By: KEN MIDKIFF
When I was a pre-teenager, my summer job was that of a post-emergent weed killer. What that involved was walking in the hot sun through seemingly endless soybean fields and chopping buttonweed, cockleburr and foxtail plants. Given the rotation of crops, soybean fields were usually preceded by corn, so what I mostly chopped was “volunteer corn.” The only respite was when the fields were too wet and muddy to walk through. Threatening clouds were a welcome sight.
For my lonely and hot work, I was paid a dollar an hour. So not only were the farmers who hired in violation of child labor laws, chances are they were also in violation of minimum wage laws. To my childhood wallet, that meant eight dollars per day or $40 per week.
But, for what I consider piles of money, I was not a carcinogen. Walking those endless field chopping down undesirable plants did not involve causing cancer.
Enter glyphosate. Otherwise known by the Monsanto-branded name as Roundup. It is a pre-emergent herbicide, killing all plant seeds that have not been genetically modified to withstand its killing ways. The main crop that it is applied to is soybeans. Roundup took the place of all those rural pre-teenagers who walked down rows of soybeans chopping out corn and other non-soybean plants.
A farmer friend who detests Genetically modified organisms wanted nothing to do with Roundup-ready soybean seeds, so the set out to locate soybean seeds that were not ready for glyphosate. After weeks of searching, he finally succeeded, but he learned that most farm retail outlets sold only Roundup-ready soybean seeds.
What is at risk now is not only health-related matters, but continuous U.S. funding for the World Health Organization , specifically its International Agency for Research on Cancer. The IARC, after reviewing many research studies, concluded that glyphosate causes an increase in breast cancer.
Other studies contradicted that conclusion, contending that IARC “cherrypicked,” by only reviewing studies that supported the conclusion that was reached.
The threat to remove U.S. funding for IARC is not an idle one. The chair of the U.S. House committee that oversees such things — the House Science Committee — is headed up by Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas. Smith’s committee recently held a hearing on this issue, and heard from, among others, a representative from the pesticide industry. Those opposed to listing glyphosate as a carcinogen apparently persuaded a majority of the House Science Committee. (As best as I can tell, the job of the House Science Committee is to badmouth science and dismiss scientific findings.) A Monsanto spokesman (note the gender) expressed pleasure.
So, does Roundup cause increased levels of breast cancer? The answer to that depends on whether one believes the WHO/IARC or a spokesman for the pesticide industry.
Ken Midkiff, formerly the director of the Sierra Club Clean Water Campaign, is now chair the city’s Environment and Energy Commission and serves on the board of directors of the Great Rivers Environmental Law Center.