Spraying a probable carcinogen on food crops to kill them so they can be harvested faster – it sounds ridiculous – but it’s happening all across the UK on the wheat that makes our bread, flour and other things like biscuits.
It gets worse. The weed killer in question, glyphosate, was recently classified by the World Health Organisation’s IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as a probable carcinogen for humans – and new data analysis shows it’s appearing more and more frequently in our bread. It’s the world’s most widely sold weed killer – you might know it as the active ingredient in Roundup – used in farming, in public places like parks, streets and schools and also by people in their back gardens.
Figures analysed by the Soil Association from government data show glyphosate-use in UK farming has increased by 400% in the last 20 years, and it’s one of the three pesticides regularly found in routine testing of British bread – appearing in up to around 30% of samples tested by the Defra committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF).
The food industry claims the level of glyphosate in food poses no danger to the British public. But the WHO findings and the chemical cocktail often found in bread sold in the UK call this into serious question.
Unlike other reviews, IARC panel looked at what farmers are actually using. Farmers never use glyphosate alone – they use a mixture like Roundup because other chemicals are needed to do things like make the weed killer stick to the crop. Products like Roundup are sprayed on UK wheat as a pre-harvest weed killer and to kill any parts of the crop that haven’t ripened evenly so combine harvesters can move more quickly and cover more ground during harvest.
Roundup may be 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate itself.The research the IARC looked at will have included data on the impact of commercially available glyphosate products herbicides, like Roundup, to determine that it is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. The pesticide regulators in Europe and elsewhere only look at scientific data about glyphosate on its own.
Unless people are eating organic food exclusively, it’s almost impossible for them to avoid ingesting this potentially dangerous chemical. However, farmers could easily and responsibly choose not to use glyphosate as a pre-harvest spray on wheat crops. This is why the Soil Association is calling for an immediate end to the use of these sprays on wheat destined for use in bread.
The amount of glyphosate in bread sits well below the level deemed unsafe by the EU but this level has not been revised since the WHO’s ‘probable carcinogen’ ruling – this conclusion may mean there is no safe level. In addition, the accepted levels for glyphosate residues have always been a matter of controversy – if glyphosate is an endocrine disrupter, as some scientists suggest, there is no safe lower level for human consumption.
Earlier this year, the Soil Association held a scientific briefing on this subject – the panel included Professor Christopher Portier, one of the co-authors of the IARC report, Dr Robin Mesnage of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Kings College in London, and Claire Robinson, editor of GMWatch.org.
The chemical industry has accused the WHO of classifying glyphosate as a probable carcinogen along with things like coffee and bacon. This is rubbish for two reasons – firstly, the IARC has a number of categories for classification – coffee appears in category 2B, “possible carcinogen”, meaning there is limited evidence in humans and less than sufficient evidence in animals.
Glyphosate is in category 2A – the same category as human papillomavirus type 68, inorganic lead compounds and dry cleaning fluid: there is limited evidence in humans and sufficient evidence in animals; there is strong enough evidence to conclude it is probably carcinogen to humans. Secondly, people can choose not to drink coffee or cook their bacon in a way that means it’s safe to eat – the choice has been taken away from them when it comes to glyphosate. One expert at our scientific briefing remarked that glyphosate is literally everywhere in our food chain – throughout our water and food – there’s no escape.
Outside the United Kingdom, the reaction to the WHO IARC report has been dramatic. Some retailers in Switzerland and Germany have removed glyphosate products and France has committed to do so by 2018. Meanwhile, German states are calling for an EU-wide ban, and the Danish Working Environment Authority has declared it as a carcinogen. El Salvador and Sri Lanka have banned it, and the Colombian government has banned aerial spraying on coca crops.
If you are as concerned as we are about glyphosate please do pass the message on to others. The Soil Association don’t just point out problems, we pioneer solutions too. By becoming a Soil Association member today for just £3.50 a month, you will help us to influence policy makers and extend our work with farmers to share effective ways of farming without using glyphosate. We know many farmers are very open to breaking with the status quo and embracing new ways of doing things, they just need the knowledge of how to do things differently.
Please do help us get the message out there. It’s time to stop the use of weedkiller on food crops and ensure we protect our environment and our own health. If you are unable to join us at this time please consider donating instead. You can do this online at www.soilassociation.org/bread/donate
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