What is GM and why does it matter?
Immediate release (30 Jun 2011)
The Human Cost of the War on Superweeds
New report from GM Freeze and Greenpeace International links herbicides to cancer, birth defects and water pollution
From flower boxes in city gardens to intensive farming on a massive scale, weed killers are used under the assumption that they are safe. Roundup, one of the most common herbicides, is marketed by US agrochemical company Monsanto as “safe” for the environment and for humans – deadly for weeds. But are all herbicides really as safe as Monsanto and others are telling us?
Whether we live in cities or in the countryside, we are all exposed to herbicides: sometimes from aerial spraying, sometimes through chemical residues in our food and sometimes because of chemical run off from agricultural land into nearby fields, seas or rivers. Recent polls indicate that people want to know more about what this means for our health and the environment.
An extensive survey on attitudes to the environment published by the European Commission last week shows that, across the board, Europeans feel they need more information on chemicals and farming. 
One of the things people often do not know is that when the European Union (EU) and other regulators declare a product like Roundup as safe, they rely heavily on research provided by the companies who produce herbicides and whose business it is to sell them. However, a new report by GM Freeze and Greenpeace and GM Freeze analysing almost 200 independent and peer-reviewed scientific studies, mostly carried out in the last decade, demonstrates that herbicides like Roundup are far from benign. 
One of the main ingredients of Roundup and several other herbicides is a chemical known as glyphosate. Studies associate exposure to glyphosate with cancer, birth defects and neurological illnesses (including Parkinson’s). Alarmingly, lab testing suggests that glyphosate can cause damage to cells, including human embryo cells. Studies also indicate that glyphosate may be a gender-bender chemical that interferes with our hormonal balance.
The environmental impacts of glyphosate are not much better. Evidence shows that the chemical has a damaging impact on our rivers and on the animals that live in them. It disrupts nutrients in soil, exposing plants (that are not weeds) to disease and could end up contaminating drinking water.
Of particular concern is the association of glyphosate with the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) herbicide-tolerant crops, known as Roundup-Ready. These crops, which so far are mostly grown in the Americas, are genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate so that they can survive massive spraying of Roundup to eliminate weeds. The problem is that weeds are becoming increasingly resistant to glyphosate-based herbicides like Roundup.
Resistance to glyphosate has now been confirmed in over 20 weed species, with over 100 resistant strains identified, covering nearly 6 million hectares, primarily in Argentina, Brazil and the U.S. Controlling these glyphosate-resistant weeds growing amongst GM crops has become a major problem for farmers.
This has prompted manufacturers of glyphosate and GM crops like Monsanto to recommend further increases in the deployment and concentration of herbicides - including the use of chemicals that are even more toxic than glyphosate. This escalation in the pesticides ‘arms race’ has put an enormous toxic burden on people’s health and the environment, creating a vicious circle that is producing a new breed of superweeds.
The EU can no longer ignore growing scientific evidence on the dangerous effects of glyphosate and must start an immediate and extensive review of its use. Given the problems identified so far, no glyphosate-tolerant GM crops should be authorised in Europe or elsewhere. With a major reform of European farming policy just underway, governments need to recognise that the industrial agriculture system where GM crops and chemicals thrive is profoundly unsustainable. Failure to act will threaten food production, jeopardise human lives and put the environment severely at risk. It is time to round up glyphosate for good and embrace ecological farming.
Pete Riley, GM Freeze +44 (0)7903 341 065
Dr Janet Cotter, Greenpeace +44 (0)7812 174 783
Marco Contiero, Greenpeace +32 (0)477 777 034