Pesticides: Glyphosate & Atrazine

I wanted to do a recap of the NOSB meeting that took place last week, but I’d rather wait for some more information to be published about it. Look out for a future post on the topic. In the meantime, I’ll delve into two of the most commonly used pesticides in farming, glyphosate and atrazine.

First of all, what exactly is a pesticide? It’s defined as a chemical compound that is used to kill pests, including insects, rodents, fungi and unwanted plants (weeds). Pesticides are a broad umbrella that include insecticides which target insects and herbicides which target weeds.

Glyphosate is by far the most common worldwide and is generally known as Roundup. Developed by Monsanto in the 1970s, it is a broad spectrum herbicide. It’s used on fruits, vegetables, lawns, glyphosate-resistant crops, etc. It is poorly absorbed when ingested by humans and is thought by many agencies to be free of carcinogenic, reproductive, or adverse health effects. It is, however, slightly toxic to birds and fish, though little is moved by rain or irrigation water due to its ability to adhere strongly to soil.

Because it is so commonly used, glyphosate is also one of the most controversial and politicized pesticides on the market. Human exposure has been on the rise in recent years, leading to requests for a re-evaluation its safety . The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) made headlines in 2015 when it classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen, as did California’s Proposition 65 list, which categorizes glyphosate as a carcinogen. Less than a month ago, Monsanto was ordered to pay damages to a groundskeeper for his terminal cancer, leaving the company open for a lot of lawsuits.While glyphosate is still allowed  in most countries, public opinion is turning against it and France, Italy, and Germany have stated that they will issue glyphosate bans in the future.

Moving on, Atrazine is the second most common pesticide used in the U.S. It has been around since 1959 and is now manufactured by Syngenta. It’s an herbicide used on crops like corn, macadamia nuts, sugarcane, and evergreen trees. It’s a Restricted Use Product (RUP), which means you need certification to buy and use it, because it has been known to cause groundwater contamination.

Atrazine is considered slightly to moderately toxic and a possible carcinogen. Adverse health effects in animals include tremors and organ damage. Used largely in the Midwest, it has been found at levels above the EPA maximum in water from the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. Strange fact: It can cause frogs to change gender. For these reasons, atrazine has been banned in Europe since 2004, though it is commonly used worldwide.

So how do you know if glyphosate and atrazine are used in your food? With these being so commonly used, it can be difficult. Conventional produce is highly likely to be grown using glyphosate or atrazine. If you’d like to avoid them, you can buy produce and products that are certified USDA Organic, though these products may still be indirectly contaminated. For a surer bet, you can look for Certified Pesticide Residue Free (label shown below).

Image result for scs pesticide residue free

This certification process tests the actual residue amount on food rather than just looking for whether pesticides were applied, though it is far less common to see in grocery stores. I wish I had a more certain answer here, but such is the food labeling landscape today.

Stay tuned for more posts delving into specific pesticides, their use, and residue-free labeling.

Image by: Jeff Vanuga

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