In a major victory that could signal the beginning of the end for the use of glyphosate as a preharvest drying agent, or desiccant, food giant Kellogg has announced they’re phasing out the practice.
In a quiet revelation on their website’s glyphosate Q&A page, Kellogg addressed a question they’ve had from customers, which asks, “I’ve heard that farmers spray Roundup on crops before harvest to dry them out. Does that happen on crops that you use to make cereal?”1
In response, Kellogg states that while they do not own or operate any farms, they’ve been engaging with their suppliers about pesticide use, including the use of glyphosate as a desiccant, since before 2017. Notably, they state they’re in the process of stopping the controversial practice entirely, with plans of phasing it out by 2025:
“Although this practice is not widespread in our wheat and oat supply chains worldwide and is not an approved practice in the U.S., we are working with our suppliers to phase out using glyphosate as pre-harvest drying agent in our wheat and oat supply chain in our major markets by the end of 2025.”2
Why Is Glyphosate Used as a Desiccant?
About two weeks prior to harvesting grain crops like wheat, oats and barley, glyphosate may be sprayed onto the crop, which accelerates the drying process, allowing for earlier harvest.
This benefits farmers, as it may allow them to complete their harvest before wet weather comes and, by drying out the grain, it may reap them a higher profit, as the greater the moisture content of the grain at sale, the lower the price they get. As Kellogg stated:
“We know that some consumers have questions about the use of the herbicide glyphosate (also known by its brand name Round Up) as a drying agent a few weeks before harvest, particularly with wheat and oats. This practice is done by some farmers in certain circumstances — like harvesting the crop more quickly if weather is challenging.”3
Although it may not be officially approved, the use of glyphosate as a desiccant is widespread enough that it could be driving up human exposures and leading to high levels of glyphosate residues in popular foods.
While media headlines often focus on the use of glyphosate in genetically engineered (GE) crops, such as Roundup Ready varieties, the use of glyphosate as a desiccant may be particularly problematic because it’s sprayed so near to harvest, which could result in higher residue levels and greater exposures to consumers.4
Glyphosate as a Desiccant Could Be Driving Up Human Exposures
A revealing study published in JAMA in 2017 tested urine levels of glyphosate and its metabolite aminomethylphosphonic acid (AMPA) among 100 people living in Southern California over a period of 23 years — from 1993 to 2016.5
At the start of the study, very few of the participants had detectable levels of glyphosate in their urine, but by 2000 30% of them did and this rose to 70% by 2016.6 Overall, the prevalence of human exposure to glyphosate increased by 500% during the study period while actual levels of the chemical, in ug/ml, increased by a shocking 1,208%.7
Initially, one might suggest that the increases were due to exposure to GE crops, but this remained relatively stable during the study, leading experts to suggest that the preharvest spraying of glyphosate as a desiccant could be to blame.
In an analysis for Environmental Health News, Richard Jackson, professor at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA, and Charles Benbrook, a visiting scholar in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University, wrote:8
“Around 2002, farmers in the U.S. started adopting pre-harvest, desiccation uses of Roundup … Such ‘harvest aid’ uses of glyphosate entail spraying fields about two weeks prior to harvest … But spraying a mature grain or bean crop so close to harvest with a glyphosate-based herbicide results in much higher residues than traditional, spring or early summer applications.
Beginning around 2004 and over about the next decade, incrementally more acres were sprayed to speed up harvest in the U.S. It is nearly certain that residues from these applications were largely responsible for doubling the levels of glyphosate and its metabolite found in the urine of Rancho Bernado residents.”
Governments’ High Glyphosate Residues Allow for Desiccation
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), along with MegaFood, Ben & Jerry’s, Stonyfield Farm, MOM’s Organic Market, Nature’s Path, Happy Family Organics and other consumer groups, has petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to reduce the amount of glyphosate residues allowed in oats from 30 parts per million (ppm) to 0.1 ppm, as well as prohibit the use of glyphosate as a preharvest desiccant.9
The 0.1 ppm limit for glyphosate on oats was actually the legal limit in 1993 — it has since been raised 300-fold, in response to a petition from Monsanto around the time farmers began to widely use glyphosate as a desiccant late in the season.10 Similarly, in the E.U., the maximum residues level (MRL) for glyphosate in barley grain is 20 ppm but rises to 200 ppm for barley straw.
Writing in Frontiers in Environmental Science, researchers explained, “These high MRLs are set to accommodate the use of glyphosate as desiccant in farming of barley.” They added:11
“We find it disturbing that dominant agricultures are developing in such a way that toxins are used rather indiscriminately in order to ease harvesting. This use of herbicides is non-essential and from the perspective of both health of environment, hazardous.
Again, here we see a development which contributes to the increasing total load of pesticides, and glyphosate in particular, into biota, fields and consumer organisms.”
Glyphosate Residues in Popular Children’s Cereal
EWG has commissioned three rounds of glyphosate testing on cereals and other foods sold by Kellogg, General Mills and Quaker, the latest of which took place in 2019 and involved 21 oat-based cereal and snack products.
The chemical was found in all 21 products, with all but four of them coming in higher than EWG’s benchmark for lifetime cancer risk in children, which is 160 parts per billion (ppb).12
In response to their testing, which shows concerning levels of glyphosate in popular breakfast foods often marketed to children, more than 310,000 people have signed EWG’s petition calling on the cereal giants to remove the ubiquitous chemical from their products.13
EWG was among those who commended Kellogg for taking proactive steps to reduce glyphosate in their products. EWG President Ken Cook said in a news release:14
“We applaud Kellogg's for working with their suppliers to address the risks posed by glyphosate. It’s no surprise that consumers don’t want a controversial weedkiller in their cereal. Now it’s time for General Mills and Quaker to listen to their customers and fall in behind Kellogg's leadership and do the same – end this use of this notorious weedkiller.”
To be clear, it’s not only oats and cereal products that are impacted by glyphosate residues — it’s prevalent in a number of foods and substances. Glyphosate has been detected in PediaSure Enteral Formula nutritional drink, which is given to infants and children via feeding tubes, for instance.15
It’s also found in air, rain, municipal water supplies, soil samples, breast milk, urine, organic plant-based protein supplements and even vaccines, including the pneumococcal, Tdap, hepatitis B (which is injected on the day of birth), influenza and MMR.16
Kellogg’s step to avoid glyphosate as a desiccant for its products is a positive move, but it’s only one of many needed to help reduce exposure to this widespread contaminant.
Roundup Cancer Lawsuits Could Surpass 75,000
Why is it so important to get glyphosate out of our food and water supplies? In the U.S., approximately 42,700 U.S. lawsuits from individuals alleging that glyphosate caused them to develop cancer have already been filed.17 Bayer, which acquired Monsanto, Roundup’s original maker, in 2018, is in settlement talks to resolve the litigation but continues to deny that the chemical causes cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) identified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015,18 however, and research published in Frontiers in Genetics also supports glyphosate’s cancer link, finding that exposure in low concentrations (in parts per trillion) may induce cancer in cells when combined with microRNA-182-5p (miR182-5p).19
MicroRNA-182-5p is a gene regulatory molecule found in everyone, and overexpression of the molecule has been linked to cancer. Michael Antoniou of King's College London, who peer reviewed the study, stated, “These observations highlight for the first time a possible biomarker of glyphosate activity at the level of gene expression that could be linked with breast cancer formation.”20
Ken Feinber, a court-appointed mediator, stated in January 2020 that Roundup cancer claimants could surpass 75,000.21 In the first three cases to go to trial, Bayer has been ordered to pay billions of dollars to the plaintiffs, although the awards were later slashed to the tens of millions range.
Bayer’s latest tactic is trying to circumvent the filing of new Roundup lawsuits by banning plaintiffs' lawyers from advertising for new clients.22
What Are the Risks of Glyphosate Exposure?
Aside from cancer, significant bioaccumulation of glyphosate has been documented in the kidney, an organ with known susceptibility to glyphosate, and glyphosate-induced kidney toxicity has been associated with disturbances in the expression of genes associated with fibrosis, necrosis and mitochondrial membrane dysfunction.23
Further, research published in 2015 found that glyphosate in combination with aluminum synergistically induced pineal gland pathology, which in turn was linked to gut dysbiosis and neurological diseases such as autism, depression, dementia, anxiety disorder and Parkinson's disease.24
A number of animal and human diseases have been rising in step with glyphosate usage. This includes conditions such as failure to thrive, congenital heart defects, enlarged right ventricle, liver cancer, and, in newborns, lung problems, metabolic disorders and genitourinary disorders.25
The environmental risks are also immense. Speaking to Politico, Jeroen van der Sluijs, a professor of science and ethics at Norway's Bergen University, explained:26
“It [glyphosate] kills a lot of non-target plants and it leads to an agricultural practice where you have monoculture with no wild plants left in the fields … If you remove all the wild plants from the fields then you only have the crop that flowers and that's only a very short period in the year. The rest of the year there's nothing to forage on.
… We find [glyphosate] everywhere in surface waters, it is indeed toxic for all kinds of aquatic organisms, so of special concern are amphibians like frogs and salamanders.”
The take-home message here is that some companies, including Kellogg, are starting to wake up (and/or respond to consumer demand) and are taking steps to get glyphosate out of their food. But in the meantime, it’s important to choose organic or biodynamically grown foods, to filter your home’s water and to avoid using glyphosate around your home and garden.
If you’re interested, the Health Research Institute (HRI) in Iowa developed the glyphosate urine test kit, which will allow you to determine your own exposure to this toxic herbicide. They’re also in the process of doing hair testing for glyphosate, which is a better test for long-term exposure.
If it turns out that you have measurable levels of glyphosate in your body, Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), shared some tips for detoxing glyphosate here.
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