Letter from Washington — From the September 2015 issue

Weed Whackers

Monsanto, glyphosate, and the war on invasive species

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For all Monsanto’s talk of “life sciences,” the company’s profits, especially in those days, rode on glyphosate. According to Tao Orion’s book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, the compound was originally invented to clean dishwashers and other appliances. Then someone noticed that it destroyed any plant it touched. By the late 1990s, Monsanto’s Roundup revenues were growing at 20 percent a year, and the compound was duly revered inside the corporation. As the former company executive put it to me: “Roundup was God at Monsanto.”

Such divine status was assured by its symbiotic relationship with Monsanto’s bioengineered corn and soybeans. The strategy worked. Farmers were planting GMO crops in ever-increasing amounts — from just over 4 million acres worldwide in 1996 to 430 million in 2013.

The results of this exotic intervention were not so positive, however, for Raven’s treasured biodiversity. The larva of the monarch butterfly, for example, feeds exclusively on milkweed, a plant that glyphosate is tremendously effective at killing: unlike other herbicides, it attacks the milkweed’s roots. As the rain of glyphosate increased, surpassing 141,000 tons on U.S. crops in 2012, the butterfly’s food supply dwindled to the vanishing point. In 1995, at the dawn of the Roundup Ready era, a billion monarchs fluttered over America’s fields; by 2014, the number had fallen to 35 million, and there was talk of declaring the butterfly an endangered species.

Raven remains optimistic about the monarch, citing Monsanto’s “very exciting” plan to foster milkweed growth in noncultivated areas. Such natural oases, however, are few and far between in the Corn Belt. Those that remain are likely to host other invasive plants, such as garlic mustard, denounced as a “serious invader from the east” by Iowa State University, which inevitably recommends “spot applications” of glyphosate as a remedy.

Meanwhile, the growth curve in glyphosate use has steepened, thanks to a practice that began in 2004. Late in the season, many farmers are now spraying the compound on crops that are not bioengineered to resist it, in order to kill them off and produce artificially early harvests.

“You can imagine the residue levels on the damn wheat,” said Charles Benbrook, an agricultural economist at Washington State University. “If you buy whole-wheat bread, the glyphosate will be ground up with the whole-wheat kernel and it will be part of the flour. It’s a very high exposure. When they make white flour, the bran gets separated out and is used in the food supply in other places. That bran will have three or four times the concentration of glyphosate, because that’s where the residues are lodged. It’s insanity.”

Over the years, there have been repeated allegations that glyphosate is dangerous for humans — charges vehemently denied by Monsanto and its friends in high places. “Table salt and baby shampoo are more toxic, or as toxic, as glyphosate,” Rand Beers told 60 Minutes in 2001. Beers, George W. Bush’s assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, was defending the U.S.-funded spraying of a glyphosate-based compound on millions of acres in Colombia as part of an effort to wipe out coca plantations. Despite Beers’s dutiful denials, however, the mixture turned out to be a lot more dangerous than baby shampoo, afflicting the population with painful rashes and other ailments. It also did a fine job of wiping out the vegetables and poultry that made up the local food supply, while often failing to kill the coca plant, its intended target.

This disaster made no difference. Nor did a 1985 EPA study suggesting that glyphosate might give humans cancer, a finding that the EPA reversed in another study six years later. In 2013, a French report on the compound’s carcinogenic effect on rats was withdrawn in the face of an intense lobbying effort by the company. Through thick and thin, Monsanto stuck to its mantra: in the words of a company spokesperson, “All labeled uses of glyphosate are safe for human health and supported by one of the most extensive worldwide human health databases ever compiled on an agricultural product.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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