After Billions of Pounds of Glyphosate Sprayed on Crops, FDA to Finally Test Food for It

glyphosateBy Carey Wedler

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced this week it will begin testing produce and other foods for glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. The new policy comes amid growing public concern about the use of harmful pesticides in crops, as well as sharp criticism from the agency’s Government Accountability Office in 2014.

“The agency is now considering assignments for Fiscal Year 2016 to measure glyphosate in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs, among other potential foods,” FDA spokeswoman Laura Sucher told Civil Eats, a popular food blog.

The FDA’s previous lack of testing has prompted consumer groups, scientists, and private companies to test for glyphosate residue independent of the government. Various studies have found the pesticide in breast milk — accumulated biologically in mothers who consume products sprayed with it — as well as soy sauces, infant formula, and honey, though it is used on a much wider range of food. Genetically modified crops engineered to be “Roundup Ready” include corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, and sorghum.

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Civil Eats summarized the expanded use of the pesticide, which has been deemed “probably carcinogenic” to humans by the World Health Organization:

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup, and is the most widely used herbicide in the world. Monsanto patented the herbicide in the 1970s, and it quickly became popular for its effectiveness in killing troublesome weeds. Glyphosate use skyrocketed after Monsanto introduced ‘Roundup Ready’ crops in the mid-1990s, which were genetically engineered to be immune to glyphosate — meaning farmers could spray the pesticide directly over the crops. There are also many non-GMO crops, including wheat, that are sprayed directly with glyphosate before being harvested to help dry them out. Glyphosate is now off patent and is used in hundreds of herbicide products around the world.

Monsanto makes roughly $5 billion from Roundup every year, and use of the pesticide has skyrocketed since the 1970s: “Glyphosate use by U.S. farmers rose from 12.5 million pounds in 1995 to 250 million pounds in 2014, a 20-fold increase, while global use rose from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion pounds in 2014, according to recent research in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe,” Civil Eats notes.

During a 2014 investigation by the Government Accountability Office, the FDA initially justified its lack of testing for glyphosate residue by citing high expenses. The GAO reported FDA officials said “the agency does not regularly use selective residue testing methods because of their cost.” Selective residue testing is a particular method that must be employed to test for glyphosate, but officials claimed “the total start-up cost to implement selective residue methods for glyphosate at its six testing laboratories would be approximately $5 million.”

In that same report, the GAO noted the FDA’s insufficient monitoring methods. Investigators found that while in 2011 the FDA said it tests for approximately 400 different pesticides, it failed to disclose to the public that it does not even test for six of those most commonly used, many of which have known or probable health risks. These include glyphosate, 2,4-D, MCPA, Mancozeb, paraquat, and methyl bromide.

As Civil Eats reported, “The GAO reported that it found multiple deficiencies in the FDA’s pesticide residue testing program, and specifically cited a failure to test for glyphosate, which the GAO called the ‘most used agricultural pesticide.’” John Neumann, a spokesman for the FDA’s GAO noted that “There were significant limitations to the credibility of their data.”

The EPA sets standards for allowable levels of pesticides in foods, called tolerances, and both the USDA and FDA are required to test for them. This regulatory framework is intended to keep consumers safe, though a recent report by The Intercept revealed the EPA used Monsanto-funded studies to set their standards for glyphosate, revealing a concerning conflict of interest in the way the government monitors food. In 2013, the agency raised the allowable levels of glyphosate.

Questionable decisions pervade other agencies, as well. The USDA is currently under investigation amid a “significant volume” of claims from its own scientists that it censored their research on neonicotinoid pesticides, another class of insecticide. Neonicotinoids are implicated in the destruction of bee and butterfly populations. In another example, Michael R. Taylor, a former Monsanto executive, currently serves as the FDA’s Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine. He was the first individual appointed to the post, created in 2009, and his authority highlights the potential for exploitative conflict-of-interests.

Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union, cautiously praised the FDA’s decision. “That’s an excellent first step … but it should be part of the pesticide data program (at the USDA),” he said. “The United Kingdom has been doing this for years. Given the vast expansion in use we should be seeing more exposure. They should have been doing it a lot earlier.”

Regardless, any policy change that provides more accountability is worthy of praise, especially considering how powerful the ties between agencies and industries have become. Unlike the USDA, the FDA has enforcement powers, meaning it is capable of punishing companies that violate allowable limits on pesticides, though it is unclear whether it will actually choose to do so.

“Maybe we shamed them into it,” said Neumann. He also said the GAO will review the FDA’s practices again this June.

This article (After Billions of Pounds of Glyphosate Sprayed on Crops, FDA to Finally Test Food for It) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Carey Wedler and Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11 pm Eastern/8 pm Pacific. Image credit: jetsandzeppelins. If you spot a typo, please email the error and name of the article at [email protected].

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