God & GMOs: What about “glyphosate” and Cancer?

Welcome to Part 6 of God & GMOs, a series I’m writing in consultation with my molecular biologist husband, Aaron. If you’re new around here, you might want to check out the IntroductionPart 1: The Gospel, Part 2: What is a GMO?, Part 3: “Do Your Research, Part 4:  Pursuing Truth, and Part 5: The “Big Ag” Industry so you can say “hi” in the comments. I know most readers probably haven’t heard much in favor of GMO crops online or in your church, so let me know if you have any questions or need clarification as we go!
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If you’ve heard much about GMO crops, you may know that lots of people articulate specific concern about their association with glyphosate. Y’all that is a Big Word and things that sound sciency and end in -ite or -ate like that can seem extra scary sometimes. Here is the lowdown on glyphosate, why it is associated with GMO crops, why it can be a useful tool in agriculture, why it is not something to be scared of, and why we sometimes use it in our own personal garden and lawn care (where we grow some of our own food, and our children and dog play).

What is Glyphosate? 
Glyphosate is an herbicide. It is used to kill broadleaf plants, which makes it an effective weed controller in modern farming. It is not the only herbicide used in farming these days, but it is one of the more popular ones because it hits a really good sweet spot of safety and effectiveness. This was first marketed by Monsanto under their brand name “Round-Up,” but their patent has expired and many companies now distribute glyphosate and genetically modified glyphosate-tolerant crop seeds. Glyphosate is far less toxic than many of the chemical inputs it replaced, or even those currently allowed under the USDA-Organic program, and because scientists figured out how to genetically modify some crops to withstand it, much of the GMO canola and soybeans in the USA are “Round-Up Ready.” This means a farmer could spray their field of Round-Up Ready soybeans with Round-Up if he or she felt it was necessary, and could do so with less time and energy than many other herbicide options available. Not all Round-Up Ready crops are necessarily sprayed with Round-Up, but they’re developed to keep that option open. It’s cheaper for the farmer to not spray if they can get away with it, but when it is needed the Round-Up used is equivalent to one soda can worth of glyphosate per acre. (That’s more land than I have around my house here, and we have, by far, the biggest yard of anyone we know in town.) Because it’s one of the safest, strongest herbicides available today, we’ve used glyphosate to get our (non-GMO) yards and gardens straightened out in all three houses we’ve owned and we’re perfectly comfortable with our kids and dog running around there after it dries. 

Why is glyphosate controversial? 
Using effective herbicides like Round-Up is one way farmers can practice no-till farming, which is an important component of soil conservation for sustainable agriculture. But… if you look this up online, most of the information available is confusing and misleading. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (WHO IARC) did a data analysis on a small number of the many studies on glyphosate, and in March 2015 they categorized it as a “probable carcinogen.” Because so many of the GMO crops grown in the US are part of the “Round-Up Ready” system, this moved many bloggers and anti-biotech activists to claim that GMOs cause cancer.

Does glyphosate (or “Round-Up”) actually cause cancer?
There are a few problems with this, but I want to say from the start: Cancer is no joke. Both of my grandmothers died from colon cancer, and several other older family members have experienced skin cancer and things like that. It seemed like last year was a really awful season of cancer in the people we know; I mentioned to Aaron that my facebook felt a little bit more like cancerbook. From afar I watched while a friend from college sat on the hospital floor cradling her son through his -ultimately successful- chemotherapy. (I remember cheering when he was born, maybe six years ago?) Two mothers died in agony, leaving families, spouses, and a combined five children. Three moms (two of them grandmothers) are in remission.  A friend lost his sister and lives with his own tumor chemo didn’t eradicate, so we pray it’s at least stable, but do you ever really know? A father died right before his only daughter’s graduation. Another father heals and gets to watch his three kids grow up. A grandfather is in his last stretch of suffering, but will probably die any day now. And then the old haunting picture of the grandma I named my girl after, gaunt, limp, barely cradling my infant niece in her last days pops up on my screen saver – I still cry when I see it. This suffering is not something I speak of flippantly. 

The IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” sounds scary, and if your personal life includes any of the cancer exposure mine has, it’s not something you’d want to mess around with at all. But many other organizations around the world don’t consider it to be a contributing factor in cancer at all, and if you dig into the actual information from the WHO you will see that the IARC’s risk classifications put people who would apply glyphosate all day, every day in the same cancer risk category as people who work night shift, drink hot beverages, or work in a hair salon. They also don’t think realistic exposure from eating crops that were sprayed with that teeny bit of glyphosate shows any increased health risks for consumers. I don’t worry that getting my hair cut will increase my risk of cancer even though my hairdresser’s constant exposure to all those sprays and fumes might increase hers a bit. I don’t worry that a midnight trip to the ER would increase my risk of cancer even though the night shift nurses might have an increased risk over their lifetime. I don’t worry about my exposure to glyphosate, which could come through eating genetically modified foods as part of my balanced diet or my yard, and I don’t think anyone else needs to be particularly worried about it either. 

Does spraying those Round-Up Ready crops cause superweeds?
Well, yes. It can. Just like some infections can become “superbugs” that resist antibiotics, some weeds can become “superweeds” that resist herbicides. But weed resistance is a problem with other herbicides and other farming practices, too. It’s not unique to genetically modified crops or any certain chemical application. We can read in Genesis that the earth is full of thorn and thistles along with our food. We know that the only full solution to this is Jesus’ return, not in any specific farming practice or technological advance. The existence of superweeds should give us reason to be prudent but it’s not a reason to avoid using herbicides or pesticides all together.

Where can I read more about glyphosate safety and cancer incidence? 
For further reading, you could check out Is Glyphosate Dangerous? and What Does Farming Without Glyphosate Look Like?
There’s also some interesting and very recent reporting about the incomplete studies the WHO used to study glyphosate from Reuters. For follow-up, this response from the IARC is available as well.
God & GMOs

Thanks so much for reading – I hope this is helpful for you all. I’ll be back soon to talk about what on earth is going on with farming and GMOs here and around the world!

6 thoughts on “God & GMOs: What about “glyphosate” and Cancer?

  1. Abby,

    I have enjoyed your various posts about GMO. You have ended with a post about glyphosate.

    From my studies, I agree with you that GMO itself is not dangerous, but glyphosate is the big problem.

    When it comes to reports about studies concerning glyphosate, I have found that it is important to keep in mind who funds the study, because you can get very strong positions for and against.

    If you go to Youtube and search for “Dr Stephanie Seneff”, you will start to see the ramifications of applying the millions of tons of Roundup on our fields.

    We are poisoning ourselves. Once you dig a little further into the ramifications of what glyphosate studies have shown, you might want to rephrase your statement that “I don’t worry about my exposure to glyphosate…”

    It concerns me greatly. Thede


    • Thanks for reading! I certainly will peak more into Dr Seneff’s presentations but I have heard of her before and I must point out that as a computer scientist who has completed no original research on the topic, she has no business pretending to be an expert in the topics she discusses. And there is money to be made on all sides of the discussion, to be sure. I think GMO technology can be a great gift to the world with or without the use of glyphosate in agriculture, and on this we certainly agree. I appreciate you reading and chiming in, Thede! I hope you will stick around.

  2. Thanks Abby. I use Poison Ivy Round Up on poison Ivy only and have felt guilty about it. You have dispelled my fears. I look forward to seeing you all soon. Love, Gram C.

    Sent via the Samsung Galaxy S7, an AT&T 4G LTE smartphone

  3. I’m late to the game, but I found your blog after listening to Risen Motherhood podcast episode 23 where Laura and Emily interviewed you and another mom who struggled through similar trials. Late as I am, I just wanted to thank you for writing such a thorough explanation of GMOs and some of the arguments for and against them. I didn’t know what the hype was all about, but I have a large circle of mama friends that care deeply about what they feed their brood and it can be so easy to play the comparison game with one another and point unnecessarily judgmental fingers when one doesn’t fall in line with our own personal opinions and grocery shopping habits. These days it seems like you’re either in the holistic, organic, clean eating club or the Oscar Mayer® hotdog with Kraft® mac ‘n cheese gang and there’s NO grace between the tribes.

    I’m in the process of trying to boost my milk production for my almost 7 month old and decided to buy a can of formula as backup for when I can’t pump what she needs and I bought one of the more expensive cans that was labeled all things organic and non-GMO because I reasoned “If she can’t have the nectar of the gods in milk form she needs the next best thing!” But now I realize that was based on pure assumption that everything in that can was as close to breastmilk as it was going to get. I honestly have no clue what’s in that formula! Reading this series made me stop and realize that the food I buy needs to be bought on the basis of two things: trust in the Lord’s sovereignty that HE has ordained the number of my (and my infant’s) days, NOT glysophate; and secondly, trust in science and the knowledge that professionals have right now. I simply cannot fret and fear and follow all the crunchy mama blogs’ advice without knowing all the facts and doing the genuine research, which takes time and effort and careful analysis.

    So that’s my excessively long-winded way of saying THANK YOU for the time, effort, and careful analysis of this argument and for courageously putting yourself out there on the interweb knowing you’d get some heat. I benefitted from it all greatly.

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