Most of us think we have a pretty good idea of what is in the food we eat – especially if we check the labels, and buy plenty of fruit and vegetables rather than processed ready-meals. But how many of us are aware that in fact the chemical glyphosate may be finding its insidious way into every part of our food chain? Often referred to by the brand name Roundup, this herbicide is used in such large quantities that some scientists claim it’s in our rain, our air, our water – and of course, our diet.
Using glyphosate means that farmers and gardeners can destroy weeds without killing their crops and in 2007, glyphosate was the most commonly used commercial herbicide in America. By 2016 there had been a 100-fold rise in its use. But is it safe? A review in 2000 said that ” there is no potential for Roundup herbicide to pose a health risk to humans” and a 2002 review by the European Union came to the same conclusion. However, there is increasing evidence that the mass use of it is making us seriously ill. Some studies show that glyphosate has been connected to intestinal damage, allergies, autism, birth defects, neurological illnesses and liver collapse and in March 2015, the World Health Organisation classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
So how can we possibly know if glyphosate is in our food? It’s certainly can be pretty tricky to get hold of any of the official information on the tests that governments have done to see if glyphosate affects mammals, or indeed the worms, bees, and birds that are so vital to our ecosystem. In 2013 Friends of the Earth released the results of testing of 182 people from eighteen European countries. None of the volunteers had handled glyphosate products in the run up to the test but scarily the results showed that on average a massive 44 per cent of the samples showed traces of glyphosate. Of the ten samples taken from people in the UK, seven of them contained traces of weed-killer. In 2012 Freeze (an organisation against genetically modified crops) reviewed the UK Government data on glyphosate residues in food and found it in bread and other baked goods, beer and noodles.
Genetically modified crops (which often use glyphosate) enter Britain mainly as animal feed and must be labelled, but the rules for meat and dairy products produced from animals fed on GM feed are much less stringent. Four of our British supermarkets – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and Marks and Spencer – said in 2013 that they could no longer guarantee that the feed used in their poultry lines would not be genetically modified. So if you buy meat – it may well have been fed on something that you don’t want to eat. And the vegans and veggies among us may not be much safer as even the organic farmers cannot control what’s in the rain that falls on their fruit trees or olive bushes – or indeed what’s in the air that surrounds them.
The pesticide industry argues that growing enough food to feed the global population itself is just not feasible without using herbicides like glyphosate, but some feel that a more natural way – and a total ban on such chemicals – is the only truly safe option for us – and the generations to come.