A Book Reviewer Tried Telling Spooky Monsanto Stories for Halloween. He Sounded Foolish

Val Giddings November 5, 2021
November 5, 2021

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What better time than the Halloween season to indulge anxieties about mortality and its discontents and give running room to a host of imaginary fears and monsters?

That must have been what The Washington Post was thinking when it populated its book review pages last week with an entry that resurrected the late company that environmental activists most loved to hate, Monsanto, which departed this world in June 2018 through an acquisition by German multinational Bayer. Many of Monsanto’s components have since been absorbed into Bayer’s business structure and culture, but fevered opponents continue to exhume the corporate corpse and parade it through the streets when opportunities arise.

The latest book in the heavily populated “Monsatan” genre, reviewed in the Post by “environmental journalist” Richard Schiffman, apparently adds little or nothing to the many similar tomes that have gone before, and given its late arrival is of dubious relevance. But the review itself perpetuates a host of imaginary monsters that deserve to rest in peace. Herewith, a partial list.

The first mythical monster the review trots out, predictably, is glyphosate, more familiar by its trade name Roundup. Schiffman’s review describes it as “the best-selling agricultural chemical in history, dousing the corn, soy and cotton fields of middle America for decades.” He writes:

Monsanto claimed that Roundup was “safer than table salt,” “environmentally friendly,” even “biodegradable.” It turned out to be none of the above. In addition to being deemed a “probable human carcinogen,” Roundup was shown to be a threat to bees, butterflies and aquatic organisms.

Each of these claims is false, unambiguously contradicted by the data.

First, when farmers use glyphosate to control weeds (which reduce yields, profits, and drive the conversion of wildlands to agriculture to the detriment of biodiversity), they do not “douse” their crops with it. Dousing implies drenching. A typical application rate is ~22oz/acre which is less than 2 cans of Coca-Cola over an area of 43,560 square feet—0.0005 ounces per square foot. That doesn’t even clear the threshold to be called “dampening,” much less dousing. We’re not off to a good start here.

As to the assertions that Roundup is neither safer than table salt, nor environmentally friendly, nor biodegradable, it is important to consider how glyphosate compares to the likely alternatives, which include areazine, bromoxynil, glufosinate, sulfonylureas—or, most destructive of all, plowing. The data show clearly that Roundup is kinder to the environment than any of those, and combined with its superior ease of use, that’s why it rocketed into the position of “the best-selling agricultural chemical in history.” That said, let’s have a look at safety.

Toxicologists use science to determine whether a chemical is safe, but the foundation was laid down by Paracelsus, a Swiss physician who lived from 1493 to 1541. His key insight was that “Everything is a poison, nothing is without poison; only the dose decides that something is not a poison.” One of the simplest ways toxicologists apply this insight today is by referring to a single number, the LD50, which is the dose of a substance that will kill half of the animals exposed to it. LD50s are found in Material Safety Data Sheets or MSDS. A representative MSDS for table salt (NaCl) lists the LD50 in rats for NaCl as 3,000mg/kg. In other words, if a number of individual one-pound rats (the average adult male rat weighs a pound or less) each were forced to consume three grams of salt, then half of them would die. The corresponding number for glyphosate is 5,000mg/kg. In other words, it takes almost twice as much Roundup as table salt to kill a rat. It is further relevant that glyphosate targets a metabolic pathway that is unique to plants (and some microbes) but absent in mammals. These considerations combine to give glyphosate one of the lowest toxicity profiles ever seen in an agricultural chemical. It doesn’t get much safer than that. Strike two for the reviewer.

What about the question of whether it is “environmentally friendly”? Measuring environmental friendliness is complicated, but toxicity is certainly relevant, and as we’ve seen glyphosate scores well on that scale. But a simple metric for comparing environmental impacts is elusive. Ecologists and environmental scientists have come up with several, none of them without limitations. But the question of glyphosate and environmental safety has been looked at in some detail by Andrew Kniss, a weed scientist at the University of Wyoming. He found that “GMOs have had a positive effect (or at the very least neutral or non-negative effect) with respect to herbicide use intensity and mammalian toxicity,” and compared to a widely recommended alternative, a mixture of vinegar and salt, glyphosate was cheaper, more effective, and safer for humans and the environment. The experience of millions of farmers around the world has corroborated this finding, which is also consistent with the scientific literature. Strike three.

Is glyphosate biodegradable? Yes, the data are clear that it breaks down rapidly (in 2 to 150 days, depending on environmental conditions) and the ultimate breakdown product is carbon dioxide. And while encouraging carbon emissions is not an intrinsic good, those resulting from wide use of glyphosate are far less than would result if the weeds were managed by plowing. Strike four.

What about the charge that glyphosate causes cancer? Monsanto lost several court cases in which juries decided to hold it responsible for the cancers experienced by some users. But juries follow their own lights, and it is well known they do not always administer justice. Meanwhile, the data about cancer and glyphosate show there’s no “there” there.

Detractors make much of a finding by the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) which classified Roundup as a “probable human carcinogen.” But IARC does no research on its own. It relies on ad hoc committees to identify potential carcinogens, and it does no risk assessment to determine the likelihood that compounds it classifies as potential carcinogens actually cause cancer in the real world. In this case, it turned out that IARC’s 2015 classification of glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen” contrasted sharply with the findings of three formal arms of the WHO—the International Program on Chemical Safety, the Core Assessment Group, and the Guidelines for Drinking-water Quality, all of which found glyphosate does not cause cancer. Meanwhile, the WHO proper has repudiated the IARC classification. The IARC study also has been widely criticized and condemned by independent scientists and governmental regulatory bodies around the world to the extent that no credible experts accept it.

There has been a smattering of other studies claiming carcinogenicity for glyphosate, most infamously one by a French activist, Gilles-Éric Séralini. That study in particular (since retracted) was so methodologically flawed that it led one scientist to coin the Seralini Rule: “If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup-ready maize study, you just lost the argument.” A more recent paper attempting to revive the indictment is equally flawed. And there are others, but none that survive scrutiny.

The final nails in the coffin of the claim of glyphosate carcinogenicity come from a classic example of the gold standard for clinical confidence—a massive, long-term study known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS). This study followed 89,657 individuals (57,310 licensed pesticide applicators and 32,347 spouses) over the better part of three decades to evaluate changes in their health and the factors that influenced them. With respect to glyphosate exposure and cancer incidence, they found “no association was apparent between glyphosate and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including [non-Hodgkins lymphoma] and its subtypes.” Case closed. Despite enormous media attention and much hyperventilation, it appears that the most dangerous thing about glyphosate is the truck that delivers it.

Schiffman’s review also claims “herbicide use increased rather than decreased after Roundup’s introduction, and yields remained stagnant”—a half-truth followed by a falsehood. It is true that, as farmers abandoned other herbicides and moved to Roundup, the amount of Roundup and the total amount of herbicide measured by “pounds on the ground” increased. But an honest and informed reviewer would have conceded that “pounds on the ground” is a notoriously unreliable way to measure environmental impacts, which, thanks to glyphosate’s benign toxicological profile and lower downstream and off-target impacts, delivered an overall reduction in the environmental impact of agricultural production. And the claim of stagnant yields is even more deceitful—economic analyses have documented substantial yield increases thanks to superior weed and pest control from biotech-improved crops, something farmers have seen reflected in their increased profits.

Undeterred, Schiffman further claims biotech-improved seeds from Monsanto and other developers “also failed to create more nutritious crops or to develop varieties that would resist drought and be better adapted to climate change.” One wonders why the reviewer ignored golden rice, vitamin A fortified sweet potatoes, oil profile modified canola oil, and more. As for drought tolerance, some of the recent drought years have nevertheless seen record-high corn harvests during the period biotech-improved corn varieties captured well over 90 percent of the U.S. seed market. Another claim that fails under scrutiny.

The review ends with a parting nod in the direction of reality, but Schiffman can’t resist delivering it with a truly Orwellian slap by concluding that “new genetic tools such as Crispr gene editing might indeed help generate something like the agricultural revolution that Monsanto promised, but never delivered.” In the agricultural revolution Monsanto ushered in, many millions of farmers worldwide, most of them smallholders in the developing world, have adopted biotech-improved seeds faster than any other agricultural innovation in human history. Farmers find them so valuable that where they can’t get legal access to the seeds they’re quite prepared to break the law to get them. They did this because biotech-improved seeds deliver higher yields of higher-quality harvests with lower input costs, more sustainable environmental impacts than the alternatives, and higher profits for farmers. We would all be much better off if other new problem-solving technologies “failed” in such a spectacular fashion.

It’s not clear how this review got it all so thoroughly wrong. The Washington Post until now has had a pretty good track record of picking book reviewers who understand the subject matter they are reviewing. Let us hope they return to this pattern in the future.