Late each winter, when fresh green grass begins to sprout on the East Bay hills, Livermore grape grower and winemaker Aaron Taylor notices something about the vineyards surrounding his own 12-acre plot. While new vegetation is sprouting beneath his vines, the earth remains brown and bare on the adjacent properties.
"This is prior to the new season's first application of herbicide," he explained. That tells Taylor that the weed killers' effects are neither temporary nor seasonal.
In fact, popular herbicides can linger in soil for months after application — or even years.
"They don't necessarily just go away like they tell you," said Taylor, who operates Retzlaff Vineyards. "So you have to wonder what the long-term effect is on our ecosystems and ultimately on us."A multitude of researchers are now studying the long-term health effects of pesticides, and what they're finding isn't good. Widely used agricultural poisons seem to be causing a plague of human health problems.
Taylor's small vineyard is certified organic, which means that he can't use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, such as Roundup, the infamous herbicide. Roundup's active ingredient is glyphosate, a controversial chemical that many experts believe causes cancer and other illnesses in humans. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency does not classify glyphosate as carcinogenic, but the World Health Organization does, as does the State of California.
Nonetheless, many U.S. farmers use glyphosate — perhaps most of them. And since Monsanto first brought it to market in the 1970s, they've been using more, and more, and more. In the United States, farmers use more than 250 million pounds of the poison each year. Globally, about 20 billion pounds have been applied in the past 45 years. Statewide, farmers and landscapers used 11 million pounds of glyphosate in 2017, according to the California's Department of Pesticide Regulation. The state's wine industry alone applied about 300,000 pounds of glyphosate-based herbicides. In Alameda County, farmers and landscapers used 30,000 pounds, of which wine grape growers used 1,634 pounds.
It would be a miracle if this didn't contaminate our food supply. In fact, research has shown that glyphosate essentially now lingers in virtually every nook and cranny of our environment, including our food, soil, tap water, and human urine.
A study released early this year found glyphosate in 19 of 20 beer and wine samples tested, including some made from organically farmed ingredients.
The California Wine Institute dedicates a page on its website to glyphosate — chiefly downplaying the results of the study, which came from U.S. PIRG. The institute argues that the trace amounts of glyphosate found in California wines are far less than the daily intake levels allowed by the EPA.
East Oakland resident and UCSF doctor Rupa Marya cited the same beer and wine study as evidence of an environment clogged with residual chemicals.
"You can't even buy organic wine that's truly organic," she said. "All the organic wines tested contained glyphosate. It's in our water table."
Round Up the Usual Suspects
Glyphosate is just one item in a long list of routinely used chemicals that research has connected to cancers, autism, birth defects, and developmental disorders. In the United States each year, farmers and public groundskeepers apply upward of one billion pounds of pesticides, including more than 1,000 registered chemicals and tens of thousands of formulated products. In California, farmers and landscapers applied more than a million pounds of reproductive toxins and 2.5 million pounds of carcinogens in 2017, according to the state's pesticide agency.
"It's a chemical onslaught," said Michelle Perro, a Fairfax pediatrician who has studied child chemical exposure for decades.
Perro believes chemicals used to help grow food are sickening millions of people, especially children, who increasingly are diagnosed with developmental and attention deficit disorders. The chemical war waged on weeds and pests also is having dire ecological effects, like crashing populations of wildlife, especially bugs and birds.
Conveniently for pesticide manufacturers, proving that certain chemicals are harmful is an inherently tricky task.
"Part of the problem with understanding pesticides is that we live in a toxic soup, and it's often hard to isolate the individual chemical that may be causing a problem," said Jay Feldman, director of the Washington D.C. watchdog group Beyond Pesticides. "Not only that, pesticide products are formulations of multiple chemicals."
Years may pass between alleged exposure to a chemical and the onset of disease or chronic condition. If exposure victims pursue legal action, identifying and holding accountable a human culprit, or even a corporation, is next to impossible.
But a lawsuit filed against Monsanto last year broke through this barrier when a San Francisco jury awarded a former school groundskeeper stricken with cancer almost $300 million in damages from Monsanto, the maker of Roundup. Monsanto — now owned by the chemical colossus Bayer — allegedly sold a product that company executives knew was dangerous. Monsanto officials "acted with malice and oppression," the jury found. Bayer now faces thousands of similar lawsuits.
In fact, the wheels of revolution may be turning. In 2015, the southern California city of Irvine passed an ordinance prioritizing the use of organic pesticides on public properties and specifically discouraging synthetic ones after a spike of child cancer cases caught the attention of activists. And in July of this year, Sonoma County passed regulations all but banning glyphosate use on public lands. Several dozen other cities and counties in California have passed similar regulations, as have local governments in at least 22 other states.