Roundup may cause cancer. Here’s why that doesn’t really matter.

Roundup may cause cancer. Here's why that doesn't really matter.

The Lancet recently published a paper from the prestigious International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announcing that Roundup may cause cancer, as may a common insecticide.

NPR’s The Salt covered this announcement in a piece titled, “A Top Weedkiller Could Cause Cancer. Should We Be Scared?” The NPR piece looks at the history of glyphosate research and concludes that while glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – could cause cancer, it’s relatively safe in the world of pesticides.

But that’s not why this announcement shouldn’t matter much. The IARC paper is just a drop in the bucket of evidence that Roundup is bad news for humans and for our environment.

There is plenty of evidence already that glyphosate and Roundup are harmful to human health. An inert ingredient in Roundup has been shown to damage human cells, especially embryonic and placental cells. It’s also linked to a slough of other human health problems like autism, birth defects, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel syndrome.

Roundup’s biggest environmental impact is too serious to ignore. Glyphosate is damaging our soil. Without good soil, we are looking at serious food shortages in the not-too-distant future. Our soil problem is so severe that 2015 has been declared the International Year of Soil. Should we be using a pesticide that damages this precious resource?

Environmental epidemiologist Jane Hopping told The Salt that people “should be careful and thoughtful about how they use these chemicals.” That is certainly not happening where Roundup is concerned.

Rather than spraying with care, farmers are able to saturate fields with Roundup. That’s what makes it appealing. You can spray a field of GMO corn, soy, or cotton with Roundup, and the plants will survive. There’s no immediate reason to “be careful and thoughtful.”

While it’s true that in the short term these crops use fewer pesticides, in the long term farmers end up spraying a lot more. A Washington State University study found that pesticide use (read: Roundup use) on GMO crops has increased because of resistant weeds. And since you can spray Roundup with impunity, farmers are able to use more and more.

That’s bad news for our health and the health of our soil.

I do agree with The Salt on one thing: Roundup isn’t the most toxic pesticide out there. You could almost think of it as a gateway drug. When spraying field after field, day after day with Roundup stopped controlling these new superweeds, biotech companies had an easy solution: just use more toxic pesticides!

Fighting over one study feels like a red herring in the conversation about how we are growing our food. We’re addicted to farming methods that have already been proven to damage our health and the future of our food security. It’s time to look at alternative methods for controlling weeds and pests.

And please, don’t tell me that we need Roundup and GMO crops to feed the world. Or even that we need to grow more food to feed the world.

Image Credit: girl eating corn photo via Shutterstock

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