbicide glyphosate. Science of the Total Environment, 616–617, 255–268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2017.10.309

(4) Vrain, T. (n.d.). Engineered food and your health: the nutritional status of GMOs - YouTube. Retrieved November 6, 2018, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?embed=no&amp=&v=yiU3Ndi6itk

(5) What’s With Wheat - What’s With Wheat. (n.d.). Retrieved November 7, 2018 from https://whatswithwheat.com/