Photo Credit: Anton Porsche
It was the spring of 1978 and I was 7 years old when the first scoops of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were sold in Burlington, Vermont, about an hour from the rural home I shared with my parents and infant sister. I don’t remember when I got my first taste, but it probably wasn’t long after that, and it was the beginning of a nearly four-decade love affair that continues to this day.
Two years before the first Ben & Jerry’s scoop shop opened, the U.S. food system saw another first: The introduction of the herbicide glyphosate, commonly sold under the trade name Roundup. Glyphosate was introduced in the U.K. and Malaysia in 1974, but didn’t gain regulatory approval in North America until 1976, where it quickly earned favor in the agricultural industry for its weed-killing abilities. In the mid-1990s, genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant soybeans were introduced (other crops, including corn, canola, alfalfa and sorghum soon followed), allowing for broad-spectrum applications of the herbicide throughout the growing season and resulting in a massive uptick in use that, like my fondness for premium ice cream, continues unabated.
Another use that few consumers are aware of also has contributed to increased glyphosate use: Pre-harvest crop desiccation. Originating in Scotland in the 1980s, this practice involves applying the herbicide to a standing crop toward the end of the growing season with the express purpose of expediting the natural process that would occur, where a crop slowly dies and dries in the field. The glyphosate kills the crop so it can be dry enough to harvest sooner than if it were left to die naturally — allowing the farmer to clear the field before the onset of unfavorable weather. Given how long they are usually in storage, the moisture levels of grain crops need to be low enough to store without getting moldy. The practice has since gained significant traction in North America, particularly in the northern regions of the Great Plains and the grain belt of Midwestern and western Canada, where cold, wet weather comes early.
For these farmers glyphosate-induced pre-harvest crop desiccation provides a couple other advantages. The accelerated drying process reduces potential post-harvest energy inputs, such as the need to use a grain dryer. The practice also generates a physiological “last gasp” response in less mature plants that expedites ripening and helps them “catch up” to their companions, ensuring more consistent yields. This in turn allows successive crops to be sowed earlier and improves weed control.
Currently, few statistics exist regarding the acreage subject to glyphosate desiccation or the overall quantity of glyphosate use for drying, but there’s little doubt that the practice is expanding across a variety of crops including corn, peas, soybeans, flax, rye, lentils, triticale, buckwheat, canola, millet, potatoes, sugar beets, soybeans and other edible legumes.
As a result, glyphosate has been showing up in trace amounts in food — including Ben & Jerry’s ice cream — raising red flags among consumer groups and even causing companies to change their sourcing to avoid contamination.
The exact timing of the application depends on a number of factors, but generally ranges from three to seven days before the onset of harvesting activities. And herein lies a potential explanation for the appearance of glyphosate in Ben & Jerry’s, as well as a large number of other food products. “Pre-harvest desiccation may account for only a small percentage of overall glyphosate use,” says Charles Benbrook, a visiting scholar at the Bloomberg School of Public Health who has spent more than a decade studying the use of glyphosate and associated health risks. “But it accounts for over 50 percent of dietary exposure.”
So what? That depends on whom you ask. The accepted regulatory stance is that glyphosate is relatively benign; indeed, in 2015 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased threshold levels in both oats and wheat; in the case of oats, the allowable threshold for final processed grain was raised from 0.1 parts per million (ppm) to 30 ppm. For its part, Monsanto claims that glyphosate poses no health risk when used according to label instructions. And, in December 2017, the EPA released a draft human health risk assessment stating that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans, or present other meaningful risks, assuming the product is used according to labeling instructions — supporting Monsanto’s long-held position.
A common herbicide is ending up in our food, thanks to the growing practice of using it to dry crops in preparation for harvest. In addition to speeding crop drying, glyphosate can help synchronize ripening in plants at harvest time. Photo courtesy of bobistraveling
“There never has been, and still to this day there remains, not much certainty regarding the health risks associated with glyphosate.” – Charles BenbrookNot everyone agrees that glyphosate is as innocuous as its manufacturer and the EPA would have us believe, however. The World Health Organization, for one, has classified it as a possible carcinogen, as has the state of California. And although the European Union recently voted to reauthorize the use of glyphosate, license was granted for only five years, rather than the 15 years sought.
“There never has been, and still to this day there remains, not much certainty regarding the health risks associated with glyphosate,” says Benbrook.
Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suspects there is a link between increased uses of glyphosate — largely via the process of pre-harvest desiccation — and celiac disease, which has increased dramatically in recent years, particularly among adolescents. “Wheat-based products are showing up with a lot of glyphosate on them, and glyphosate interferes with protein digestion,” says Seneff (celiac disease is triggered by gluten, a protein).
No matter whose version of the health impacts one believes, one thing is clear: Many consumers do not find the idea glyphosate in their food an appetizing one. To this end, Ben & Jerry’s has pledged to stop sourcing ingredients subject to glyphosate-induced pre-harvest desiccation by 2020, and also advocate for policies that would put an end to the practice.
In the meantime, I haven’t given up my beloved Ben & Jerry’s. Indeed, just last week I picked up a pint (Phish Food, if you have to know). But this time, I did something highly unusual: I ate only half.
This article originally appeared on Ensia
About The Author
Ben Hewitt lives with his family in northern Vermont, where he operates a diversified livestock and vegetable farm, and writes about the environment, food, and rural living for a number of periodicals. He is the author of five books, including The Town That Food Saved and Homegrown. Hewitt blogs at www.benhewitt.net