Thursday, April 09, 2015

Weed killer linked to chronic illness

Toxic chemicals used in farming may contaminate our
food, water and air, experts say.
The bestselling herbicide in Canada and the world, glyphosate was once promoted as safe enough to drink. But some critics are raising renewed alarm.

One of them is Thierry Vrain, a plant pathologist and former head of biotechnology with Agriculture Canada, who says there is no safe intake level for this toxic chemical, which appears to be linked to a rising tide of chronic illnesses.

Indeed, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer has just declared glyphosate a "probable carcinogen."

Farmers have used glyphosate to weed Ontario fields since 1978. But the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops in 1997 - most of them designed to be glyphosate-tolerant - was a game changer. Farmers could now raze weeds with a single blanket spray of glyphosate without killing their crops.

Though industry promised GM crops would drive down pesticide application, glyphosate use has risen dramatically, by some 76 per cent between 2003 and 2008 in Ontario.

Farmers are increasingly using the herbicide as a desiccant (dryer) on both GM and conventional plants, making harvesting easier or moving up a harvest threatened by bad weather.

It's increasingly difficult to avoid the most popular herbicide on earth. A recent study of U.S. honey found 59 per cent of samples contained glyphosate.

Though a safe glyphosate level in honey hasn't been determined, recent research suggests the current level of glyphosate exposure in general may constitute a health threat to the population.

You might think organic crops would be free of this chemical, but glyphosate has recently been discovered in samples of air and water, so all food may now be tainted.

Glyphosate was first thought to pose little threat because neither human nor animal cells have shikimate pathways, a metabolic route used by plants and bacteria.

Glyphosate does its deadly work by binding to the metal atoms of enzymes in the plant's pathways, preventing them from producing critical amino acids. Without those, the plant dies.

New discoveries about the human microbiome - including the 100 trillion bacteria in the human gut - are starting to reveal the critical role microorganisms play in promoting human health.

Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University, says that just as it attacks plants, glyphosate can demobilize the bacteria on which humans and animals depend.

But Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science & Society at McGill University, says the theories need to be proven under proper laboratory conditions before they should be believed.

Antibiotic threat

Monsanto patented the chemical as an antibiotic in 2010, a tacit acknowledgement of its effectiveness in killing microbes, though the pesticide industry maintains it's applied to fields in concentrations too low to produce any serious antimicrobial effects in the animals, including us, consuming those crops. Schwarcz insists the antibiotic effect is "absolutely trivial."

But Huber argues that increasing miscarriages, birth defects and chronic botulism in cattle, sheep and pigs are signs of glyphosate's strong antibiotic activity against beneficial organisms.

Backing up Huber, Vrain points to research from 2013 showing that, at a concentration of just one part per million, glyphosate killed all the beneficial bacteria in the guts of poultry. Only salmonella and clostridium survived - pathogens blamed for farm animal illness.

In the meantime, a recently published study by Nancy Swanson virtually twinned increasing rates of glyphosate use with rising incidence of a host of chronic diseases. They include liver, kidney and bladder cancers; Crohn's and celiac disease; stroke, diabetes and autism, among others.

New GM seeds resistant to glyphosate, as well as 2,4-D, are expected to start rolling out across Canada this year. The new seeds will help farmers battle glyphosate-resistant weeds.

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While Vrain admits that biotechnology has been transformative for the just over 2 per cent of Canadians who farm, "One hundred per cent of people eat," he says.

Source: Now Toronto. This article has been edited for length.

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