It is, by far, the most heavily used herbicide in the country, and—guess what?—the Food and Drug Administration has absolutely no idea how much of it actually ends up on the food you eat.
We’re talking about the weed killer glyphosate, more widely known by Monsanto’s trade name for it, Roundup. Even as use of the herbicide has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, the FDA has never bothered to test for chemical residues of it on foods headed to market.
This week, the agency announced that it will finally start conducting such tests in the coming year. According to Civil Eats, which broke the news, “FDA officials dubbed the issue ‘sensitive’ and declined to provide details of the plan.” Agency spokeswoman Lauren Sucher told the website the FDA “is now considering assignments for Fiscal Year 2016 to measure glyphosate in soybeans, corn, milk, and eggs, among other potential foods.”
The bland bureaucratic-speak is likely no accident. It’s more or less designed to obscure the fact that the FDA seriously—royally—screwed up on this one. After all, an agency chiefly responsible for ensuring the safety of our food supply to utterly fail to test for exposure to the single most widely used chemical pesticide is something like your local board of health inspecting restaurants but never setting foot in the kitchen. While it has long been billed as a safer alternative to a previous generation of agrochemicals, glyphosate has been attracting a lot more scrutiny as of late, particularly after the cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization declared the chemical a probable human carcinogen last year.
“Maybe we shamed them into it,” a spokesman for the Government Accounting Office told Civil Eats. It was the GAO that issued a report in 2014 taking the FDA to task for its failure to test for glyphosate on the foods it regulates—or, at the very least, for failing to adequately inform the public that it wasn’t testing for a chemical that now accounts for more than half of all herbicide sprayed in the U.S.
Thirty years ago, between 6 million and 8 million pounds of glyphosate was applied by American farmers and ranchers in a given year; by 2014, that number had soared to 240 million pounds. Monsanto’s introduction of “Roundup Ready” crops genetically engineered to tolerate being soaked in the broad-spectrum weed killer is what’s behind this staggering rise. The Evironmental Protection Agency does set a “maximum residue limit” for glyphosate—and it raised the allowable levels for some crops back in 2013. But the EPA doesn’t enforce the limits; that’s the job of the FDA.
For its part, Monsanto has not changed its tune on glyphosate. The company told Agri-Pulse, “If FDA does move forward with residue testing in a scientifically rigorous manner, we are confident it will reaffirm the safe use of this vital tool used safely and effectively by farmers, landowners and homeowners around the world.”
That reputation for safety took another hit this week when a coalition of scientist published a “statement of concern” in the journal Environmental Health. The group said the levels of human exposure deemed safe by regulatory agencies in the U.S. and the EU are based on “outdated science” and are likely too high. Glyphosate hasn’t only been linked to cancer, but also to liver and kidney damage, and it’s long been a suspected endocrine disruptor. And not only has glyphosate become far more prevalent all around us since the limits on human exposure were set both here and overseas, but it has been found to linger in the environment for much longer than was previously thought.
Which is all to say that the FDA’s decision to test for glyphosate residue is a step in the right direction, but finding out how much of the chemical remains on the food we buy is just one part of the equation. To truly protect public health, we’d also have to know how much glyphosate is safe to eat, right?
Setting that limit is the EPA’s job, and as it turns out, when it comes to glyphosate, that agency isn’t really any more on the ball than the FDA. In addition to increasing allowable residue levels in 2013, the EPA hasn’t updated its risk assessment for glyphosate since 1993.