The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO), have recently announced that glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide is “probably carcinogenic to humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals. Glyphosate also caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells” (Ref 1). According to Professor Dave Schubert, head of the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, “There are a number of independent, published manuscripts that clearly indicate that glyphosate … can promote cancer and tumour growth. It should be banned.” Other research from the United States Department of Agriculture shows strong correlation between glyphosate application increase and increases thyroid cancer (R=0.968), diabetes (R=0.971), autism (R=0.940) and Celiac disease.
Monsanto, in a desperate move essentially repudiating years of research by multiple scientists, has demanded that WHO retract the report. So why is this so important? The answer lies in one of the biggest corporate and scientific battles against public opinion, involving huge amounts of money, much of it from taxpayers, an all too common human mistake based on Enlightenment philosophy, and the ever more damaging efforts to feed a human population far beyond its carrying capacity.
It all began in the early 1970s when John E. Franz (more on him later), a Monsanto chemist, led the discovery of glyphosate. This powerful broad spectrum herbicide (it could kill just about anything that was green or bacterial) attaches to an enzyme that is crucial in making three very important amino acids: tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine. By blocking the enzyme, these amino acids couldn’t be made. The impact of this is disastrous for the plant, as it can’t make proteins, which are essential for life. The good thing about glyphosate is that it didn’t affect animals, as animals rely on ingesting these three amino acids, and don’t have the magic enzyme with which to make them. Glyphosate works by absorption through leaves, and then moving rapidly to a plant’s roots, rhizomes, and meristems.
Glyphosate was marketed as Roundup, and is the most widely used weed killer in the world. However it was to become a lot more important following a separate discovery. Using genetic engineering, Monsanto were able to design and produce plants genetically immune to glyphosates in order to make it easier for farmers to thoroughly spray their fields, killing all the weeds without killing their own crops. They discovered a bacterium that was resistant to glyphosate, Agrobacterium strain CP4. In this organism, the glyphosate was unable to bind to the enzyme, and so the enzyme could keep producing the essential amino acids. Monsanto moved the DNA for this special version of the enzyme from the bacteria into the cell nuclei of a number of different crops. Now the farmers could spray the fields with Roundup, and while all other plants would die, the crop would survive. Simples. And worth a fortune.
These crops became known as Roundup Ready. Monsanto also engineered them so that the seeds from these plants were sterile, forcing farmers to buy new seed and roundup from them each year. It was a business dream, and cornered the market in terms of seed sales and herbicide sales. In 1994, Roundup was named one of the “Top 10 Products That Changed the Face of Agriculture” by the magazine Farm Chemicals in 1994.
Current Roundup Ready crops include soy, corn, sugar beet, oil seed rape, alfalfa, cotton and sorghum, with wheat under development. The global value of biotech seed alone was US$13.2 billion in 2011, with the end product of commercial grain from biotech maize, soybean grain and cotton valued at approximately US$160 billion or more per year. As of 2009, the overall Roundup line of products represented about 50% of Monsanto's business. They earn further revenue from licensing the patent to around 150 companies, including Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that glyphosate use in the U.S. increased from about 10 million kg in 1992 to 55 million kg in 2002 to more than 140 million kg in 2012.
Advocates say that they have increased agricultural production by more than US$98 billion and saved an estimated 473 million kilograms of pesticides from being sprayed. But critics question their environmental, social and economic impacts. Protests have been widespread. The introduction of genetic material from completely different species has drawn a comparison between GM crops and Frankenstein, with the label “Frankenfoods” becoming popular. Suspicions remain that this shuffling of the genetic pact may have consequences for the chemistry of the harvested food, generating toxic secondary metabolites in non-laboratory conditions. Given the huge heterogeneity of atmospheric, soil and climate conditions across the globe, it is surely impossible to test a plant in all of these combinations. Yet plants are masters of complex chemistry – they have to be as their feet are literally nailed to the ground, so they can’t run away. Furthermore, a field test showed that lettuce, carrots and barley planted one year after the soil was treated with Roundup contained glyphosate residues up to one year after. Thus glyphosate is a hanger on, and a nasty one at that.
More serious is the threat to agricultural productivity. Weeds have become resistant to Roundup in eighteen countries, allowing superweeds to develop, such as Palmer amaranth. As the GM crops are given extra work to do, by producing this alternative protein all the time, they use more energy than normal crops. This is OK, as long as they have a competitive advantage over the weeds. However as that advantage disappears, the GM crops will actually produce less food than the normal crops, since they need to burn more energy making a now useless enzyme. Resistance also means that farmers will have to spray three times more Roundup on crops to kill the superweeds. This will largely negate the advantages of reduced application, although it means even more sales for Monsanto.
Research on the ecological impact of Roundup Ready crops in the UK produced mixed results. In comparison with conventional cropping systems, weed and animal populations were negatively affected by herbicide tolerant sugar beet and rape seed, but biodiversity was increased with the use of herbicide tolerant maize. The focus was on the GM crops, not the Roundup, which was thought to be safe.
While the European Union acted mostly to prevent the introduction of GM crops into Europe, governments continued to spend billions on genetic engineering research. Funders such as BBSRC in the UK poured huge amounts of money into labs across the country, and if you were a GM researcher, the sky was the limit in terms of promotion and new lab facilities. Governments, scientists and companies pressed the EU to change its laws. This came to a head when the former Scientific Advisor to the Scottish Government, Professor Anne Glover, left her post as EU Science Advisor in 2014, blaming NGOs opposed to genetically modified organisms for acting against her. “They portrayed me as this person that was incredibly important and that if I said something the president of the commission would do it,” she explained. “They knew it wasn’t the case that I was this all-powerful unelected individual, but it suited their arguments and I didn’t think that was very honest. They didn’t like my position on GM, which is that the scientific consensus is that it’s safe.” Professor glover had argued opposition to GMOs was "a form of madness" (Ref. 2). She might need to rethink her views on this, unless she wants to include WHO on her list of insane institutions.
The carcinogenic threat of Roundup is a different kettle of fish and should lead to a halt to GM food production. This isn’t about Frankenstein. It is cold, hard science. I say “should” but we are dealing with extremely powerful companies with powerful lobbies in the halls of government. For many years the Minister of Science in the British Government, Lord Sainsbury, also personally funded the largest genetic engineering research institute in the UK, the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge University.
And what of the inventor, John E. Franz? He looks to be joining a rogues gallery of scientists who for the best of intentions unleashed a bad thing upon society. He is not the first. Fritz Haber and Karl Bosch invented the nitrogen fertilizer industrial production process, unleashing one of the horses of the modern apocalypse upon the planet. Eutrophication now accounts for a huge proportion of the damage done to our ecosystems. Haber also invented the insecticide, Zyklon B, which killed millions in the gas chamber of the Holocaust. Arthur Galston developed a chemical that could accelerate the growth of soybean, later known as Agent Orange. This chemical would claim 400 000 deaths and disabilities along with 500 000 birth deformities in Vietnam, when it was realized that at stronger concentrations it acted as a defoliant. Dr Gerhard Schroder invented an insecticide called sarin. Anton Köllisch developed an anti-bleeding agent now called Ecstasy, which claims 50 lives each year in the UK alone. Reginald Mungomery thought it would be a good idea to introduce cane toads to Australia, leading to a decimation of its wildlife. Frédéric Swarts pioneered the synthesis of CFCs in the 1890s.
But none of these, with the possible exception of John E. Franz, matches Thomas Midgley Jnr. John Robert McNeill, the Georgetown professor, has remarked that Midgley "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history." Bill Bryson wrote that Midgley possessed "an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny." For it was Midgley Jnr who gave us leaded petrol, using tetraethyllead, a powerful neurotoxin, and he also invented large scale productions of CFCs, leading to a widespread increase in skin cancers due to the destruction of the ozone layer.
Interestingly Franz and Midgley Jnr were both awarded the Perkins Medal of the Society of Chemical Industry. More ironically, Monsanto set up an award to honour Franz, called the Franz Sustainability Award, for the best environmental research. It’s almost funny, but yet it isn’t at all.
Glyphosate is central to the industrial agricultural landscape, used across the world and tied to the crops that governments and industry are pushing us all to grow. Yet it isn’t just weeds that Roundup is likely to kill. If you don’t like this opposition to GM crops, don’t blame Greenpeace and label them as mad, as our former Chief Scientific Advisor has done. Blame the World Health Organization.
The planet is not an extended phenotype, as Richard Dawkins would have it. We can’t fix things by adding genes or cane toads or CFCs. Technology in isolation is more likely to destroy us than heal us, as Professor Hawking has recently pointed out. The Enlightenment philosophy of progress and human perfection, in isolation from nature, is a failed model, ignorant of emergence and systems thinking. Bio-manipulation and biomimicry should be replaced with bio-participation, before we completely eradicate the framework within which we exist.
Ref. 1: http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/MonographVolume112.pdf
Ref. 2: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/feb/03/ec-anne-glover-gm-crops-greenpeace