Toxicity of glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides

The long-awaited research report is out!  Seralini et al the authors.  And the news is as has been rumoured:  It’s not the glyphosate that’s the main problem; it’s the formulants.

Authors: N Defarge, J. Spiroux de Vendomois, G.E. Seralini

Abstract: The major pesticides of the world are glyphosate-based herbicides (GBH), and their toxicity is highly debated. To understand their mode of action, the comparative herbicidal and toxicological effects of glyphosate (G) alone and 14 of its formulations were studied in this work, as a model for pesticides. GBH are mixtures of water, with commonly 36–48% G claimed as the active principle. As with other pesticides, 10–20% of GBH consist of chemical formulants. We previously identified these by mass spectrometry and found them to be mainly families of petroleum-based oxidized molecules, such as POEA, and other contaminants. We exposed plants and human cells to the components of formulations, both mixed and separately, and measured toxicity and human cellular endocrine disruption below the direct toxicity experimentally measured threshold. G was only slightly toxic on plants at the recommended dilutions in agriculture, in contrast with the general belief. In the short term, the strong herbicidal and toxic properties of its formulations were exerted by the POEA formulant family alone. The toxic effects and endocrine disrupting properties of the formulations were mostly due to the formulants and not to G. In this work, we also identified by mass spectrometry the heavy metals arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, which are known to be toxic and endocrine disruptors, as contaminants in 22 pesticides, including 11 G-based ones. This could also explain some of the adverse effects of the pesticides. In in vivo chronic regulatory experiments that are used to establish the acceptable daily intakes of pesticides, G or other declared active ingredients in pesticides are assessed alone, without the formulants. Considering these new data, this assessment method appears insufficient to ensure safety. These results, taken together, shed a new light on the toxicity of these major herbicides and of pesticides in general.

Major new study reports huge loss of flying insects

This study measuring the decline in flying insects, took place over 27 years in 63 nature protection areas in Germany.  The researchers estimate that there has been “a seasonal decline of 76%, and mid-summer decline of 82% in flying insect biomass”.

The decline cannot though be pinned to one cause:  It is “apparent regardless of habitat type . . . [C]hanges in weather, land use, and habitat characteristics cannot explain this overall decline.”

The researchers spell out a warning: “This yet unrecognized loss of insect biomass must be taken into account in evaluating declines in abundance of species depending on insects as a food source, and ecosystem functioning in the European landscape.”

Nature Plants on use of pesticides and arable productivity and profitability

Martin Lechenet, Fabrice Dessaint, Guillaume Py, David Makowski and Nicolas Munier-Jolain from the National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA) and Agrosolutions in France recently published a research letter in Nature Plants (March 1 2017, Vol 3) on the subject of pesticide use, productivity and profitability.  Critically they found that “low pesticide use rarely decreases productivity and profitability in arable farms”.

This from the summary in Nature Plants:

“Achieving sustainable crop production while feeding an increasing world population is one of the most ambitious challenges of this century. Meeting this challenge will necessarily imply a drastic reduction of adverse environmental effects arising from agricultural activities. The reduction of pesticide use is one of the critical drivers to preserve the environment and human health. Pesticide use could be reduced through the adoption ofnew production strategies; however, whether substantial reductions of pesticide use are possible without impacting crop productivity and profitability is debatable.

Here, we demonstrated that low pesticide use rarely decreases productivity and profitability in arable farms. We analysed the potential conflicts between pesticide use and productivity or profitability with data from 946 non-organic arable commercial farms showing contrasting levels of pesticide use and covering a wide range of production situations in France. We failed to detect any conflict between low pesticide use and both high productivity and high profitability in 77% of the farms. We estimated that total pesticide use could be reduced by 42% without any negative effects on both productivity and profitability in 59% of farms from our national network. This corresponded to an average reduction of 37, 47 and 60% of herbicide, fungicide and insecticide use, respectively. The potential for reducing pesticide use appeared higher in farms with currently high pesticide use than in farms with low pesticide use.

Our results demonstrate that pesticide reduction is already accessible to farmers in most production situations. This would imply profound changes in market organization and trade balance.”

Bird flu – who’s to blame?

According to Rob Wallace, advisor to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy contrary to government departments and big industry it’s not wildfowl that are to blame but the “economic model at the heart of industrial poultry production”.

There is a “growing literature of scrupulously documented science [which] is showing alarming trends that are beyond the control of agribusiness-funded research. . . . All the new strains —H5N2, H5N3, H5N5, H5N6, H5N8, and H5N9, together called H5Nx. .descendants of the H5N1 subtype that first emerged in China in 1997 and since 2003 has killed 452 people. . . are increasingly influenzas adapted to intensively raised poultry”.

His blog on the subject, published on January 24 2017 can be read here

Olivier De Schutter on why we need to shift to agroecology

This piece in today’s Guardian by Olivier De Schutter and Emile Frison, spells out the dangers of the so-called “technological advances” in industrial agriculture. That they “simply give industrial agriculture a new lease of life and delay the inevitable shift to a fundamentally different model of agriculture.”

For “there is a risk that these technologies blind us to the very real problems facing modern agriculture – problems that are rapidly undermining the previous round of technological advances.

While global crop yields rose rapidly in the early decades of the “green revolution”, productivity is now plateauing in many regions of the world. A 2012 meta-study found that in 24%-39% of areas growing maize, rice, wheat and soybean, yields either failed to improve, stagnated after initial gains, or collapsed.

Only slightly more than half of all global rice and wheat areas (57% and 56% respectively) are still experiencing yield increases. The areas where yields have stagnated include some of the wealthiest, most industrialised and most hi-tech production systems: more than one-third of the wheat crop in the US (mostly in the Great Plains) is affected, along with more than a third of the Argentine wheat crop, and harvests all across Europe.

Meanwhile, rice yields are plateauing in California and most European rice-growing areas. This trend is also evident in some 80% of rice crops in China and Indonesia – two of the world’s major rice producers. Worryingly, this may only be the tip of the iceberg.

The reason the productivity of industrial agriculture is now under threat is because it has been systematically degrading the human and natural capital on which it relies. Pests, viruses, fungi, bacteria and weeds are adapting to chemical pest management faster than ever: 210 species of herbicide-resistant weeds have been identified. Meanwhile, synthetic fertilisers are fast destroying the soil biota and its nutrient-recycling potential. This creates a dangerous treadmill effect: increasing resistance leads to increasing pesticide use, generating mounting costs for farmers and further environmental degradation. This in turn requires additional doses of nutrient application to keep squeezing productivity out of the soils.”

De Schutter and Frison then describe the vital role of agroecology:  that it’s a way of “diversifying farms and farming landscapes – replacing synthetic chemical inputs, optimising biodiversity and stimulating interactions between different species, as part of holistic and regenerative strategies to build long-term soil fertility, healthy agro-ecosystems and secure livelihoods.”

Neonics – the evidence mounts

Another study on the adverse effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators. This one, published in Nature Communications 7 Article number 1245, looks at 62 wild bee species with oilseed rape cropping patterns across England between 1994 and 2011 – the time period spanning the introduction of wide-scale commercial use of neonicotinoids.

“This is the first good evidence that bees are affected at the population level by the widespread use of neonicotinoids,” commented Prof Henrik Smith from Lund University.

But lead author Dr Woodcock cautioned: “Although we find evidence to show that neonicotinoid use is a contributory factor leading to wild bee species population decline, it is unlikely that they are acting in isolation of other environmental pressures. Wild bees have undergone global declines that have been linked to habitat loss and fragmentation, pathogens, climate change and other insecticides.”

And Prof Dave Goulson is on record as saying that a wholesale ban is not what’s required.  Rather, judicious use.

Abstract as follows:

Wild bee declines have been ascribed in part to neonicotinoid insecticides. While short-term laboratory studies on commercially bred species (principally honeybees and bumblebees) have identified sub-lethal effects, there is no strong evidence linking these insecticides to losses of the majority of wild bee species. We relate 18 years of UK national wild bee distribution data for 62 species to amounts of neonicotinoid use in oilseed rape. Using a multi-species dynamic Bayesian occupancy analysis, we find evidence of increased population extinction rates in response to neonicotinoid seed treatment use on oilseed rape. Species foraging on oilseed rape benefit from the cover of this crop, but were on average three times more negatively affected by exposure to neonicotinoids than non-crop foragers. Our results suggest that sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids could scale up to cause losses of bee biodiversity. Restrictions on neonicotinoid use may reduce population declines.

New study from Univ of Bern re neonics and male honeybee reproduction

Just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, this study from the University of Bern shows that “neonicotinoid insecticides can serve as inadvertent insect contraceptives”


There is clear evidence for sublethal effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on non-target ecosystem service-providing insects. However, their possible impact on male insect reproduction is currently unknown, despite the key role of sex. Here, we show that two neonicotinoids (4.5 ppb thiamethoxam and 1.5 ppb clothianidin) significantly reduce the reproductive capacity of male honeybees (drones), Apis mellifera. Drones were obtained from colonies exposed to the neonicotinoid insecticides or controls, and subsequently maintained in laboratory cages until they reached sexual maturity. While no significant effects were observed for male teneral (newly emerged adult) body mass and sperm quantity, the data clearly showed reduced drone lifespan, as well as reduced sperm viability (percentage living versus dead) and living sperm quantity by 39%. Our results demonstrate for the first time that neonicotinoid insecticides can negatively affect male insect reproductive capacity, and provide a possible mechanistic explanation for managed honeybee queen failure and wild insect pollinator decline. The widespread prophylactic use of neonicotinoids may have previously overlooked inadvertent contraceptive effects on non-target insects, thereby limiting conservation efforts.

Soil: How Much Water Can it Absorb?

Following on from Colin’s piece:

In addition to its value in reducing CO2 levels by converting soil to organic matter, and using a “conservative estimate”, the top 12 inches of soil has the potential to:

“hold four times its weight in water [Thus an] additional 1.56% of soil organic matter could reasonably be expected to hold another 228 tons of water per hectare–about three rail tank cars full. This is equivalent to 2.28 cm (0.9 inches) of extra water in the soil, which would do a great deal to mitigate flooding and drought, and increase overall biomass production in most areas”.

Here is the full article by Peter Donovan, taken from the Soil Carbon Coalition website

NOTE: This calculation is offered to show some degree of correspondence between atmospheric levels and soil carbon. There are too many variables and complex feedback loops to make reliable predictions. Were atmospheric carbon dioxide to decline, the oceans would release significant amounts of carbon dioxide, buffering and delaying the decline.

In Allan Yeomans’s book Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming (2005, 2007), he states that an additional 1.6% of the top 12 inches of the world’s cropland and grazing land soils turned into organic matter would bring atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 300 ppm (if we also quit adding carbon to the atmosphere). This figure is based on removing 80 parts per million of atmospheric CO2.

Yeomans’s calculation converts carbon to soot (Priority One, chapter 2). Here is a somewhat more straightforward calculation. Note that the figures are for straight carbon, not carbon dioxide.

The atmosphere currently contains about 800 Gt (gigatons or billion metric tons) of carbon. The vast majority of this is in the form of carbon dioxide, which is currently about 383 parts per million (Yeomans used 380 ppm for his calculation). Each of these parts per million = 800/383 = 2.089 Gt C. So, to take out 80 ppm we are talking about removing 80 x 2.089 or 167 Gt (167,000,000,000 metric tons) of carbon from the atmosphere.

Soil density is usually between 1.2 and 1.4 on a dry basis. That is in relation to the density of water which is 1.0.

A hectare of soil (100 m x 100 m), 12 inches or 30.48 cm deep, has a volume of 3,048 cubic meters. At a soil density of 1.2, this foot-deep hectare of soil weighs 3,658 metric tons. One percent of this weighs 36.58 metric tons, and if this 1 percent is organic matter (58% carbon by weight), it contains 21.21 tons of carbon.

According to the World Resources Institute (World Resources 2005: The Wealth of the Poor–Managing Ecosystems to Fight Poverty, table 11, p. 216), there are 5,096,000,000 hectares of crop and grazing land worldwide. Dividing our 167 billion tons to remove by this figure, each hectare has to take, on average, 32.8 tons of carbon. Since each percent of organic matter in the top foot of soil contains 21.21 tons of carbon, this comes to roughly 1.56% as the amount of soil that we must convert to organic matter on the top foot of these lands, to lower atmospheric concentrations by 80 ppm. In other words, if the organic matter content is currently 1%, we need to raise it to 2.56%, if 3% we raise it to 4.56%, and so on.

For an example of what can be done, see Martha Holdridge’s Report from my farm, where she reports organic matter more than doubled in five years, from 4.1% to 8.3%. Note that the sampling in this case was only 2 inches deep. Though soil organic matter may accumulate fastest in the topmost layers of soil, grassland soils typically store significant quantities of carbon as much as two meters down.

For a table showing how much each country must increase its organic matter to remove its fossil fuel emissions since 1950, see or download

Using a conservative estimate that organic matter can hold four times its weight in water, such an additional 1.56% of soil organic matter could reasonably be expected to hold another 228 tons of water per hectare–about three rail tank cars full. This is equivalent to 2.28 cm (0.9 inches) of extra water in the soil, which would do a great deal to mitigate flooding and drought, and increase overall biomass production in most areas.

GM safe? There’s no consensus according to new research from Tufts University

Sheldon Krimsky looks at the last seven years of peer-reviewed evidence, and finds 26 studies that “reported adverse effects or uncertainties of GMOs fed to animals.”

His study is published in Science Technology Human Values August 7, 2015 0162243915598381


Prominent scientists and policymakers assert with confidence that there is no scientific controversy over the health effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)—that genetically modified crops currently in commercial use and those yet to be commercialized are inherently safe for human consumption and do not have to be tested. Those who disagree are cast as “GMO deniers.” This article examines scientific reviews and papers on GMOs, compares the findings of professional societies, and discusses the treatment of scientists who have reported adverse effects in animal feeding experiments. This article concludes by exploring the role that politics and corporate interests have had in distorting an honest inquiry into the health effects of GMO crops.

Dr Timothy Wise wrote the following comments on the study in Food Tank:

“As the vitriol intensifies in what passes for debate over the safety of genetically modified foods, scientific inquiry, thankfully, continues. A Tufts researcher, Sheldon Krimsky, recently published his assessment of the last seven years of peer-reviewed evidence, finding 26 studies that “reported adverse effects or uncertainties of GMOs fed to animals.”

If recent history is any indication, Sheldon Krimsky should expect to be slammed as a “science denier.”

The current vehemence is the product of a well-funded campaign to “depolarize” the GMO debate through “improved agricultural biotechnology communication,” in the words of the Gates Foundation-funded Cornell Alliance for Science. And it is reaching a crescendo because of the march of the Orwellian “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” (code-named “SAFE” for easy and confusing reference) through the U.S. House of Representatives on July 23 on its way to a Senate showdown in the fall.

In an April New York Times op-ed, Alliance for Science affiliate Mark Lynas follows the party line, accusing environmentalists of “undermining public understanding of science,” even more than climate deniers and vaccine opponents. Slate’s William Saletan goes further in his July feature, calling those who want GM labeling “an army of quacks and pseudo-environmentalists waging a leftist war on science.”

Who would have known that depolarization could feel so polarizing—and so stifling of scientific inquiry.

Precaution and the Public’s Right to Know What We Eat

The SAFE law sounds like it promises what polls suggest 99 percent of Americans want, accurate labeling of foods with GM ingredients. It likely guarantees that no such thing will ever happen.

Backed by biotech and food industry associations, SAFE would make it illegal for states to enact mandatory GM labeling laws. It would instead establish a “voluntary” GM labeling program that pretty well eviscerates the demand for the right to know what’s in our food. It would undercut the many state level efforts.

Vermont now has a labeling law that survived industry opposition, threats, and a court challenge, which may explain why the industry got busy in Congress. If you can’t beat democracy, change it. The Senate is expected to take up the bill after its August recess.

As written, SAFE is truly the labeling law to end all labeling laws.

The biotech industry is acting desperate for a reason. It’s seen Europe and most of the world close its regulatory doors to GM crops, for now, insisting on the same “precautionary principle” enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. That principle calls for a relatively high level of precaution before the introduction of a new technology, to avoid the kinds of unintended consequences that have caused such harm in the past: tobacco, thalidomide, DDT, PCBs, and other cases of industry-backed claims of safety that, in retrospect, proved deadly.

Not SAFE for Science

In a sane world that respects scientific inquiry, we would be engaged in a debate about the appropriate levels of precaution that we as a society want for a technology as novel as genetic engineering. That would be constructive, not to mention depolarizing.

Instead, we get pundits like Lynas and Saletan tarring anyone who dares call for precaution with the stain of being another science-denying zealot who ignores the scientific evidence that no one has been harmed by all the GM foods consumed in the United States.

To reinforce how duped or dumb the American public is, they point to a Pew Institute poll indicating that 88 percent of scientists think GM foods are safe, while just 37 percent of the public thinks so. The gap is repeatedly cited as a measure of how science-deniers are winning the public relations battle, and how ignorant the U.S. people are on the issue.

Maybe not. Is it really a surprise that nearly nine in ten scientists think a new invention is good for society? Not really. As Joel Achenbach explained in his otherwise good piece on science denial in National Geographic, we all suffer from “confirmation bias,” the tendency to interpret information in ways that confirm our existing beliefs. True enough, and guess what group scores high for confirmation bias in favor of new technology? Scientists. Honestly, I’m shocked that 12 percent of scientists think GM food isn’t safe.

What about that skeptical public? Are they really just ignorant and brainwashed? Or is their confirmation bias perhaps informed by their repeated experiences with big corporations telling them something is safe or good for them and finding out it’s deadly. Who in the United States has not lost a family member or friend to smoking-related disease? Given the negligence of U.S. regulatory authorities in accepting industry claims of safety, is the public really so foolish to be skeptical, of both industry and government?

Washington University’s Glenn Stone drove the scientific point home nicely about how long the process of scientific discovery of hazards can be. He documents how DDT was suspected as a cause of breast cancer but studies kept failing to find a link. This is, until 2007, when an intrepid researcher thought to ask if girls exposed to DDT during puberty had a higher risk of breast cancer. More than half a century after they were exposed, she found what no one else had: a five times greater risk in such girls, and a significant additional risk in their female children.

On GMOs and labeling, Stone asks if all the evidence is really in just 20 years into this experiment. Are there comparable studies of GM effects on pregnant or lactating women and developing infants and children? No, there are not.

No Consensus on Food Safety

For those still willing to look past the campaign slogans and slurs, science is still happening. My colleague at Tufts University, Sheldon Krimsky, examined peer-reviewed journal articles from 2008-2014. Contrary to the claims of consensus, he found 26 studies that showed significant cause for concern in animal studies, among many studies that showed no harm.

He identified clear evidence that proteins transferred into the genome of another plant species can generate allergic reactions even when the original transgene did not, a scientific finding that undermines industry claims that the transgenic process creates no instability in the genome. (Scientists even have a name for such a gene: an “intrinsically disordered protein.”)

Krimsky found eight reviews of the literature and they showed anything but consensus. Three cited cause for concern from existing animal studies. Two found inadequate evidence of harm that could affect humans, justifying the U.S. government’s principle that if GM crops are “substantially equivalent” to their non-GM counterparts, this is adequate to guarantee safety. Three reviews suggested that the evidence base is limited, the types of studies that have been done are inadequate to guarantee safety even if they show no harm, and further study and improved testing is warranted.

What about the much-cited consensus among medical and scientific associations? Krimsky found no such agreement, just the same kind of wide variation in opinion, which he usefully ascribes to differing standards, methods, and goals, not ignorance or brainwashing.

Krimsky goes out of his way, however, to document the industry-backed campaigns to discredit two scientific studies that found cause for concern, and he warns of the anti-science impact such campaigns can have. “When there is a controversy about the risk of a consumer product, instead of denying the existence of certain studies, the negative results should be replicated to see if they hold up to rigorous testing.”

That would have been a refreshing, and depolarizing, industry response to the recent World Health Organization finding that Roundup Ready herbicides are a “probable human carcinogen.” Instead of calling for further study to determine safe exposure levels, the industry called out its attack dogs to discredit the study.

Who here is really anti-science?”

by Timothy Wise

Timothy A. Wise is Director of the Research and Policy Program at the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University.

Research published in Nature finds links between neonics and honey bee colony loss

— but there are economic benefits for farmers using neonics. . .

Evidence for pollinator cost and farming benefits of neonicotinoid seed coatings on oilseed rape G. E. Budge D. Garthwaite A. Crowe N. D. Boatman K. S. Delaplane M. A. Brown, H. H. Thygese & S. Pietravalle Scientific Reports 5, Article number: 12574 (Aug 20 2015)

The Abstract to the article is as follows:

Chronic exposure to neonicotinoid insecticides has been linked to reduced survival of pollinating insects at both the individual and colony level, but so far only experimentally. Analyses of large-scale datasets to investigate the real-world links between the use of neonicotinoids and pollinator mortality are lacking. Moreover, the impacts of neonicotinoid seed coatings in reducing subsequent applications of foliar insecticide sprays and increasing crop yield are not known, despite the supposed benefits of this practice driving widespread use. Here, we combine large-scale pesticide usage and yield observations from oilseed rape with those detailing honey bee colony losses over an 11 year period, and reveal a correlation between honey bee colony losses and national-scale imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid) usage patterns across England and Wales. We also provide the first evidence that farmers who use neonicotinoid seed coatings reduce the number of subsequent applications of foliar insecticide sprays and may derive an economic return. Our results inform the societal discussion on the pollinator costs and farming benefits of prophylactic neonicotinoid usage on a mass flowering crop.

The full article may be found here