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An article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on May 30 summarized the lawsuits that have recently been resolved and the ones yet to come against the makers of the weed killer, glyphosphate (gly-FOSS-fate) (Gp). These suits specifically target Roundup, made by Monsanto, which was just purchased by the German company Bayer. (Bayer also makes the aspirin brand they may need to take after losing beaucoup bucks.)

The gist of the suits is that Gp causes a group of cancers called non-Hodgkin lymphoma. One jury award was for $2 billion in punitive damages and $55 million in compensatory damages, amounts that will likely be reduced. The article says there are currently 13,400 federal or state lawsuits pending with more likely coming against Monsanto-Bayer over Roundup. The company naturally says it is absolutely not culpable. We’re not going to dissect the entire controversy here.

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Dr. Frank Bures

But, what is glyphosphate? Simply put, it’s a weed killer or herbicide, and one of, if not the most, biologically and financially successful ever. It was introduced in 1974. From the late 1970s-2016 there was a 100-fold increase in the use and volume of all Gp products. Now, more than 250 million pounds are applied annually on U.S. farmland. As of 2010 there were over 750 Gp products on the market. There are different salts of Gp and different assisting additives used. The main additive in Roundup and many others is POEA, or polyethoxylated tallow amine, derived from animal fat, a key ingredient that increases absorption of Gp into the plant.

Gp is mainly absorbed through leaves of broad leaf or woody plants and grasses, and minimally by roots. It inhibits a key enzyme which makes the essential amino acids tyrosine, tryptophan and phenylalanine for proteins that help the plant grow. It only works on actively growing vegetation. A Swiss chemist, who never published the work, first synthesized Gp. Another company patented it in 1964 to remove minerals in chemical reactions like calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, and zinc.

In 1970 it was independently discovered in the U.S. at Monsanto, where about 100 derivatives of the chemical as potential water softening agents were synthesized. Two were found to have weak herbicidal activity. Chemist John Franz was asked to create stronger versions of these two, called analogs. His third try created Gp, for which he won chemistry awards in 1987 and 1996. One researcher in 2010 said, “Glyphosphate is a one in a 100-year discovery that is as important for reliable food production as penicillin is battling disease”. (We all have heard the stories of antibiotic resistance emerging in bacteria, right? The same is true with plants developing resistance to Gp, but not as much.)

In the 1990s Monsanto found a bacterium that survived Gp. They isolated the enzyme that resisted Gp killing it, and were able to make a breed of soybeans that was resistant to Roundup. So, the beans were sold with Roundup as a package. Monsanto had farmers in their pocket, so to speak. Then came corn, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets and cotton as GMOs or genetically modified organisms called Roundup Ready seeds. Wheat is under development. In 2015 89% of corn, 94% of soybeans and 89% of cotton produced in the U.S. were Gp tolerant GMOs.

How harmful is Gp to humans and other life forms? That is being hotly debated. Reading what “expert groups” in the past have decreed is very confusing. Newer information and data now are casting doubt on some prior pronouncements. Our Environmental Protection Agency has recently alleged that Gp is safe. But today in the present political climate their veracity has to be questioned, when its former head (since fired), Scott Pruitt, who had sued the EPA many times, and the present head, Andrew Wheeler, who was a long time lobbyist for fossil fuel companies, have systematically dismantled all sorts of regulations for people’s safety in order to produce corporate profits galore. Monsanto funds many of the studies the EPA is using.

A March 15, 2017, NPR news article carefully tracked Monsanto emails and falsified papers that “proved” how Gp was safe, going back to year 2000. A personal injury lawyer in the current lawsuits presented as evidence a phone call between Monsanto executives and an EPA official, who said about Gp, “I don’t need any more studies. I’m going to declare Roundup safe, and I’m going to stop another agency from looking at it.” Assuming this to be true, it makes any statements about Gp safety difficult to believe.

We still don’t if it is bad for us, or if the food it helps to grow is good for us. In one study it was found in urine samples from all farmers using it. In another random group of people, 93% tested positive for it. All German beers tested positive for it in 2016. This year 19 of 20 wines and beers tested here were positive. It’s found in many grains and cereals, spawning at least one lawsuit. But, if we completely ban Gp, does that jeopardize our food supply?

So, with three eye-popping dollar amount lawsuits settled against Roundup specifically and maybe 13,440 more on deck, what to think? In trying to “round up” the facts, we’re still left with questions on all topics. All we can do is think of it as a seedy subject, and hope someone can give us credible information that all can agree on, even the lawyers. Good luck.

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Frank A. Bures is a semi-retired dermatologist in Winona.

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