Glyphosate, the weedkiller found in Roundup, is the most used herbicide in the world. As well as negative impacts on the ecosystems it’s sprayed into, there is growing concern about its impact on human health. The chances are you’re consuming it on a daily basis. So what should we do? Let’s get into some low-tech lifestyle medicine.
The use of glyphosate is widespread in modern agriculture. It works by interfering with a metabolic pathway used by plants and bacteria. So as well as being very effective at killing plants, it also kills microorganisms in the soil, leading to soil depletion. The soil microbiome is the complex ecosystem of microorganisms living in the ground. It is the foundation of the food chain for every animal on the planet.
Killing beneficial microorganisms can transform living soil into dead dirt, meaning that once crops are planted, they will be reliant on the addition of chemical fertilisers in order to grow properly. Even if yield is maintained, the nutrient density of the food produced will be significantly lower. With decades of glyphosate use, soils may be so depleted that they become incapable of supporting plant life, potentially leading to crop failure and the possibility of future famines.
At the same time, glyphosate is driving the development of super-weeds. It’s a similar picture to the emergence of antibiotic resistant superbugs, caused by excessive use of antibiotics. Repeated use of glyphosate is causing the emergence of glyphosate resistant weeds, which in turn encourages even more pesticide use.
Another factor in high glyphosate use worldwide are crops that have been genetically modified to be resistant to its effects. These so called ‘Roundup Ready’ crops can be doused in glyphosate, killing all competing plants and weeds. Soy, corn and cotton are common examples of genetically modified roundup ready crops.
Glyphosate is also used for pre-harvest crop desiccation. This involves applying glyphosate to the fully grown crop, in order to kill it so that it dries out ready for more efficient harvesting and processing. Crop desiccation using glyphosate is commonly used on grain, including oats and wheat.
All these factors ultimately mean that when you eat food, you are consuming pesticide residues, including from glyphosate. Since glyphosate acts on bacteria, when ingested, the gut microbiome, that all important community of bugs living in your gut, can be negatively impacted. This is just one of the many possible ways that glyphosate and other pesticides may be impacting human health. There are concerns that glyphosate and other pesticides are contributing to increasing rates of developmental disorders, obesity, wheat and grain intolerances, psychiatric conditions, endocrine disrupting effects such as infertility and thyroid problems, neurological and neurodegenerative conditions, and cancers.
But not to worry, because pesticide residues in food are loosely monitored by government agencies to make sure the amount consumers are ingesting is within the permitted maximum residue level. But how have these maximum residue levels been determined? Of course long term studies over decades attempting to establish the consequences of repeated exposure to pesticides, including glyphosate, have not been done.
Unless there are obvious short term toxic effects, regulatory bodies seem to run on an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ basis when it comes to the impact of chemicals, including pesticides, on humans and the environment. But if the effects are gradual and result from cumulative exposure over years, the impact on human health will be harder to definitively establish. And this is especially true when clouded by all the other factors contributing to increasing rates of chronic disease, which includes exposure to pollutants, industrial chemicals and endocrine disruptors that most people are subjected to on a daily basis.
Common sense should alert us to the idea that spraying ever more pesticides into our ecosystems will not be without consequence, and that we may pay an even bigger price in the future than we are now. Carrying on with business as usual has the possibility to cause major problems to future generations for both human health and food security. So what can we do about this?
Buying organic food wherever possible will reduce your exposure to multiple common pesticides including glyphosate. This is particularly important when it comes to grains such as oats and wheat, in products such as bread, pasta and cereals, since the use of glyphosate for pre-harvest desiccation can lead to high residue levels in these foods. Buying organic will avoid this.
Ideally we should be buying organic produce from local farmers or a food box scheme, where access to information from the supplier about farming techniques is more direct. We should aim to support those actively engaged in regenerative farming, which seeks to use farming methods that promote and enhance soil health and fertility, rather than negatively impacting it. Even better of course is to grow what you can yourself.
Ultimately, we all vote with our wallet. If we keep voting for pesticide and chemical fertiliser dependent low quality crops, that’s what we’ll get. And as levels of these pesticides build up in the environment, the effects on soil and human health are only going to intensify as time goes on. Invest in micronutrient dense organic food from local suppliers or food box schemes, and we can steer the market in a better direction for the future. And of course, do not buy glyphosate or any other pesticide from your local garden centre to spray on your own garden.
I hope you found this information helpful. Remember no matter what your starting point, changing your lifestyle can make huge impacts on your health and on how you feel today.
Dr Philip Bosanquet
The Low-Tech Lifestyle Medic