I admit to eating breakfast cereals from time to time. I always try to pick the healthier ones, the ones that don’t have a lot of added sugar or colourings, and are made primarily of whole grains, with high amounts of fibre. I’ve always thought I was doing a pretty good job of being healthy, without sacrificing time or convenience, but recent reports have given me pause.
The non-profit organization Environmental Working Group has found that all oat-based breakfast cereals, including popular ones made by General Mills and Nature Valley, are contaminated with glyphosate, a chemical ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup. Naturally, this has caused considerable alarm among consumers. It hasn’t helped that the report was released only days after a California man was rewarded $289 million in punitive damages after claiming that regular use of Roundup led to his diagnosis with terminal cancer. A similar trial has awarded $2 billion in damages to a couple who also claimed that regular exposure to Roundup led to their cancer diagnoses. Now, 11,000 similar cases are awaiting a verdict in federal and state courts. Monsanto, the company who makes Roundup, is planning to appeal.
Many media outlets are trying to calm the rising panic by pointing out that the Environmental Working Group inflated the danger to consumers and their children by lowering the threshold by which glyphosate would be considered safe. No international or state regulators limit glyphosate exposure to just 160 ppb (parts per billion), as does the Environmental Working Group. Government regulators place the safety level at 30 parts per million, in which case, the amount of glyphosate in breakfast cereals is well within safe bounds and is therefore no cause for concern. But who should we trust? Alex Lu, a scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health says « there is no safe level of carcinogen », and I have to agree. Who would risk ingesting a potentially carcinogenic pesticide if they could avoid it?
Part of the confusion surrounding glyphosate exposure is that we’re still not entirely certain if it’s cancerous or not. In 2015, the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as «probably carcinogenic to humans ». But then they seemed to reverse their position in 2016, when a separate WHO panel declared glyphosate « unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet ». In 2017, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment in California classified glyphosate as a « known carcinogen ». Then, in February of this year, researchers at the University of Washington found that glyphosate can increase cancer risk by up to 41%. But those findings were questioned in turn this May, when the National Cancer Institute itself published a study that found no evidence linking glyphosate with cancer. The European Food Safety Authority, normally much stricter about food safety than regulatory bodies in either the US or Canada, also states « there is no evidence linking glyphosate with cancer ». Who are we supposed to believe?
Bottom line, I think no one wants to be eating potentially hazardous chemicals, if they can avoid it. Yet, it seems that we can’t. Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., a senior science adviser to the Environmental Working Group, says that recent biomonitoring studies have found detectable levels of glyphosate in people’s urine, and these levels have been rising over time. It’s no wonder, considering that US farmers have used more than 200 million pounds of glyphosate annually on their fields. The chemical has since been found in all of our food products, not just our breakfast cereal. Although no results have yet been officially published, the FDA has been testing food samples for the last two years, and has found glyphosate contamination in every food but broccoli.
I can still remember learning about Thomas Malthus in my grade nine geography class, many years ago. If you recall, he’s the guy that said that the human population would always grow until it outran the food supply, at which point wars and starvation would decimate our numbers. We’ve grown cocky during the twentieth century, proving him wrong again and again by increasing the efficiency of food production through the use of chemical weedkillers and fertilizers. But it seems we’ll all be done in anyway. For the very methods we’ve used to sustain our numbers has only contaminated our environment. It won’t be starvation that gets us in the end. It’ll be pollution.