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Why Doesn't the USDA Test for Residues on Food From Monsanto's 'Cancer Causing' Glyphosate?

Food

By Carey Gillam

When microbiologist Bruce Hemming was hired two years ago to test breast milk samples for residues of the key ingredient in the popular weed-killer Roundup, Hemming at first scoffed at the possibility. Hemming, the founder of St. Louis-based Microbe Inotech Laboratories, knew that the herbicidal ingredient called glyphosate was not supposed to accumulate in the human body. Hemming, who previously worked as a scientist for Roundup maker Monsanto Co., now operates a commercial testing facility located just a few miles from Monsanto's headquarters.

But Hemming said his lab's testing did find residues of glyphosate in the samples of breast milk he received from a small group of mothers who were worried that traces of the world's most popular herbicide might be invading their bodies. Food companies, consumer groups, academics and others have also solicited testing for glyphosate residues, fueled by fears that prevalent use of the pesticide on genetically engineered food crops may be contributing to health problems as people eat foods containing glyphosate residues.

Those fears have been growing, stoked by some scientific studies that have shown health concerns tied to glyphosate, as well as data from the U.S. Department of Interior finding glyphosate in water and air samples. The concern surged last year after the World Health Organization's cancer research unit said it had found enough scientific evidence to classify glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.

Consumers groups have been calling on the U.S. government to test foods for glyphosate residues on behalf of the public, to try to determine what levels may be found and if those levels are dangerous. But so far those requests have fallen on deaf ears.

It would seem that would be an easy request to meet. After all, since 1991, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has conducted a Pesticide Data Program that annually collects pesticide residue data for hundreds of pesticides. The testing looks for residues on a range of food products, including infant formula and other baby foods and also looks for residues in drinking water. The purpose of the program is to “assure consumers that the food they feed their families is safe," according to the USDA.

But while the USDA looks for residues of other herbicides, as well as fungicides and insecticides, the agency routinely does not test for glyphosate. It did one “special project" in 2011, testing 300 soybean samples for glyphosate and found that 271 of the samples had residues. The agency said all fell within the range deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The agency has said testing for glyphosate is “not a high priority."

In the latest annual Pesticide Data Program report—issued Jan. 11—once again, glyphosate data is absent. Testing was done to look for residues of more than 400 different herbicides, insecticides and other pesticides on food products. But no tests reported for glyphosate.

The USDA says it is too expensive to test for glyphosate residues; much costlier than tests for the other 400+ pesticides that are part of the analysis, the agency says. The agency also echoes the position held by Monsanto that glyphosate is safe enough that trace amounts in food are nothing to worry about. (This begs the question: But how do we know there are only trace amounts, without the testing?) And all that World Health Organization talk of cancer connections to glyphosate? Monsanto hired its own experts who concluded that finding was wrong.

The EPA, which sets the tolerance levels allowed for glyphosate and other pesticides has said glyphosate is safe at certain defined tolerance levels and has actually raised those tolerance levels in recent years. At the same time, the EPA has been conducting a multi-year re-evaluation of glyphosate, its usage and impacts. The agency was due to release a risk assessment last year. In fact, EPA's Chief Pesticide Regulator Jim Jones said in May that assessment was nearly completed then and should be released by July 2015. But this week an EPA spokeswoman said the report would likely be made public “sometime later this year."

The government pegged glyphosate use in the U.S. at nearly 300 million pounds for 2013, the most recent year the estimate is available. That was up from less than 20 million pounds in 1992. The rise in usage parallels the rise of crops genetically engineered to be glyphosate-tolerant, meaning farmers can spray the herbicide directly on their fields and kill weeds but not their crops. Many key food crops are sprayed directly with glyphosate, including corn, soybeans, sugar beets, canola and even in some cases, wheat, though wheat has not been genetically engineered as glyphosate-tolerant.

“It is a scandal that USDA tests for hundreds of pesticide residues but not glyphosate, which is among the most widely used chemicals on our food crops," Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit consumer group, said. “Consumers want to know how much glyphosate is in our food. Why won't the USDA tell us? “

In a statement that accompanied the annual pesticide residue report, the EPA's Jones lauded the data as an “important part of … our work to evaluate pesticide exposure from residues in food" and said that “EPA is committed to a rigorous, science-based and transparent regulatory program for pesticides that continues to protect people's health and the environment."

But given the health concerns raised by the World Health Organization and the rising use of this pesticide, consumers deserve better. It seems reasonable for the USDA to respect consumer concerns and make glyphosate residue testing a priority.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.

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