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Glyphosate: safe or not?

By Lisa Brody
News Editor
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11/02/2015 - It's a chemical most have likely never heard of, glyphosate, other than as the weed killer Roundup. A white crystal that is odorless, it was introduced by Monsanto in 1974, and it has since become the world's best selling herbicide of all time. It was developed to control a wide variety of weeds, grasses and broadleaf plants. Originally designed for farmers, it is also used, in a slightly different formulation, by landowners, local municipalities and school districts, and residential homeowners to keep weeds in check.

According to scientific papers, the use of glyphosate in agriculture was originally limited to post-harvest treatments and weed control between established rows of tree, nut and vine crops. But widespread adoption of no-till farming practices, which increases the amount of water in the soil while expanding organic matter retention and more efficient farming, led to some crop varieties that became resistant to glyphosate. To accommodate that, in the late 1990s, Monsanto began selling genetically engineered seeds, such as soy, corn and cotton, that would be tolerant of glyphosate while the weeds around it were killed. Today, according to reports, 90 percent of the soy and 70 percent of corn grown in the United States are genetically modified.

According to the Chemical Watch Factsheet, in the United States alone, approximately 180 to 185 million pounds of glyphosate are applied each year, with the greatest use, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, in the Mississippi River basin for weed control on corn, soybeans and cotton. But throughout the heartland of the country, including in Michigan, use has climbed, with 57 million pounds of glyphosate applied to cornfields in 2010, compared to 2000, when 4.4 million pounds was applied to U.S. cornfields. Despite U.S. consumption, China currently produces more than 40 percent of the world's supply of glyphosate, and exports 35 percent of it, notably to South America.

Additionally, parklands, playgrounds, sidewalks, school yards and other areas all over the country are routinely sprayed with Roundup or a generic version, in order to keep areas weed free. It's available for homeowners seeking to prevent weeds from invading their flower beds, lawns and sidewalks at every Home Depot, Lowe's and neighborhood garden center across the country. The question comes up, therefore is it safe for us to be around glyphosate?

Critics of the pesticide assert that exposure to Roundup and glyphosate, which can come through to humans running on sprayed grass to exposure in drinking water from surface runoff or drainage into wells, possibly through our drinking water, the fish we eat, and off of agricultural products, may damage liver and kidneys, cause irregular heartbeat, reproductive disorders, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, to cancer. Some cities, such as Chicago, New York City, and Boulder, as well as countries like Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, have banned the use of the chemical in all public spaces. In September, California's EPA stated it will now list glyphosate as known to cause cancer.

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