Monday, December 29, 2014

Thoughts on Glyphosate to end the year

Well, yet again, an entire season has gone by with no blog posting on my part. I will post a review in the new year, but for now, let's just say that I'd like to leave 2014 as a vegetable growing season behind me and really hope there's more sunshine, literally, in 2015 ;P

In addition to farming, I have also been a director of the National Farmers' Union - Ontario (NFU-O), Grey Local 344 branch, for the past three years. This year, we were able to sponsor part of a speaking tour by Dr. Thierry Vrain in our area. The following is a newsletter piece I wrote for our membership summarizing the talks.

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On November 1, 2014, our NFU-Ontario Grey Local 344, sponsored Dr. Thierry Vrain to speak in Flesherton and Owen Sound. Dr. Vrain is a retired 30 year employee of Agriculture Canada working in the field of genetics. Dr. Vrain is touring Canada to spread information about what he believes to be the dangers of glyphosate use to our health. GM refers to genetically modified, but Dr. Vrain pointed out that really, the 'G' should refer to 'glyphosate' which is the active ingredient in Roundup. This is because the only widespread food GM crops are corn, soy, canola and sugar beet, which are all engineered to be 'Roundup Ready' (RR), meaning that they survive being sprayed with Roundup while all the
weeds die. Currently, around 500 million acres of RR corn, soy, canola, sugar beet and cotton are grown, sprayed with close to two billion pounds of glyphosate (Roundup) each year worldwide.

Dr. Vrain presented the patent history of glyphosate which was eye opening on its own. It was first created in 1960 by Stauffer Chemicals as a descaling agent to clean out industrial pipes and boilers. When the cleaning residue was poured out on vegetation, it was found to kill everything, which is when Monsanto bought the molecule, and then went on to patent it as a herbicide in 1969. Glyphosate functions as both a descaling agent and herbicide because it's a chelator, meaning it binds with metal. In a plant, glyphosate bonds with the manganese atom at the centre of the EPSPS (5-Enol Pyruvyl Shikimate-3 Phosphate Synthase) metalloprotein, thereby preventing the plant from making certain amino acids, which kills the plant. Glyphosate has no apparent immediate toxicity to mammals, but previously there had been no research to see if there are any effects beyond three months.

Since the original descaling and herbicide patents, glyphosate has also been patented as a dessicant and antibiotic. As a dessicant, glyphosate is sprayed on non-RR crops, like wheat, barley, beans, peas, etc., to kill the crops before harvesting, which matures and dries the plants quickly to make them easier and cheaper to harvest. This means there is glyphosate residue not just on the RR food crops, but also non-RR food crops (organic crops cannot be sprayed with glyphosate). Many, but not all, farmers use glyphosate as a dessicant on their non-GM crops, but it's impossible to find numbers to determine how many Ontario farmers do follow this practice.

The most disturbing patent of all is glyphosate as an antibiotic. Given widespread concerns on the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming, it is even more alarming to consider the long-term effects of glyphosate as an antibiotic on millions of acres of soil. And glyphosate didn't just become an antibiotic when it was patented as such...it has always had antibiotic effects! Varying levels of glyphosate residue are found in pretty much all non-organic foods (anything with grain, soy, sugar (whether from corn or beets), etc.), which means our guts are receiving constant antibiotic doses. Glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway of beneficial gut microbes, which have far reaching effects on our health. There has been much talk of the current trend to gluten-free diets due to 'wheat belly' issues; on further reading into the subject, it appears this may not be a problem of wheat, but possibly of glyphosate residues. In the past few years, scientists are starting to discover more and more how human health is influenced by its microbiome, which is the community of microorganisms that live in our bodies (mostly our digestive tract), helping us to digest, produce various proteins, and even heal ourselves. Nancy Swanson performed a number of statistical analyses on the US Centres for Disease Control's health statistics compared with statistics from the US Department of Agriculture about the spread of RR soy and corn. Her correlation analyses showed high coefficient values linking glyphosate residues in RR food, and many chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and autism. Though this is not proof of causation, it is certainly strong cause for concern, and calls for more research on the long-term effects of glyphosate residue on human health.

All of glyphosate's effects relate to its metal binding properties. That's how it kills plants, bacteria and fungi. More recently, scientists are starting to sound the alarm as to the impact of glyphosate on animal and human cells. In the human body, glyphosate binds to the iron atom at the centre of CYP enzymes, which are oxydizers, the first line of digestion and detoxification of most substrates. And glyphosate accumulates in our bodies, the soil and water. Glyphosate also binds metals in soil, rendering them inert and unable to be taken up by plants, potentially reducing the nutritional quality of those plants. Given the very nature of glyphosate and given what we are learning about the importance of our gut microbiome, it seems foolish to consider it to be safe for human consumption, and yet, it is everywhere in our food supply. Given the various long-term studies that are finally coming out about glyphosate's effects on human health, we, as farmers and eaters, Vrain said, should consider whether we think its use is healthy for our bodies or the environment, and we should pressure our governments to do the same. Certainly, more scientific study is needed, but in the meantime, perhaps more attention should be paid to the precautionary principle and the value of organic foods and farming, along with more independent and publicly funded research.

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I post this here not to alarm or depress, but to provide information that many of us have probably never heard before. Some of this information was certainly new to me when I heard it, and I work in organic agriculture. The major diet change that I will make in response to this, is to switch to organic flours, making more of my own bread (I'm also lucky in that my partner grew up baking bread for home and so is quite skilled at it!), and buying organic pasta. I already eat mostly organic vegetables and fruits, but you can also rest assured that glyphosates aren't used on vegetable crops once they're planted, though I can't speak for if Roundup is sprayed on non-organic fields prior to vegetable planting. I also stick with organic, pasture raised meats, which I buy in many pound bundles in late fall and keep in deep freezers for use throughout the year. It is possible to reduce our exposure to glyphosate residues by eating more organic foods.

We should also lobby our governments for more transparent food labelling, as well as publicly funded research to see exactly what's going on. Check out: http://www.tonu.org/2014/12/08/lab-4-canada/
Tony Mitra is a BC activist, who was also with Dr. Vrain on the speaking tour. He has an excellent idea for how we, as citizens, can take glyphosate residue testing into our own hands and share the results with everyone, so that we can all be better informed about where it is in our food supply.

Mr. Mitra shared many stories of how we can influence government, especially at the municipal level, and work for change successfully. It was very inspiring and gives me hope that we can indeed effect change beyond our purchasing choices. This year, I added my voice at the county level to oppose the removal of wetlands protection from Bruce County's official plan. Enough other people and organizations did the same, and so Bruce County is not going ahead with the removal of wetlands protection. I (and the NFU) have also spoken up about neonicotinoid use and its detrimental effects on pollinators, and now the Ontario government is looking to phase out widespread use in the next few years. This is not a done deal yet, with much consultation still to be had and a lot of opposition from the producers of neonicotinoids (Bayer, Syngenta) and industry (Grain Farmers of Ontario), who have taken out major national ads opposing the Ontario government's announcement. I will continue to speak up for pollinators and encourage you to do the same.

If you're wondering how to 'speak up' other than signing on-line petitions...the various levels of government usually have open, public consultation for changes such as these, where you can submit a letter with comment. Here's where to go to comment on the neonicotinoid issue:
http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/pollinator/meeting-reg.htm
You have until January 25, 2015 to read up and share your thoughts.

Corporations should not be in charge of the foods we eat, we should be.