How do you know the truth about Roundup?

From North Carolina State’s Turffiles’ Dr. Rick Brandenburg:

There has been a lot in the news lately about the herbicide glyphosate (most know it as Roundup) and its potential health hazards. In our world of social media, this topic has circled the globe many times and there is a lot of information on the subject; some of it factual and educational, much of it propaganda. I fully recognize that by posting this information, it will generate some discussion. This conversation is further complicated by certain advocacy groups who are on a mission and may not have all the pertinent information on the topic. I have no mission other than education and open science communication, nor am I am advocate for anything other than knowledge and using facts to get to the truth. As a scientist, I have spent more than 35 years teaching the importance of integrated pest management, including the value of reduced pesticide input and organic approaches as well as conducting research on those same topics.

Glyphosate has been studied as much as any pesticide in use today. It has been used extensively worldwide and has provided incredible value to agriculture since it has come on the market. Over the past few decades, the public has become increasingly disengaged with agriculture. Advances in technology and improvements in management approach and available products have resulted in increasing efficiency in agriculture production. As a result, a smaller percentage of the population is involved in that sector. Your average person on the street has no idea what it takes to produce the food on our table, protect public health, and maintain excellent green spaces, just like most farmers (and agricultural scientists) can’t program a computer, design a bridge, or perform heart surgery.

Any discussion on pesticides and their use in agricultural systems should be based on facts and research, not personal opinions. The recent MotherJones.com article “The Roundup Chemical Found Responsible for Cancer Might Also be in Your Cereal” is a perfect example of information offered by an advocacy group that is simply NOT accurate, but it grabs headlines and promotes fear. Advocacy groups use the anonymity and lack of fact-checking on social media to circulate misinformation that is accepted by the general public as “the truth”. To add further to the confusion, we all suffer from “confirmation bias”, searching out supporting documentation that confirms our opinion on a subject. We all have topics or issues with which we are familiar and often fear, or treat with suspicion, those with which we are less comfortable. I recently was made aware of the concern over a few bottles of wine in California that were found to contain 1 part per billion of a possible carcinogen, glyphosate. There was a lot of wringing of hands, general alarm, and demand for banning glyphosate. No one seemed the least bit concerned that each bottle contained approximately 120 million parts per billion of a known carcinogen…alcohol.

My intent with this post is to address concerns regarding pesticides in general, provide links to information regarding glyphosate specifically, and, hopefully, some ideas on how to move forward. My hope is that for those of you who have fears, these may serve as educational materials. I also hope that for those who deal with the public on a daily basis, you can use some of this information for educational purposes and perhaps help you communicate the facts.

In closing, it is important to acknowledge that for those who truly fear glyphosate, their fears are real, not imaginary, so keep that in mind. These people are not uneducated nor ignorant, they are just operating with a different set of information and from a different perspective. All we can do is provide the facts as best we know them and let them decide what they want to believe. Mocking them, making fun of them, or criticizing their intelligence is never appropriate and reflects poorly on all of us in our respective industries. It certainly doesn’t make them feel any more comfortable about us applying pesticides.

I am concerned about the future of America’s agriculture if trial lawyers continue to rob our farmers and others involved in plant health of the tools they need. It may result in the use of products that are more toxic or have less favorable environmental profiles. We could see the cost of food and activities increase while the availability goes down. We cannot feed the world relying on organic food production alone.

I hope this information is useful and helps improve communication between everyone involved.

Rick Brandenburg is WNR Distinguished Professor, Dept of Entomology and Plant Pathology, North Carolina State University.