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Glyphosate: A review of its global use, environmental impact, and potential health effects on humans and other species

Abstract

Glyphosate, [N-(phosphonomethyl) glycine], was synthesized in 1950 and patented as a chemical chelator, capable of binding metals such as calcium, magnesium, and manganese. Glyphosate’s ability to bind to manganese was later found to inhibit an enzyme used by plants and bacteria for biosynthesis of three amino acids found in all proteins, and the commercial value of this property led to the development and marketing of glyphosate as a broad-spectrum herbicide. In 1974, the Monsanto Chemical Company introduced the herbicide as Roundup™, a formulation of glyphosate and adjuvants. Roundup™ was originally used for weed control in specific farming and landscaping operations and around power lines and train tracks. Following introduction of Roundup Ready™ seeds, in the 1990s, glyphosate use increased significantly. Although Monsanto’s patent on glyphosate expired in 2002, the widespread and growing use of Roundup Ready™ seed globally and competitive glyphosate marketing by other chemical companies have led to glyphosate’s significant increase in the environment. Concerns about potential adverse effects have also grown. While, at present, many regulatory agencies have determined that there is little risk of adverse health effects to the general public or to farmworkers using proper handling techniques, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) assessing hazard data on glyphosate identified it in 2016 as a category 2A carcinogen (likely to cause human cancer). Response to this classification has been divided: The agribusiness industry has been forceful in its opposition, while other experts support IARC’s classification. The following article examines these issues. It also examines the basis for regulatory decisions, controversies involved, and questions of environmental justice that may or may not be addressed as glyphosate continues to be used.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Data based on information from US Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistical Service, and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Data from EPA includes both farming and non-farming uses, and calculations for non-agricultural use represent adjustments, taking the higher EPA estimates into consideration.

  2. 2.

    Dr. Portier, now a consulting scientist, was formerly director or associate director of several US environmental agencies and, while not participating as a member of the expert panel in the IARC evaluation of glyphosate, did attend the meeting. In his present consulting role, he has been an expert witness for a US law firm involved in glyphosate litigation. Although at the time he attended the IARC meeting, he was not involved in glyphosate litigation, according to a letter from Reps. Lamar Alexander (R-Tex), Andy Biggs (R-AZ), and Frank Lucas (R-OK) (Smith et al. 2017) to Dr. Christopher Wild, IARC Director, Dr. Portier became involved in glyphosate litigation 9 days after the IARC assessment was announced. A publication by Corporate Europe Observatory (Corporate Europe Observatory 2017) defends Dr. Portier’s work, noting that he did not sign a contract until 29 days following the IARC meeting, and that more than 90% of his work as an expert witness was “performed and billed” in 2017.

  3. 3.

    In November 2017, a lawsuit was filed in California (National Association of Wheat Growers et al. v. Lauren Zeise, director of OEHHA, et al., US District Court, Eastern District of California), by several farm groups and Monsanto against the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to halt labeling under Proposition 65. The suit claims that the requirement would mandate that foodstuffs made from crops grown with glyphosate be labeled, and that such a requirement is an undue burden. According to Scott Partridge, Monsanto Vice President of global strategy, “Such warnings would equate to compelled false speech, directly violate the First Amendment, and generate unwarranted public concern and confusion.” (Polansek 2017)

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Acknowledgements

The author would like to thank Dr. Rebecca Berkey, Center of Community Service Northeastern University, Dr. Daniel Faber, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, and Ms. Jennie Economos the Environmental Health Project Coordinator of the Farmworker Association of Florida for their valuable feedback and suggestions for this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Martha E. Richmond.

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Richmond, M.E. Glyphosate: A review of its global use, environmental impact, and potential health effects on humans and other species. J Environ Stud Sci 8, 416–434 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-018-0517-2

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Keywords

  • Glyphosate
  • Environmental health
  • Ecosystem
  • Environmental justice
  • Agribusiness