Commercial almond orchards in the US receive some 2.1 million pounds of glyphosate a year - hence the strips of bare earth beneath these trees near Vernalis, along 132 west of Modesto, CA. Photo: Tom Hilton via Flickr (CC BY).
Withdrawn: the EPA's memo on the increasing use of glyphosate on food crops
Carey Gillam / USRTK
10th May 2016
The EPA's release of an internal memorandum last month showing the increasing use of the cancer-linked weedkiller glyphosate looked like a welcome opening up of information to the public, writes Carey Gillam. But then it was suddenly withdrawn, along with other related documents - though not before she grabbed her copy and reviewed the scale and scope of glyphosate usage.
Seventy crops are on the EPA list, ranging alphabetically from alfalfa and almonds to watermelons and wheat. And it shows that glyphosate use has been growing in production of most of the key food crops on the list.
As the active ingredient in Monsanto's branded Roundup weed killer, along with hundreds of other weed-killing products, the chemical called glyphosate spells billions of dollars in sales for Monsanto and other companies each year as farmers around the world use it in their fields and orchards.
Ubiquitous in food production, glyphosate is used not just with row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat but also a range of fruits, nuts and veggies. Even spinach growers use glyphosate.
Though considered for years as among the safest of agrichemicals, concerns about glyphosate have been growing after the World Health Organization's cancer experts last year classified it as a probable human carcinogen, based on a series of scientific studies.
There are other concerns as well - mounting weed resistance to glyphosate; negative impacts on soil health; and a demise in the monarch butterfly population tied to glyphosate use on forage that young monarchs feed on. The EPA is currently finishing a risk assessment for glyphosate that examines the range of issues.
So just how widespread is it?
The EPA is still trying to determine just how worrisome glyphosate is, or isn't. In the meantime it's worth a look at how widespread the use of glyphosate is in our food supply. A document released by EPA on April 29 gives us a peek.
In a memorandum dated Oct. 22, 2015, EPA analysts reported an 'updated Screening Level Usage Analysis' for glyphosate use on food items. That memo updates estimates of glyphosate use on crops in top agricultural states, and provides annual average use estimates for the decade 2004-2013.
Seventy crops are on the EPA list, ranging alphabetically from alfalfa and almonds to watermelons and wheat. And, when compared to a prior analysis that ran through 2011, it shows that glyphosate use has been growing in production of most of the key food crops on the list. Here's a snapshot:
- Glyphosate used on US soybean fields, on an average annual basis, was pegged at 101.2 million pounds; with corn-related use at 63.5 million pounds.
- Both estimates are up from a prior analysis that ran through 2011, which pegged average annual soybean use at 86.4 million pounds and corn at 54.6 million pounds.
- Both those crops are genetically engineered so they can be sprayed directly with glyphosate as farmers treat fields for weeds.
- Use with sugar beets, also genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant, was estimated at 1.3 million pounds, compared to 1 million pounds.
Notably, glyphosate use is also seen with a variety of crops not engineered to be sprayed directly. Looking at the period ending in 2013 compared to 2011:
- glyphosate use in wheat production was pegged at 8.6 million pounds, up from 8.1 million pounds;
- use in almonds was pegged at 2.1 million pounds, unchanged from the prior analysis;
- grape use was pegged at 1.5 million pounds, up from 1.4 million pounds;
- and rice use was estimated at 800,000 pounds, compared to 700,000 pounds in the prior analysis.
You can check out your own favorite food here, and compare it to the prior analysis here. Some on the list may surprise you, including cherries, avocados, apples, lemons, grapefruit, peanuts, pecans and walnuts.
But now the document has gone!
But here's the strange thing - the FDA has now withdrawn this document, along with several others. Fortunately we kept our downloaded copy!
Other withdrawn papers include an Oct. 1, 2015 internal EPA memorandum from its cancer assessment review committee (CARC) that contradicts the March 2015 finding by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifying glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. EPA found instead that glyphosate is "Not Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans."
The growing use of glyphosate on food crops has prompted calls for regulators to start testing levels of such residues on food to determine if they are within levels regulators deem safe. They've been doing such testing for years for residues of other agrichemicals. The Food and Drug Administration said in February it would start doing that type of testing for glyphosate residues this year on a limited basis.
In the meantime, the EPA, which sets the 'tolerance' levels that deem what is safe regarding pesticide residue, announced May 3 that it was finalizing a new rule that will expand the numbers of crops that can have tolerances established.
The EPA said this will "allow minor use growers a wider choice of pest control tools including lower-risk pesticides, to be used on minor crops, both domestically and in countries that import food to the United States."
The EPA's diligence on digging into glyphosate questions and concerns is encouraging to those who want to see a thorough risk assessment done. But the delay and the questionable actions with releasing documents and then withdrawing them from the public eye does not inspire confidence.
Indeed, in another curious move, the EPA on May 2 also issued a newly updated 'registration review schedule'. But while three dozen other chemical draft risk assessments are listed on the EPA website for release by the end of 2016, glyphosate was not included.
Carey Gillam is a veteran former Reuters journalist, current freelance writer/editor and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a food industry research group. Follow her on Twitter @CareyGillam
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