On March 20, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reclassified glyphosate as a chemical that probably causes cancer. The IARC is a branch of the World Health Organization that focuses on cancer, and it combines the knowledge and expertise of epidemiologists, laboratory scientists, and biostatisticians. The IARC has been engaged in cancer research for more than five decades, and its vast experience in cancer research has led the agency to conclude that "most cancers are, directly or indirectly, linked to environmental factors and thus are preventable."
The IARC had previously designated glyphosate as possibly carcinogenic. Monsanto, a leading producer of glyphosate under the trade name Roundup, immediately issued a press release challenging the new IARC designation and contending that Roundup is safe. But Monsanto has a tremendous amount at stake. Half of the corporation's revenues come from sales of Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds, which can tolerate the herbicide. Monsanto advocates that farmers spray their fields heavily and repeatedly with Roundup in order to kill unwanted weeds, and Monsanto's corporate strategy is based on the assumption that Roundup is safe. If Roundup is found to be toxic, the entire house of cards comes tumbling down, and with it, Monsanto and biotech agriculture. The banning of glyphosate could mean bankruptcy for Monsanto.
But the scientific case for banning glyphosate is convincing. Research shows that in addition to concerns about cancer, there is strong evidence that Roundup causes birth defects in vertebrates, including in humans. The research also reveals that glyphosate may be the cause of or trigger for a number of chronic illnesses that are now plaguing people around the globe.
Originally patented by the Stauffer Chemical Company in 1964, glyphosate is a powerful chelating agent — meaning that it avidly binds to metals. It's this chelating property that led to glyphosate's first use as a descaling agent to clean mineral deposits from pipes in boilers and other hot water systems. The ability to bind to metals also allows glyphosate-metal complexes to persist in soil for decades. The chelating property also underlies the hypothesis that glyphosate-metal complexes are the cause of a fatal chronic kidney disease epidemic that has been ravaging Central America, Sri Lanka, and parts of India.
In the 1970s, John Franz, a Monsanto scientist, discovered glyphosate's usefulness as an herbicide. Monsanto patented glyphosate and has marketed the chemical as "Roundup" since 1974. Glyphosate is now the world's most widely used herbicide.
But contrary to Monsanto's claims that Roundup is safe, a virtual avalanche of scientific studies, including some funded by Monsanto itself, show alarming incidences of fetal deaths and birth defects in animals exposed to glyphosate. Birth defects include missing kidneys and lungs, enlarged hearts, extra ribs, and missing and abnormally formed bones of the limbs, ribs, sternum, spine, and skull.
These startling revelations can be found in the 2011 report "Roundup and Birth Defects: Is the Public Being Kept in the Dark?" It was written by eight experts from the fields of molecular genetics, agro-ecology, toxico-pathology, scientific ethics, ecological agriculture, plant genetics, public health, and cell biology. The report, written primarily for a European readership, is highly critical of the biotech industry and of the European Union's failure to evaluate glyphosate based on science rather than on political concerns. It calls for an immediate withdrawal of Roundup and glyphosate from the European Union until a thorough scientific evaluation can be completed on the herbicide.
"The public has been kept in the dark by industry and regulators about the ability of glyphosate and Roundup to cause malformations," the report states. "In addition, the work of independent scientists who have drawn attention to the herbicide's teratogenic effects has been ignored, denigrated or dismissed. These actions on the part of industry and regulators have endangered public health."
A teratogen is any agent that can disturb the development of an embryo or a fetus. The term stems from the Greek teras, meaning monster.
In late 2012, when Danish pig farmer Ibn Bjorn Pedersen began feeding his pigs genetically modified soy that was contaminated with glyphosate, the rate of birth defects soared. In early 2013, piglets were born without an ear, with only one large eye, with a large hole in the skull, and with a monstrously large "elephant tongue." A female piglet was born with testes, and still others had malformed limbs, spines, skulls, and gastrointestinal tracts. The deformed piglets all tested positive for glyphosate in their tissues.
These birth defects in test animals and in farmer Pedersen's pigs were similar to those reported by humans living in Argentina, where glyphosate is sprayed heavily from airplanes as part of the production of genetically modified soy. In the Córdoba region of Argentina, the Gatica family resides in the barrio of Ituzaingó, only 50 meters away from fields of GMO soy. Airplanes would regularly fly overhead, spraying glyphosate on the crops. In the mid-1990s, Sofia Gatica's oldest son became extremely ill. "When he was four years old, he came down with the illness that left him temporarily paralyzed," she recalled, according to a 2013 report published by the German news organization Deutsche Welle. "He was admitted to the hospital. They told me that they didn't know what was wrong with him."
In 1999, Gatica gave birth to a baby girl. The infant died of kidney failure on her third day of life. This tragedy prompted the grieving mother to take action. Gatica went door-to-door, collecting information on the health of her community. Her survey uncovered an unusually high rate of birth defects and cancer. "Children were being born with deformities, little babies were being born with six fingers, without a jawbone, missing a skull bone, with kidney deformities, without an anus — and a lot of mothers and fathers were developing cancer," she said, according to the Deutsche Welle report.