What Is Glyphosate and Why Should I Care - part 2
Hi there local food eaters,
Thanks to everyone who read our email last week about glyphosate, part 1. We heard back from a few of you, and we are glad to be generating thoughts and conversation about this important aspect of our modern food system.
Today I'm going to continue down this road of exploring what is up with Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and glyphosate in our foods. This is the one with the bad news. (But next week we're going to talk about what we can all do about it!)
For years, we didn't think GMOs (in animal feed) and roundup were all that bad, but over time our opinion has changed as we learn more.
First: Our Intent
Our intention with these emails is to inform and inspire you. We want you to be empowered with the knowledge to make decisions. We want you to believe that your choices matter. What we choose to spend money on as individuals determines what is produced - consumer demand for organic and non-GMO has driven the growth of organic foods.
I want you to understand the motivation driving our actions as farmers: to follow the ancient medical principle of "first do no harm". The type of agriculture that we practice is to use that as a basis, but go beyond it and actually improve the state of health of ourselves, our soils, and our food system. If we didn't believe that we can make a difference, it would be very hard for us to get up in the morning and keep doing what we're doing.
Next: A Disclaimer
There is a LOT of information - good, bad, and otherwise - out there about GMOs. Much of it is hard to interpret, using questionable science and scare tactics and sensationalism on both sides. It is also often contradictory, as it is in many realms of science.
We are in seriously muddy water here, but doing our best to expose the truth as we see it, in a way that distills things down as simply as possible so that people can understand the facts and make an informed choice.
The point of these emails is to educate, not induce fear.
There's a lot of information on the internet claiming to report THE TRUTH about GMOs, and to make matters worse, much of it is contradictory.
We are not claiming that we are the be-all, end-all source of truth about GMOs. We are just stating OUR truth:
From our perspective as farmers, animal growers, and parents, there is legitimate cause for concern when it comes to genetically modified food and feed crops and their associated chemical use.
The fact is that the jury is still out about the actual long term effects of GMOs in food and feed.
When it comes to chemicals and synthetic agricultural inputs,
We stand on the side of caution.
We do not believe that there has been sufficient application of the Precautionary Principle when it comes to the widespread use of GMOs and increasing chemical use in our food supply. Which means that now, individuals must choose for themselves.
To be clear: we are not saying that modern technology is bad, or that conventional farmers are bad, or really any kind of judgement at all. We believe that people are generally doing the best they can with the information that they have. That is why we want to give you the clearest story possible, so that you can make an informed decision one way or the other.
The truth is that there may be some beneficial and even life-saving uses of genetic engineering, and we don't want to make broad generalities on an entire scientific field. Genetic engineering has been used to mass-produce insulin, produce human growth hormones, and has even been used by students in an attempt to bring back the American chestnut!
Our issue is not with the synthetic genetic alteration in general, far from it. Our issue is what we are learning about the dangers of increased use of glyphosate in particular. Growing genetically engineered food and feed crops today entails a massive increase in the use of glyphosate herbicide. To that end, I will go over my understanding of the specific effects of glyphosate in the food supply, as it is currently used with roundup-ready and Bt crops.
If you didn't read part 1 about the basics of Glyphosate and the Bt toxin, which are the two most prevalent uses of GMOs, consider checking it out first. The main takeaway was that when we talk about GMOs in food and feed, we are talking about glyphosate.
HERE WE GO. On to more science.
Glyphosate is water soluble
Glyphosate is part of a group of chemicals called organophosphates, which are water-soluble toxins. As such, it can travel freely through our water system, in rain water and air.
Glyphosate chelates minerals
As I touched on briefly in the last email, glyphosate is a chelator. Before it was used and marketed as an herbicide, it was used and marketed for ten years as a cleaning agent, to descale minerals from commercial boilers and pipes. This is because it binds to zinc, copper, manganese, and other minerals.
Glyphosate inhibits enzyme pathways
Remember the shikamic, or shikamate pathway that we went over in the last email? This is the mechanism by which glyphosate acts as a weed killer (herbicide): The shikamate pathway is how plants produce essential amino acids, specifically the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tryptophan, and tyrosine. Glyphosate disrupts this pathway by inhibiting the enzyme ESPS which is a catalyst in the shikamate pathway.
Humans and animals do not have a shikamic pathway in our cells. For that reason, glyphosate has generally been considered low toxicity. However, there are microbes in our guts that DO use the shikamic pathway. (See next point below). Furthermore, humans and animals EAT plants that use the shikamic pathway to produce essential amino acids. These components of plants are related to alkaloids, the naturally occurring medicinal qualities of plants.
Glyphosate has an antibiotic effect
There has not yet been a commercial pharmaceutical application of glyphosate as an antibiotic for humans or animals, but it is patented as an antimicrobial.
Glyphosate has an amino acid mimicry effect
There is evidence to suggest that glyphosate acts in the body by replacing glycine and possibly other amino acids in protein synthesis resulting in misfolded proteins.
Glyphosate is basically the amino acid glycine with an attached phosphonate group, hence the shortened name glyphosate.
A quick break down of how protein synthesis works is that a strand of messenger RNA (mRNA) reads a section of our DNA and makes a carbon copy. One way to conceptualize this is to think of mRNA as the architect’s assistant. So architect assistant mRNA carries this blueprint copy to a different part of the cell where all the amino acids are floating around. One way to conceptualize the amino acids is to imagine them as bricks of varying shapes and sizes. The mRNA finds a ribosome (the cell’s bricklayer) to read the blueprint. Ribosome the bricklayer has a team of assistants called transfer RNA (tRNA) who pick up the amino acids (bricks) and presents them to the ribosome (bricklayer). The building of proteins is such a fast process that the bricklayer has to rely on his assistant’s work and if the tRNA (bricklayer’s assistant) picks up the wrong amino acid (as could be the case with glyphosate instead of glycine) that mistake is going to end up as a part of the protein structure.
This is not necessarily a catastrophic scenario. Sometimes a misshapen brick can be laid into a brick wall and, while it might not look great, the wall will still be functional.
What does all of this mean?
None of the above are inherently bad in and of themselves. In fact, they are neutral, and meaningless without knowing how they relate to the whole organism and the whole ecosystem.
There is currently no scientific consensus on GMO safety. The debate rages on as supporters of Monsanto and conventional agriculture say that the GMO safety debate is over, and that GMOs are officially and scientifically proven safe in our food supply. Often the point made is that there is no peer-reviewed study indicating negative effects of GMO foods or feed. First, this is inaccurate - see the peer-reviewed swine study where pigs ended up with both stomach inflammation and reproductive issues. Second, claiming anything so controversial as completely safe should raise some red flags.
What do we think? Our opinion about the health risks of GMOs/glyphosate
Our review of hundreds of articles and interviews on both sides leads us to believe strongly that the widespread and increasing use of glyphosate carries with it many environmental health risks, that can be traced to the above actions of glyphosate.
It is impossible to isolate the effects of JUST glyphosate or any one chemical from the rest of the many chemicals in use in our environment. Everything is interconnected. It is also difficult or impossible to tease out the effects of glyphosate from the associated GMO crops. Many of the growing health disasters facing Americans today correlate with the rising use of glyphosate. So it is just one small piece of the puzzle, but it is an interesting and important piece of the puzzle. Glyphosate's negative impact on the body is most likely insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body.
Some of the below health risks are currently correlations and many are hypotheses in need of future experimentation.
The risks in our opinion:
Glyphosate use in agriculture effects soil biodiversity, which in turn has negative effects on pathogens and nutrition of plants.
Glyphosate is a likely contributing cause to digestive disorders, leaky gut syndrome, and the associated immune system and neurological issues including:
Glyphosate travels through the environment, and bioaccumulates in animal tissues.
Glyphosate and GMOs will be in us and our environment whether we like it or not for the foreseeable future, for many generations.
Our plant foods grown under the influence of glyphosate do not contain naturally high levels of beneficial alkaloids.
Our diets lack healthy micronutrients that keep pathogens and diseases in check
Glyphosate is one of the world’s most studied chemicals, and yet it has only been in use for one, maybe two generations. How many times throughout history have humans, scientists even, believed something which later was proven to be totally different than what they believed?
Here's the thing - if we're wrong, and GMOs/glyphosate are perfectly harmless, then what? You spent extra money on food to avoid something unnecessarily? And what if we and many others who are skeptics of the safety of GMOs/glyphosate are right? If even a tiny fraction of the potential long term health risks proves to be true, then it is better to be safe than sorry, in our humble opinion.
More to come next week on what we can do about it.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for supporting local foods!
Genetically Engineered Crops, Glyphosate, and the Deterioration of Health in the U.S. - Presentation Slides/notes
Genetically Engineered Crops, Glyphosate, and the Deterioration of Health in the U.S. - full peer reviewed article
Brooks Miller and Anna Santini