FDA Suspends Testing for Glyphosate Residues in Food

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By Carey Gillam

Government testing for residues of an herbicide that has been linked to cancer has been put on hold, slowing the Food and Drug Administration’s first-ever endeavor to get a handle on just how much of the controversial chemical is making its way into U.S. foods.

The FDA, the nation’s chief food safety regulator, launched what it calls a “special assignment” earlier this year to analyze certain foods for residues of the weed killer called glyphosate after the agency was criticized  by the U.S. Government Accountability Office for failing to include glyphosate in annual testing programs that look for many less-used pesticides. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world, and is the key ingredient in Monsanto Co.’s branded Roundup herbicide line.

Glyphosate is under particular scrutiny now after the World Health Organization’s cancer experts last year declared the chemical a probable human carcinogen. Several private groups and nonprofits have been doing their own testing, and have been finding glyphosate residues in varying levels in a range of foods, raising consumer concerns about the pesticide’s presence in the American diet.

The FDA’s residue testing for glyphosate was combined with a broader herbicides analysis program the FDA set in motion in February of this year. But the glyphosate testing has been particularly challenging for the FDA. The agency was finally forced to put the glyphosate residue testing part of the work plan on hold amid confusion, disagreement and difficulties with establishing a standard methodology to use across the agency’s multiple U.S. laboratories, according to FDA sources. Equipment issues have also been a problem, with some labs citing a need for more sensitive instruments, sources within FDA said.

FDA spokeswoman Megan McSeveney confirmed the testing suspension and said the agency is not sure when it will resume.

“As testing for glyphosate will expand to several locations, we are currently working to ensure that the methods are validated for use in these labs. As soon as the validation is completed, testing for glyphosate will resume,” she said. “We cannot speculate on timing at this point.”

Alongside the testing for glyphosate, the FDA laboratories have also been analyzing foods for 2,4-D and other “acid herbicides,” documents obtained from the FDA show. The category of acid herbicides includes five of the top 10 active ingredients used in homes and gardens. Usage of 2,4-D is expected to triple in the coming year, according to the FDA.

The FDA work detail calls for the examination of roughly 1,340 food samples, 82 percent of which are to be domestic and 18 percent imported. The foods are to be collected from warehouse and retail stores only, and are to include a variety of cereal grains, vegetables and non-flavored, whole milk and eggs. Documents obtained from the agency through Freedom of Information requests show the agency has been testing corn and soybeanswheat, barley, sugar beets, rice, and even samples of yellow popcorn and “organic white popcorn.” 

McSeveney said glyphosate residues were only being analyzed in soy, corn, milk and eggs and the popcorn samples, while the other foods are being tested for residues of other herbicides.

Earlier this year, one of the agency’s senior chemists also analyzed glyphosate residues in honey and oatmeal and reported his results to the agency. Some honey samples contained residue levels well over the limit allowed in the European Union. The United States has no legal tolerance for glyphosate in honey, though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said recently it may set one because of the FDA findings. The results for honey and oatmeal are not considered to be part of the official assignment, however, according to McSeveney.

With the testing on hold, it is not clear when the agency might have final results on the glyphosate residue analysis. McSeveney said preliminary results showed no violations of legal tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate in the foods tested. She did not provide details on what, if any, levels of residue were found. Tolerance levels are set by the EPA for a variety of pesticides expected to be found in foods. When residue levels are detected above the tolerance levels, enforcement action can be taken against the food producer.

Monsanto said earlier this year that no data has ever indicated residue levels of more than a fraction of allowable levels, and it is confident FDA testing will reaffirm the safety of its herbicide.

Though FDA annually tests domestic and imported foods for residues of other pesticides, it never tested for glyphosate before. It has not routinely tested for 2,4-D either, a fact also criticized by the GAO. The FDA testing for 2,4-D residues comes as the use of 2,4-D with food crops is expected to start rising due to the commercialization of new formulated herbicide products that combine glyphosate and 2,4-D. Safety questions have been raised about the combination. But the EPA gave a green light on Nov. 1 to a Dow AgroSciences’ herbicide combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D. The new products are intended to counter widespread weed resistance to glyphosate, and be used with new types of genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops.

The agrichemical industry asserts that residues of glyphosate, 2,4-D and the array of other chemicals used in modern-day agriculture do not pose a danger to human health, but the lack of testing to determine actual residue levels of some of the most-used chemicals, like glyphosate and 2,4-D, has been troubling to many consumer groups.

Getting solid data on glyphosate’s presence in the American food supply is more important than ever now as the EPA finalizes a risk assessment for glyphosate and tries to determine if any limits should be put on future use of the herbicide. The FDA work covers only a few foods, but is a long-needed, good first step. Consumers can only hope the testing resumes soon.

The article was first published in the Huffington Post

What Bill Gates Isn’t Saying About GMOs

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Also see:
Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign? And why is Gates Foundation funding it?

As the big food companies announce plans to label genetically engineered foods in the United States, it’s a good time to take a closer look at the stories we hear from proponents and people who are raising concerns about the controversial food technology. Two recent videos illuminate the divide over GMOs.

In January, Bill Gates explained his support for genetic engineering in an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein:

“What are called GMOs are done by changing the genes of the plant, and it’s done in a way where there’s a very thorough    safety procedure, and it’s pretty incredible because it reduces the amount of pesticide you need, raises productivity (and) can help with malnutrition by getting vitamin fortification. And so I think, for Africa, this is going to make a huge difference, particularly as they face climate change …

The US, China, Brazil, are using these things and if you want farmers in Africa to improve nutrition and be competitive on the world market, you know, as long as the right safety things are done, that’s really beneficial. It’s kind of a second round of the green revolution. And so the Africans I think will choose to let their people have enough to eat.”

If Gates is right, that’s great news. That means the key to solving the hunger problem is lowering barriers for companies to get their climate-resilient, nutrition-improved genetically engineered crops to market.

Is Gates right?  

Another video released the same week as Gates’ WSJ interview provides a different perspective.

The short film by the Center for Food Safety describes how the state of Hawaii, which hosts more open-air fields of experimental genetically engineered crops than any other state, has become contaminated with high volumes of toxic pesticides.

The film and report explain that five multinational agrichemical companies run 97% of GE field tests on Hawaii, and the large majority of the crops are engineered to survive herbicides. According to the video:

“With so many GE field tests in such a small state, many people in Hawaii live, work and go to school near intensively sprayed test sites. Pesticides often drift so it’s no wonder that children and school and entire communities are getting sick. To make matters even worse, in most cases, these companies are not even required to disclose what they’re spraying.”

If the Center for Food Safety is right, that’s a big problem. Both these stories can’t be right at the same time, can they?

Facts on the ground

Following the thread of the Gates’ narrative, one would expect the agricultural fields of Hawaii – the leading testing grounds for genetically engineered crops in the U.S. – to be bustling with low-pesticide, climate-resilient, vitamin-enhanced crops.

Instead, the large majority of GMO crops being grown on Hawaii and in the US are herbicide-tolerant crops that are driving up the use of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup and a chemical the World Health Organization’s cancer experts classify as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the 20 years since Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” GMO corn and soy, glyphosate use has increased 15-fold and it is now “the most heavily-used agricultural chemical in the history of the world”, reported Douglas Main in Newsweek.

The heavy herbicide use has accelerated weed resistance on millions of acres of farmland. To deal with this problem, Monsanto is rolling out new genetically engineered soybeans designed to survive a combination of weed-killing chemicals, glyphosate and dicamba. EPA has yet to approve the new herbicide mix.

But Dow Chemical just got the green light from a federal judge for its new weed-killer combo of 2,4D and glyphosate, called Enlist Duo, designed for Dow’s Enlist GMO seeds. EPA tossed aside its own safety data to approve Enlist Duo, reported Patricia Callahan in Chicago Tribune.

The agency then reversed course and asked the court to vacate its own approval – a request the judge denied without giving reason.

All of this raises questions about the claims Bill Gates made in his Wall Street Journal interview about thorough safety procedures and reduced use of pesticides.

 Concerns grow in Hawaii, Argentina, Iowa

Instead of bustling with promising new types of resilient adaptive GMO crops, Hawaii is bustling with grassroots efforts to protect communities from pesticide drift, require chemical companies to disclose the pesticides they are using, and restrict GMO crop-growing in areas near schools and nursing homes.

Schools near farms in Kauai have been evacuated due to pesticide drift, and doctors in Hawaii say they are observing increases in birth defects and other illnesses they suspect may be related to pesticides, reported Christopher Pala in the Guardian and The Ecologist.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, prenatal and early-life pesticide exposures are linked to childhood cancers, decreased cognitive function, behavioral problems and birth defects.

In Argentina – the world’s third largest producer of GMO crops – doctors are also raising concerns about higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects they suspect are related to pesticides, reported Michael Warren in The Associated Press.

Warren’s story from 2013 cited evidence of “uncontrolled pesticide applications”:

“The Associated Press documented dozens of cases around the country where poisons are applied in ways unanticipated by regulatory science or specifically banned by existing law. The spray drifts into schools and homes and settles over water sources; farmworkers mix poisons with no protective gear; villagers store water in pesticide containers that should have been destroyed.”

In a follow-up story, Monsanto defended glyphosate as safe and called for more controls to stop the misuse of agricultural chemicals, and Warren reported:

“Argentine doctors interviewed by the AP said their caseloads – not laboratory experiments – show an apparent correlation between the arrival of intensive industrial agriculture and rising rates of cancer and birth defects in rural communities, and they’re calling for broader, longer-term studies to rule out agrochemical exposure as a cause of these and other illnesses.”

Monsanto spokesman Thomas Helscher responded, “the absence of reliable data makes it very difficult to establish trends in disease incidence and even more difficult to establish causal relationships. To our knowledge there are no established causal relationships.”

The absence of reliable data is compounded by the fact that most chemicals are assessed for safety on an individual basis, yet exposures typically involve chemical combinations.

 ‘We are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals’

A recent UCLA study found that California regulators are failing to assess the health risks of pesticide mixtures, even though farm communities – including areas near schools, day care centers and parks – are exposed to multiple pesticides, which can have larger-than-anticipated health impacts.

Exposures also occur by multiple routes. Reporting on health problems and community concerns in Avia Teria, a rural town in Argentina surrounded by soybean fields, Elizabeth Grossman wrote in National Geographic:

“Because so many pesticides are used in Argentina’s farm towns, the challenges of understanding what may be causing the health problems are considerable, says Nicolas Loyacono, a University of Buenos Aires environmental health scientist and physician. In these communities, Loyacono says, “we are breathing, eating, and drinking agrochemicals.”

In Iowa, which grows more genetically engineered corn than any other state in the U.S., water supplies have been polluted by chemical run off from corn and animal farms, reported Richard Manning in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine:

“Scientists from the state’s agricultural department and Iowa State University have penciled out and tested a program of such low-tech solutions. If 40% of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture – certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water – would begin to evaporate.”

These experiences in three areas leading the world in GMO crop production are obviously relevant to the question of whether Africa should embrace GMOs as the best solution for future food security. So why isn’t Bill Gates discussing these issues?

Propaganda watch

GMO proponents like to focus on possible future uses of genetic engineering technology, while downplaying, ignoring or denying the risks. They often try to marginalize critics who raise concerns as uninformed or anti-science; or, as Gates did, they suggest a false choice that countries must accept GMOs if they want “to let their people have enough to eat.”

This logic leaps over the fact that, after decades of development, most GMO crops are still engineered to withstand herbicides or produce insecticides (or both) while more complicated (and much hyped) traits, such as vitamin-enhancement, have failed to get off the ground.

“Like the hover boards of the Back to the Future franchise, golden rice is an old idea that looms just beyond the grasp of reality,” reported Tom Philpott in Mother Jones.

Meanwhile, the multinational agrichemical companies that also own a large portion of the seed business are profiting from both the herbicide-resistant seeds and the herbicides they are designed to resist, and many new GMO applications in the pipeline follow this same vein.

These corporations have also spent hundreds of million dollars on public relations efforts to promote industrial-scale, chemical-intensive, GMO agriculture as the answer to world hunger – using similar talking points that Gates put forth in his Wall Street Journal interview, and that Gates-funded groups also echo.

For a recent article in The Ecologist, I analyzed the messaging of the Cornell Alliance for Science, a pro-GMO communications program launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million grant from the Gates Foundation.

My analysis found that the group provides little information about possible risks or downsides of GMOs, and instead amplifies the agrichemical industry’s PR mantra that the science is settled on the safety and necessity of GMOs.

For example, the group’s FAQ states,

“You are more likely to be hit by an asteroid than be hurt by GE food – and that’s not an exaggeration.”

This contradicts the World Health Organization, which states, “it is not possible to make general statements on the safety of all GM foods.” Over 300 scientists, MDs and academics have said there is “no scientific consensus on GMO safety.”

The concerns scientists are raising about the glyphosate-based herbicides that go with GMOs are also obviously relevant to the safety discussion.

Yet rather than raising these issues as part of a robust science discussion, the Cornell Alliance for Science deploys fellows and associates to downplay concerns about pesticides in Hawaii and attack journalists who report on these concerns.

It’s difficult to understand how these sorts of shenanigans are helping to solve hunger in Africa.

Public science for sale

The Cornell Alliance for Science is the latest example of a larger troubling pattern of universities and academics serving corporate interests over science.

Recent scandals relating to this trend include Coca-Cola funded professors who downplayed the link between diet and obesity, a climate-skeptic professor who described his scientific papers as “deliverables” for corporate funders, and documents obtained by my group U.S. Right to Know that reveal professors working closely with Monsanto to promote GMOs without revealing their ties to Monsanto.

In an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor who helped expose the Flint water crisis, warned that public science is in grave danger.

“I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill – pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index – and the idea of science as a public good is being lost … People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.”

As the world’s wealthiest foundation and as major funders of academic research, especially in the realm of agriculture, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is in a position to support science in the public interest.

Gates Foundation strategies, however, often align with corporate interests. A 2014 analysis by the Barcelona-based research group Grain found that about 90% of the $3 billion the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent to benefit hungry people in the world’s poorest countries went to wealthy nations, mostly for high-tech research.

A January 2016 report by the UK advocacy group Global Justice Now argues that Gates Foundation spending, especially on agricultural projects, is exacerbating inequality and entrenching corporate power globally.

“Perhaps what is most striking about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is that despite its aggressive corporate strategy and extraordinary influence across governments, academics and the media, there is an absence of critical voices,” the group said.

But corporate voices are close at hand. The head of the Gates Foundation agricultural research and development team is Rob Horsch, who spent decades of his career at Monsanto.

 The case for an honest conversation

Rather than making the propaganda case for GMOs, Bill Gates and Gates-funded groups could play an important role in elevating the scientific integrity of the GMO debate, and ensuring that new food technologies truly benefit communities.

Technology isn’t inherently good or bad; it all depends on the context. As Gates put it, “as long as the right safety things are done.” But those safety things aren’t being done.

Protecting children from toxic pesticide exposures in Hawaii and Argentina and cleaning up water supplies in Iowa doesn’t have to prevent genetic engineering from moving forward. But those issues certainly highlight the need to take a precautionary approach with GMOs and pesticides.

That would require robust and independent assessments of health and environmental impacts, and protections for farmworkers and communities.

That would require transparency, including labeling GMO foods as well as open access to scientific data, public notification of pesticide spraying, and full disclosure of industry influence over academic and science organizations.

It would require having a more honest conversation about GMOs and pesticides so that all nations can use the full breadth of scientific knowledge as they consider whether or not to adopt agrichemical industry technologies for their food supply.

Stacy Malkan is co-founder and co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know. Sign up for our newsletter here. Stacy is author of the book, ‘Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,’ (New Society Publishing, 2007) and co-founded the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Follow Stacy on Twitter: @stacymalkan.

Why Is the Gates Foundation Funding a GMO Propaganda Campaign at Cornell?

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News Release

For Immediate Release: Friday, January 22, 2016
For More Information Contact: Stacy Malkan, 510-542-9224, stacy@usrtk.org

A new analysis by U.S. Right to Know published today in The Ecologist documents how millions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are being used to run a propaganda campaign out of Cornell University that promotes GMOs and pesticides for the benefit of agrichemical corporations.

The article documents how the Cornell Alliance for Science, launched in 2014 with a $5.6 million Gates Foundation grant, is operating as a PR campaign that promotes genetically engineered crops and foods using the same inaccurate messaging and unscrupulous tactics the agrichemical industry uses to push its agenda for chemically intensive, GMO agriculture.

Findings include:

  • Under the guise of “standing up for science,” the Cornell Alliance for Science routinely makes unscientific statements about GMOs.
  • The Cornell Alliance for Science partners with chemical industry PR operatives to teach “science” to students.
  • The Cornell Alliance for Science offers fellowships for GMO advocates including an ethically questionable journalism fellowship.

Evidence for these claims is described in detail in the article “Why is Cornell University hosting a GMO propaganda campaign?” by Stacy Malkan, co-director of the consumer group U.S. Right to Know.

Earlier this week, the U.K.-based campaign group Global Justice Now released a report making the case that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable foundation in the world, is funding strategies that promote multinational corporate interests at the expense of social and economic justice.

For more information about the Gates Foundation:

Global Justice Now report, January 2016, “Gated Development – is the Gates Foundation always a force for good?”

Guardian, “Are Gates and Rockefeller using their influence to set agenda in poor states?”

Seattle Times, “New Report says Gates Foundation favors businesses, not poor,”

Grain report, November 2014, “How does the Gates Foundation spend its money to feed the world?”

U.S. Right to Know is a nonprofit organization that investigates the risks associated with the corporate food system, and the food industry’s practices and influence on public policy. We promote the free market principle of transparency – in the marketplace and in politics – as crucial to building a better, healthier food system.

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