New Report Delivers a Blow to Monsanto and Its Most Widely Used Herbicide

Last Update: April 19, 2023

Ask 10 people on the street about Monsanto, and chances are seven or eight of them will respond with some variation of, “they make the toxic chemicals that we don’t want on our food” or “they genetically modify our food system.”

And it’s true. Monsanto has become enemy No. 1 for food safety activists and consumers for a reason: the St. Louis–based biotechnology company creates many of the herbicides and pesticides that are sprayed on much of the conventional produce we buy, engineers seeds in laboratories to be resistant to specific chemicals, and even owns patents on many of the non-engineered seeds planted by farmers.

But what if we told you the science used to regulate Monsanto’s flagship product—glyphosate, the main ingredient in the company’s best-selling Roundup herbicide—was horribly out-of-date, and that the chemical is not even being monitored by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

That’s precisely what a group of 14 environmental health researchers are saying in a new paper directed to “scientists, physicians, and regulatory officials around the world” and published in the journal “Environmental Health.” Glyphosate, they write, was first sold to farmers in 1974 and has seen its use skyrocket, but has not been thoroughly tested, and with a large enough sample size, to merit its safe usage on our food. Independent, up-to-date research studies would almost certainly find that glyphosate contaminates our food and the environment, and harms humans as a result.

The paper lists seven definitive conclusions with which most environmental scientists agree:

  1. Glyphosate-based herbicides (or GBHs) are the most heavily applied herbicide in the world and usage continues to rise.
  2. Worldwide, GBHs often contaminate drinking water sources, precipitation, and air, especially in agricultural regions.
  3. The half-life of glyphosate in water and soil is longer than previously recognized.
  4. Glyphosate and its metabolites are widely present in the global soybean supply.
  5. Human exposures to GBHs are rising.
  6. Glyphosate is now authoritatively classified as a probable human carcinogen.
  7. Regulatory estimates of tolerable daily intakes for glyphosate in the United States and European Union are based on outdated science.

“When these chemicals are approved for safety it’s based on assumptions of how they’ll be used,” including “at what time of year and at what quantities,” paper co-author Laura Vandenberg, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts, explained to “Truth-Out.” “Even if this was a completely benign chemical, it’s shocking to know how much its use has increased.”

In November, the Mexican Supreme Court sided with a group of Mayan beekeepers in the Yucatan Peninsula who sued Monsanto to stop the planting of GMO soy in the region, stating the harm various herbicides were having on workers and the environment. The organizations filing the injunctions—which included Greenpeace, Indignación, and Litiga OLE—stated that GMO soy puts honey production and more than 15,000 Maya farm families at risk, as “growing the plant requires the use of glyphosate, a herbicide classified as probably carcinogenic.” Earlier in 2015, the World Health Organization’s cancer-research arm had ruled that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic,” or cancer-causing.

That should be reason enough for the government to require that the chemical be studied afresh by independent scientists and its residues in water, food, and humans monitored more thoroughly, the authors of the “Environmental Health” paper conclude. The scientists also recommend that the CDC include glyphosate in its biomonitoring program to ensure that it is not toxic to humans.

“The big take away,” says Vandenberg, “is don’t throw your hands up in fear, but that something we’ve been told is safe hasn’t been tested in the way that we can draw that conclusion from.”

Photo credit: bottlerocketprincess via Flickr

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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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