Scientists working for the FDA have discovered significant levels of glyphosate in a number of common US foodstuff, including granola, crackers and corn, according to emails intercepted by The Guardian. Glyphosate, which has been in-use for nearly 40 years, has been the center of controversy since 2015, when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled the substance a “probable carcinogen.” A two-part report published by Le Monde last year revealed Monsanto’s major effort to suppress the IARC’s findings and other supporting science. According to the prize-winning report, the agrochemical manufacturer has employed methods ranging from ghost-writing glyphosate-friendly research papers to hiring undercover agents to infiltrate the IARC. Now, this most recent batch of intercepted emails could shed some light on the widespread nature of the glyphosate controversy.
Richard Thompson, a chemist working for the FDA, named, in an email, several foods that contain glyphosate, an active ingredient in hundreds of herbicides – most notably in Roundup. “I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” he wrote. Another chemist, Narong Chamkasem, discovered high levels of the substance in corn, one of the major targets in the FDA’s research. The legally permitted level of glyphosate is 5.0 ppm. Chamkasem found corn with 6.5 ppm while developing glyphosate-related methods, according to one email obtained by The Guardian.
Millions of Pounds
It is perhaps no surprise that the chemical has been discovered in several common foods. Nearly 200 million pounds of glyphosate are sprayed on US crops every year. A blog post on US Right to Know details the extent of glyphosate usage in the US, where farmers use the substance, not only on the usual suspects – corn, soy, wheat and oats – but on a variety of other crops, including a number of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Thousands of pounds of the chemical have been sprayed on cherries, apples, grapefruits, alfalfa, peanuts, walnuts and so many more crops. You can see the list here (and an older list, here, for comparison). The chemical has also been linked to a number of other environmental issues, including weed resistance, monarch butterfly displacement and poor soil health.
Response to IARC
Following the IARC’s report, the EPA decided, in October 2015, to up the ante on research into glyphosate, which the agency had deemed safe for years. The FDA, for its part, followed suit a few months after the EPA’s announcement, saying it would finally include glyphosate in its annual testing of chemical residue in foods. The agency made its decision after immense pressure from the Government Accountability Office, which lambasted the FDA for “not disclos[ing] in its annual monitoring reports that it does not test for several commonly used pesticides […] including glyphosate, the most used agricultural pesticide.”
When asked about the progress of its residue testing, the FDA said there are currently no indications of illegal glyphosate levels in corn, milk, eggs or soy, and made no reference to the recently disclosed emails. When, in 2016, Chamkasem found glyphosate in honey and oatmeal, the FDA deemed those samples unofficial, according to internal documents obtained by The Guardian. Chamkasem’s lab was promptly “reassigned to other programs.”
The EPA continues to downplay the risks of glyphosate, enforcing a maximum level of 30 ppm in oat-products – that’s 10 ppm above the European standard – and stating that the substance is “not likely” to cause cancer. Another set of emails exchanged internally at Monsanto could shed some light on the EPA’s position. According to one email, sent in 2015, former EPA official Jess Rowland reportedly told Daniel Jenkins, a regulatory expert at Monsanto: “’If I can kill this I should get a medal,’” referring to an ongoing investigation into the potential health risks of glyphosate. Jenkins added: “Jess will be retiring from EPA in ~5—6 months and could be useful as we move forward with ongoing glyphosate defense.”
The emails at the FDA and Monsanto illustrate a culture of opacity, where only an elite few are permitted to peek behind the curtain. What, we might wonder, would happen if these processes were made fully transparent?