Cracks in the Wall: The Fall of Glyphosate

great wall of china

When I was young, folks claimed (quite often, actually) that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made structure on earth visible from the moon. Astronauts have since declared this particular statement to be false. But it’s a claim that has a lot of parallels to the current glyphosate debate. Chemical companies are like the symbolic equivalent of the Great Wall—certainly Monsanto and their popular cure-all product, Roundup (which is glyphosate in a bottle) qualifies. Roundup was once touted as the savior of chemical agricultural production here in the U.S. and around the world. Monsanto claimed it was safe, both for humans and the environment, with the assurance that glyphosate breaks down in the sunlight and upon contact with the soil—harmless components with no health risks. But none of these supposedly tested and verified claims are turning out to be true—serious and detrimental cracks in the “Great Wall” of chemical agriculture.

One such crack in the Great Glyphosate Wall came about recently in California following the court ruling that glyphosate caused school groundskeeper, Dewayne Johnson, to have cancer—a verdict that cost the supposedly safe chemical giant more than a quarter of a billion dollars! Following the trial, an expert witness observed that the unanimity of the jury and the size of the punitive award made this an historic turning point for chemical companies that think they can control their version of science. It’s also going to be very hard to challenge on appeal because the judge sided with Monsanto on virtually all objections, driving the plaintiff attorneys near crazy. And ninety percent of the hard evidence regarding Monsanto’s dirty tricks wasn’t even presented to the jury, yet they still found the company’s behavior reckless. So much for Monsanto’s claim that glyphosate has no health consequences.

That same week another crack in the Great Glyphosate Wall appeared when a publication by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) commented on the concerning amount of glyphosate in breakfast cereals. Many of these are common cereals we’re feeding our children and grandchildren, and they’re showing heavy glyphosate contamination! Even some of the organic cereals had traces of glyphosate, which is something we have seen in some of our organic grains, despite having never been sprayed.

Since 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) has listed glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” and the resulting PR battle with chemical companies, like Monsanto, has raged ever since. Dewayne Johnson’s victory exposed Monsanto’s half-truths and lies and provided a showcase of further scientific evidence to support the World Health Organization’s evaluation.

While Monsanto and other chemical companies continue to insist their products are safe, or that they break down in the sun and soil, our studies have even found glyphosate in our rain water! Reports of glyphosate contaminating waterways and soil have been around for a while, but glyphosate in the rain is relatively new. And even more alarming are the growing reports of contamination in our food supply.

Recently, my son, Adam, attended a food safety course in Great Falls, Montana where one of the grain company representatives said their local elevators would no longer accept grain sprayed with glyphosate. This is likely due to a growing number of export customers who will only accept grain that is not contaminated with glyphosate—and wisely so!

Years ago, when I visited the Great Wall of China, I found a section of the wall that hadn’t been restored. Hidden over a rise, out of sight and yet just a few feet from the restored area, were the ruins of the original wall. It was worn and weathered, crumbling and full of cracks—nothing like the solid stone wall on the other side of the rise. The Great Glyphosate Wall is like the Great Wall of China: supposedly solid, supposedly safe. But if you step over that rise, you see the real wall, the real cost to farms, farmers and the environment. You see the cracks in a contaminated food supply and the deterioration of human health. I believe the days of glyphosate are numbered, that we are at the beginning of the end of the experiment with chemical agriculture. And it is my hope that more USDA research can be channeled to sustainable, non-chemical weed and pest control systems because the Great Glyphosate Wall will continue to crumble as more people see it for what it is.