Researchers reported Tuesday that they found “widespread” contamination of common grocery store items with the controversial weed killing chemical called glyphosate, known popularly by the brand name Roundup.
In a test of 86 food products sampled from groceries in Des Moines, Iowa, more than half – 45 – of the products were found to contain what the researchers called “alarming” levels of glyphosate. Whole wheat breads contained the highest levels, with chickpeas and Quaker Oats also showing high levels, according to the report.
The pesticide-laced foods were purchased from Walmart, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Target and Natural Grocers, and were tested in a study commissioned by a group called The Detox Project. The project was funded by the California-based Rose Foundation.
"More than half the foods tested, a total of 45 foods out of 86 products, contained alarming levels of glyphosate, ranging from 12 parts per billion (ppb) in 'sprouted wholegrain bread' from Whole Foods to as high 889 ppb in Walmart’s brand chickpeas, to 1,040 ppb in Whole Food’s 365 Brand Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread, to the highest level detected of 1,150 ppb in Hy-Vee’s 100% Whole Wheat Bread."
The report is the latest of many in recent years documenting glyphosate residues in an array of commonly consumed foods. Glyphosate has even been detected by government scientists in honey, as reported in 2016 and in 2019, and in oat cereals for babies. The government did not publicize its findings; that information was only revealed through Freedom of Information document demands.
Monsanto patented glyphosate as a novel weed killer in 1974 and later introduced crops genetically altered to withstand being sprayed directly with the chemical, a move that led to an explosion of glyphosate use on farms.
Glyphosate herbicides are commonly marketed to farmers not just as weed killers, but also as desiccants; farmers spray non-genetically modified crops such as wheat and oats shortly before harvest to dry them out, a practice that essentially ensures residues of the weed killer remain in bread, cereals and other foods made with desiccated crops.
Glyphosate-based herbicides such as Roundup ultimately became the most widely used weed killers in the world; so ubiquitous that glyphosate has been documented by government and independent scientists in food, water, and even in rainfall. The chemical has also been found in increasingly levels in human urine.
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined that a review of decades of published and peer-reviewed scientific research on glyphosate warranted classifying the chemical as a probable human carcinogen.
“Currently, we do not know the full effects on our health of glyphosate exposure at very low levels and we thus must follow the precautionary principle and ban the herbicide from being sold immediately. It is simply not yet possible to set a safe level for glyphosate exposure and anyone who attempts to do so is bending the science,” said Henry Rowlands, director of The Detox Project.
U.S. regulators and pesticide companies, including Monsanto owner Bayer AG, say that pesticide residues in food pose no threat to human health as long as they are below legal “tolerance” levels set by regulators. CropLife America, the pesticide industry lobbying group, points to data showing that the vast majority of foods tested by regulators show pesticide residues within the legal limits, and say that use of pesticides in farming “helps bring nutritious food to the table at a decreased price.”
What they are not so eager to acknowledge is that these legal levels are often expanded at the request of chemical companies who want to encourage farmers to use more of the chemicals.
Monsanto, for example, has successfully asked the EPA to expand the levels of glyphosate residues allowed in several foods. In 1993 the EPA had a tolerance for glyphosate in oats at 0.1 parts per million (ppm) but in 1996 Monsanto asked the EPA to raise the tolerance to 20 ppm and the EPA did as asked. In 2008, at Monsanto’s suggestion, the EPA again looked to raise the tolerance for glyphosate in oats, this time to 30 ppm.
At that time, it also said it would raise the tolerance for glyphosate in barley from 20 ppm to 30 ppm, raise the tolerance in field corn from 1 to 5 ppm and raise the tolerance of glyphosate residue in wheat from 5 ppm to 30 ppm, a 500 percent increase. In 2013 Monsanto again asked the EPA to raise tolerance levels for glyphosate on several foods and the EPA did so.
Even as regulators have allowed higher levels, they’ve assured consumers there is little to fear from consumption of pesticides residues. Increasingly, however, scientists and other critics warn that regulators are wrong.
Critics point out that several pesticides commonly used in food production have been linked to disease, declines in cognitive performance, developmental disorders, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children. Dietary intake represents the major source of pesticide exposure for infants and children, increasing the risk for children from consuming pesticide-contaminated foods.
In 2018, a team of Harvard scientists published a commentary calling for more research about potential links between disease and consumption of pesticide residues, because, they pointed out, more than 90 percent of the U.S. population has pesticide residues in their urine and blood, and the primary route of exposure is dietary.
Each year both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration test thousands of food samples for hundreds of different types of pesticides. Until recently, however, they’ve steadfastly avoided routinely testing food for glyphosate residues, meaning there is no long-term government data tracking what levels consumers are consuming. (See more about that problem here and here and here and here. )
Rowlands said there is ample research showing that glyphosate-based herbicides cause genotoxicity, alteration of the intestinal microbiome as well as reproductive and developmental effects in laboratory tests using rats, at glyphosate exposure levels equivalent to what U.S. regulators currently consider safe in human food.
He said the new report underscores the dangers of desiccation, providing evidence that it “exposes the American public to dangerous and unacceptable levels of glyphosate contamination in foods that consumers are led to believe are healthy.”
You can read the full Detox Project report here. (If you can stomach it.)