The story of glyphosate and glyphosate-based-herbicides is emblematic of the perspective we hold towards chemical safety and the tactics employed by the chemical industry to maintain that perspective. Here was a chemical that was initially used industrially and recognized as toxic but through the magic of marketing and intense lobbying, became ‘safe’ for human consumption. What is particularly interesting about the glyphosate story is that each of the mechanisms by which the chemical produced its desired results in industry were compartmentalized by the manufacturers as being somehow distinct from how the chemical would behave in humans or animals. It was a brilliant sleight of hand, one we all bought hook, line, and sinker because we wanted to believe it. Glyphosate based herbicides, at least initially, and if we did not think too much about the chemistry, worked. The herbicides made life easier, or so we thought. If we look at the history of this chemical and the mechanisms by which it acts, however, we should have known better.
From Industrial Descaling Agent to Herbicide and Antibiotic
Glyphosate was first patented in 1961 as an industrial descaling agent. It was used to remove minerals like calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese from piping. Glyphosate chelates or grabs and binds these minerals so that they can be flushed out. It does the same thing in plants and in humans that consume glyphosate-doused products, maybe not as quickly as when used as a descaling agent because the dosage is markedly different, but over time the small and continuous exposure to a chelating agent, will chelate minerals and create deficiencies. Why should we think otherwise; well, because we were told that it would not harm us and we wanted to believe that the inherent properties of these chemicals would somehow change relative to the organism into or onto which the chemical was used. They do not.
Ten years later, glyphosate along with undisclosed and untested chemical adjuvants (helper chemicals that maximize absorption, enhance metabolism and other critical functions) was patented as a weedkiller and brought to market as Roundup in 1974 by Monsanto. Glyphosate-based herbicides kill plants via disruption of an enzyme (enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase –EPSPS) in what is called the shikimate pathway. In plants and microbial organisms like bacteria, fungi, algae and some protozoa, the shikimate pathway synthesizes folates and amino acids (phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan). Of note, folates (vitamin B9) are important for red blood cell development and oxygenation, iron homeostasis, and DNA synthesis and repair, and methylation among other functions and amino acids are critical for protein synthesis, a requisite for health and survival. The amino acids that glyphosate blocks comprise about 30% of plant dry mass and contribute largely to the dietary needs of the larger animals and humans. This is one of the many reasons conventionally grown produce contains fewer nutrients and higher sugar content than their organic counterparts.
The EPSPS enzyme is present in all plants, fungi and bacteria. Since this pathway only occurs in plants and lower organisms like bacteria, it was argued that ingested glyphosate would have no effect on the health of animals or humans. This has proven not to be true for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that these bacteria are commensal with humans. That is, bacteria with this pathway are naturally present on human skin, in the lungs, the gut and the reproductive tract. In that regard, glyphosate is a potent antibiotic and antifungal. The company filed patents for its antibiotic properties in 2002, while simultaneously and vociferously denying glyphosate’s antimicrobial tendencies, using of course, the standard trope that the formulation only affects plants. It most certainly does not. The human gut, in particular, is comprised of incredibly complex and tightly balanced ecosystem of billions of microorganisms that perform all sorts of critical functions from nutrient absorption and synthesis to immune regulation. Alterations in gut bacteria are proving to be key contributors to disease; a fact that was purportedly missed by the manufacturers.
So, we have a chemical formulation that kills plants and microbes; one that is toxic to all plant life, not just weeds, but all plant life. This necessitated the development of genetically modified (GM) crops to withstand the poison. GM crops contain either two copies of the EPSPS enzyme or a strain of the enzyme resistant to the chemicals. That is the genetic modification used in conventional agriculture. It is not the simple crossbreeding of yesteryear to produce bigger, prettier, or tastier produce. The modifications are to withstand a poison. It should be noted that although the plants are modified to withstand the poison, they cannot to metabolize it. That means that glyphosate residues remain in and on the plant that is destined to become food or, and in the cotton that is used in all sorts of applications from clothing to medical and feminine hygiene products. Yes, glyphosate has been found in 85% of tampons tested. Might this be a problem in women’s health? Likely, but again, it is not something that is considered by conventional medicine. Glyphosate remains in the soil indefinitely and leaches into the surface and ground water changing the nutrient and microbial composition ever so slightly as to be considered insignificant, unless of course, one understands the ramifications of small changes, compounded over time. Finally, and as mentioned previously, while glyphosate alone carries certain toxicities, glyphosate with its adjuvants becomes exponentially more dangerous, a 1000 times more potent according to some studies. Researchers in France have demonstrated this repeatedly (see work by Giles Seralini Lab ). The adjuvants, however, are presumed inert, and thus, never tested pre-release and not recognized for their toxicity post-release.
Looking at the history of this product, we see where the manufacturer actively collides with contrary regulatory indices and research findings. Work on genetically modified (GM) strains of crops began in the eighties and reached culmination in the nineties. In 1985, however, glyphosate was recognized as a class C carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Monsanto, fought against this classification and in 1991, just as the first GM products were to reach market, successfully bid the EPA to change its classification from Class C “Suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential” to Class E which suggests “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans”. Nearly thirty years later, and hundreds of studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC), a semi-autonomous branch of the World Health Organization, declared glyphosate as a probable carcinogen in 2015 with ‘strong evidence of genotoxicity, and just as it did in decades earlier, the manufacturers fought the classification and are largely succeeding. In 2018, however, a US court, said wait a minute; glyphosate based herbicides are indeed carcinogenic and found in favor of the plaintiff who developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Subsequently, additional cases have been brought against the manufacturers and any many more will likely follow. Whether and how this will ultimately affect the chemical industry remains to be seen.
We know that according to industry, glyphosate based herbicides are completely safe and effective and pose no cause for concern. None. They argue that the glyphosate based herbicides, much like every other chemical toxicant mass marketed, would not be allowed on the market unless they were safe. Failing to mention, of course, that through a series of regulatory loopholes, many components of these products are never tested, including the adjuvants, or that the regulatory agencies rely on data provided by industry; data that is edited heavily to present the compound in its most favorable light. Emblematic of the industry’s cavalier attitude towards chemical safety:
‘‘Monsanto should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food,” he said. ”Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.’s job.” – Phil Angell, Monsanto’s Corporate Communications Director, 1999
Speak to the farmers, however, and a different story emerges. Animals fed GM foods develop all sorts of health issues from birth defects in offspring, to tumors in the animals themselves. Perhaps even more damning, at least economically, is that farmers who originally embraced glyphosate based herbicides now face invasive super-weeds for which there are no easy solutions.
Glyphosate Mechanisms of Ill-health
Here are just a few of the findings regarding the impact of glyphosate based herbicides on health. We know that glyphosate based herbicides:
- Destroy gut bacteria. Research shows that glyphosate destroys gut bacteria. It is an antibacterial by design, after all (blocking the EPSPS enzyme in all microorganisms). The disruption of gut bacteria significantly influences the synthesis and absorption of nutrients and is linked to a wide variety of disease processes from autoimmune to neurological and everything in between.
- Chelate minerals. Because glyphosate also binds to the minerals that do absorb, it acts as a chelator, effectively inactivating remaining minerals. The chelated metals (iron, zinc, magnesium, manganese, cobalt) contribute to mineral deficiencies but also vitamin deficiencies inasmuch as minerals are required for the enzyme activity that regulates vitamin synthesis.
- Damage mitochondria. Roundup® with glyphosate damages complex I and III of the electron transport cycles, reducing ATP production by some 40%. Early evidence of this was demonstrated over 30 years ago.
- Block liver detoxification pathways. The glyphosate-based herbicides block the Cytochrome P 450 (CYP450) enzymes in the liver responsible for detoxifying substances we ingest and impair metabolic transport mechanisms that underlie critical biochemical pathways in our bodies, thus magnifying the effects both food born toxicants and other ingested toxicants like pharmaceuticals. The net results include the array disease processes associated with the modern diet, everything from gastrointestinal disorders to depression and neurological conditions.
- Initiate antibiotic resistance. Glyphosate based herbicides, are essentially antibiotics. When applied regularly, as they have been for decades, the bacterial community adapts by inducing what are called epigenetic changes; changes that increase their likelihood of survival. The regular consumption of these products, changes the bacterial landscape of the gut, skewing toward the hardier bacteria, which are typically of the pathogenomic strains like coli.
- Induce fibrinous tumors in animals. This one should be particularly interesting for women who suffer from fibroids. Glyphosate induced alterations in the vitamin A pathway are linked with fibrinous tumor growth in rodents. Alterations in vitamin A metabolism can be mechanistically linked to the development of fibroid tumors. Similarly, a diet of GM (glyphosate tolerant) soy and maize has been shown to increase the size of the uterus in female pigs by 25%. Remember, glyphosate is sprayed on the cotton used for tampons and other feminine hygiene products providing a direct route of exposure for millions women every month, year in and year out.
- Accumulate in humans, animals, ground soil and waterways. Glyphosate is present in significantly higher concentrations of individuals who eat genetically modified foods compared to those who eat predominantly organic foods and also in in chronically ill versus healthy individuals.
Many of the damages invoked by glyphosate based herbicides are linked to its structure as a synthetic glycine analog. Glycine is an essential amino required for protein synthesis and repair. It is also an excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. When glyphosate displaces glycine at random points in the protein synthesis and repair processes or by constituitively activating excitatory receptors in the brain, the consequences are vast and complicated. Research suggests that glyphosate’s role as a glycine analog underpins the explosion of chronic disease over the last few decades.
“Glyphosate substitution for conserved glycines can easily explain a link with diabetes, obesity, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary edema, adrenal insufficiency, hypothyroidism, Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, prion diseases, lupus, mitochondrial disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, neural tube defects, infertility, hypertension, glaucoma, osteoporosis, fatty liver disease and kidney failure.”
The notion that substituting an important amino acid with a synthetic analog would be safe, particularly over time, is laughable, but that is exactly what the industry argues and what we, as a population, chose to believe. We believed not just because we did not understand the chemistry, but because we wanted to believe. We wanted to believe in the supremacy of our man-made inventions and in the compartmentalization of effects. We never bothered to question whether there might be ill-effects from this or any of the thousands of other chemicals currently in use. We never asked whether the chemistry is indeed compartmentalized. We did not ask because to do so would require a fundamental change in the economic fabric of modern living; to ask would mean that we would have to act. If we are truthful with ourselves, with glyphosate, as with so many other modern chemicals that we now know are dangerous, we chose to ignore what we did not want to know. We chose convenience and the purported economic gain this convenience would bring us.
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