Why Non-GMO labels don’t go far enough

GMOs and glyphosate

by Jeremy Caradonna and Thierry Vrain

spraying herbicides• The total sale of products with Non-GMO labels is now in the billions and the growth of this market is certainly to be applauded. However, the Non-GMO label inadvertently shields health-conscious consumers from one of the scarier realities of the modern food system – that glyphosate, which is the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup, is also being applied to non-genetically modified crops.

The world now has 500 million acres of GMO crops: mainly soy and corn in North and South America; cotton in the US, China and India; and canola, sugar beet and alfalfa in the US and Canada. These crops are genetically modified to withstand the application of glyphosate, in the form of Roundup – hence the label “Roundup Ready” crops. Glyphosate is a synthetic amino acid, a glycine analogue that kills all plants except for the crop engineered with a bacterial gene that provides resistance to the herbicide.

Numerous scientific studies since 2009 have shown that glyphosate inactivates detoxification enzymes, disrupts the endocrine system, damages the microbiome and immune system and is carcinogenic. Now, the symptoms of chronic diseases that have become epidemic in the last 20 years can be explained by its mis-incorporation as a synthetic amino acid in all our proteins. This explains why glyphosate accumulates in all human organs, including breast milk. The public suspects much of this, which is why foods labelled “Organic” – free of both GMOs and glyphosate – and “Non-GMO” continue to grow in market share.

It is also on the basis of these studies that the World Health Organization and the State of California recently listed glyphosate as a “carcinogen,” and many European countries that already tightly regulate glyphosate finally banned Roundup as an over-the-counter weed killer. On Vancouver Island, where we both reside, the municipalities of Victoria, Esquimalt, and Saanich have also banned the “general use” of Roundup.

What is less well known is that glyphosate is also being used as a “desiccant” on crops that are not genetically modified. At present, there are no GM cereal grains on the market, and thus crops such as wheat and barley cannot survive a dousing of glyphosate. But since 2000 or so, the USDA and Agriculture Canada have encouraged farmers to spray glyphosate onto grains and seed crops, in an effort to pre-emptively kill and dry out the crop prior to harvesting, to facilitate processing. This process is called chemical drying or desiccation. Glyphosate also kills the weeds around the crop, making it a convenient pre-harvest technique.

The Non-GMO label does not currently address the reality that products carrying the Non-GMO label contain conventional cereal grains that were doused with glyphosate. That is, many non-GMO crops have glyphosate residues in them. This should be a major concern that needs to be addressed. Among so many peer-reviewed studies, the only one widely publicized is from France (Seralini 2014), the findings of which are upheld by a top court, showing that RoundUp Ready corn – sprayed with glyphosate – is harmful to lab rats. The bulk of the results suggests it is glyphosate that is the toxic agent, a point that is somewhat missed by “Non-GMO” labelling.

In light of these facts, we urge the Non-GMO Project to take stock of this ambiguity and add “Glyphosate-Free” to its label for products that are, in fact, free of glyphosate. Short of such a development, the only certain way for consumers to avoid harmful dosages of glyphosate is to buy or grow organic foods.

Not only is glyphosate still legal in the US and Canada, but Agriculture Canada and the EPA recently raised the “safe” levels of glyphosate concentrations in human food and animal feed, in denial and defiance of the studies. The reason for the change comes from industry pressure, since glyphosate concentrations are, on the whole, rising in our food, a fact that has not received enough public attention.

Consumers have a right to know what foods are contaminated and what they are putting into their bodies and the best solution is to have clear labelling and well-informed consumers.

The regulation and labelling of GM foods is a good start, but we need to pay more attention to the toxic herbicides that most GMOs are modified to withstand. The European model of banning the spraying of glyphosate on all food crops – be they genetically modified or not – should be adopted in North and South America.

Dr. Jeremy L. Caradonna (PhD) teaches Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria. Dr. Thierry Vrain (PhD) is the former Head of Biotechnology at Agriculture Canada’s Summerland Research Station (retired).

farm photo © Stockr

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