As Italy Limits Monsanto’s #1 Herbicide, the U.S. Relaxes Restrictions

Last Update: June 9, 2020

The hits on Monsanto’s top-selling herbicide just. keep. coming.

At the heart of the conversation is the weed killer Roundup, whose main ingredient is glyphosate—a chemical developed in the 1950s and patented by Monsanto before being marketed for the first time in 1974. Back then, Roundup’s enormous success stemmed from the belief that glyphosate was less toxic to humans and animals than other like products on the market.

Today, many physicians, environmental scientists, and government entities are not so sure. In fact, this week, Italy became the most recent country to severely limit where and how much the herbicide can be sprayed within its borders. Italy’s Ministry of Health cited a declaration from the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer that deems glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen,” or cancer-causing agent, and subsequently banned the chemical’s application near schools, parks, residences for the elderly, and many other public areas.

In addition to the finding that glyphosate is probably cancer-causing, other research has linked the chemical to cell destruction in humans, including birth defects in regions where it’s used, as well as  a culprit in the genetic modification of our food supply.

Prior to Italy’s action, France also began banning the use of glyphosate in April, also due to possible health risks. Previously, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Brazil, and India had all banned Roundup.

“Besides the active substance, the co-formulants found in glyphosate preparations—tallow amine in particular—raise concerns,” France’s food, environment, and health agency wrote in a letter in February.

While there have been a few studies that have failed to link glyphosate with negative health conditions like cancer, other research claims that the studies affirming the chemical’s problematic nature just haven’t gone far enough. A paper written by 14 environmental scientists earlier this year claimed that the use of glyphosate has skyrocketed beyond what anyone could have predicted while the chemical has not been adequately tested with a large enough sample size to merit its safe usage on our food. What’s more, the paper concludes that “regulatory estimates of tolerable daily intakes for glyphosate in the United States and European Union are based on outdated science.”

Still, the issue remains tragically politicized in many places. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States quietly raised the level of glyphosate residue allowable in our food supply—a clear win for Monsanto. And even as Italy and France take regulatory action against glyphosate, the European Union in total extended Monsanto’s license to distribute the weed killer in its member states for another 18 months. Without that extension, the company would have had to phase out use of the product within six months.

But even skeptics of pronouncements critical of glyphosate say research into the chemical’s effects on crops, farmers, humans, and animals should continue, while farmers should limit their use of the product in fields.

As The New Yorker’s Michael Specter wrote in 2015, “relying too heavily on glyphosate, as many farmers do, causes tremendous damage to the crops they are trying to grow, as well as to their immediate environment.”

Good on Italy for recognizing the balance of research and taking action—hopefully other nations will soon follow suit.

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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