A new Brazilian study shows that even “safe” levels of glyphosate damage the health of freshwater ecosystems.
A new study published by a group of Brazilian researchers in the journal Phycologia shows that Monsanto’s most popular herbicide, RoundUp, negatively affects life in freshwater ecosystems. More specifically, legal levels of RoundUp, as well as those of its main ingredient glyphosphate, can alter and kill macroalgae (i.e. freshwater seaweed) by inhibiting photosynthesis.
The legal limits referenced in the study are those of Brazil, which are 0.28 mg l−1. Compare that to the US legal limit of 0.7 mg l−1. Macroalgae are extremely important in freshwater ecosystems as they function as primary producers, meaning they help form the bottom of the food chain on which other organisms depend. They also recycle nutrients and increase plankton populations, which are a main food source for many fish and other marine animals. Die-offs of macroalgae, regardless of the cause, reduce diversity and the populations of other animals in the ecosystem, which can put the entire ecosystem at risk of collapse if the die-off is sufficiently severe. The species of macroalgae used in the study, Nitella microcarpa, is found throughout the world, meaning that the implications of this study are global.
Even though this study focuses on the chemical’s legal limits, glyphosate, the main ingredient in RoundUp herbicide, is frequently found in the natural environment well above the legally allowed levels, meaning that the damage to the environment is much greater than this study implies. In another study published in Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 41% of 140 groundwater samples in Spain were found to have levels of glyphosate above the legal limit. The study also showed that glyphosate does not break down rapidly in the environment, meaning it persists in ecosystems for long periods of time, causing an accumulation effect. Another study published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found glyphosate in 60-100% of all air and rain samples tested due to its overuse.
It’s not just the environment that’s in danger due to glyphosate’s abundant use. Studies have found that a majority of people have high concentrations of glyphosate present in their bodies. One study conducted in Germany found that all the people it tested had 5 to 20 times the legal limit of glyphosate present in their urine. This has enormous implications as glyphosate has been linked to cancer. Even the World Health Organization has raised red flags about the carcinogenic properties of glyphosate. However, Monsanto and its supporters maintain that glyphosate is proven to be safe, despite evidence to the contrary. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace and GMO enthusiast, claimed that the herbicide was so safe that “you can drink a whole quart of it and it won’t hurt you.” However, when he was offered a glass of it himself, he refused to even touch it because he was “not an idiot.”
Despite its connections to such negative health effects, glyphosate continues to be one of the most commonly used herbicides in the world. In fact, a study in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe called glyphosate the “most widely applied pesticide worldwide.” Since 1974, the US has used more than 3.5 billion pounds (1.6 billion kilograms) of the herbicide, which accounts for 19% of the 18.9 billion pounds (8.6 billion kilograms) that have been used globally. In Brazil, where the study was conducted, herbicides with glyphosate are the most widely used, with nearly 188,000 tons purchased in 2013 and consumption increasing annually.
However, due to the exposure of the dangers of its use, purchases of RoundUp have fallen by 34% in the past year. Concerns over Monsanto’s reputation, which is now infamous around the world, may have been a factor in Bayer’s recent merger with Monsanto. Bayer recently expressed its plans to rebrand Monsanto products in order to “get beyond the image and reputation thing” by using the “trust” that Bayer enjoys in Europe and other countries. Regardless of whether the Monsanto brand name disappears, the natural environment and people’s health will continue to be put in harm’s way due to widespread glyphosate use. The only way to move forward is to eliminate the need for the use of glyphosate as well as other agrochemicals by increasing the demand for and the availability of organic, chemical-free agriculture.
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