The lone voice of horticultural reason

“Roundup Causes Birth Defects.”

There is a small, earnest, devoted, horrifically misinformed collection of people across the US who have chosen Roundup – or rather, glyphosate, the synthetic chemical that is the active ingredient in Roundup – as their devil. Roundup is an herbicide, meaning it kills annual and many herbaceous perennial plants when sprayed on the leaves. Home gardeners use it to control weeds, and, far more important, farmers use it to control weeds, greatly increasing yield of food crops grown in their fields.

There are a number of chemicals, both synthetic and organic (don’t get me started) that effectively do this. Roundup/glyphosate, however, is the most widely used, and the one that this group actively crusades against. A few times a year I receive an e-mail from an earnest, devoted, horrifically misinformed citizen who must be working from a script, because every time, the e-mail begins the same way: “Hello Don, I stumbled on your column and it looks really good.” Not kidding. The exact same lead sentence every time.

The e-mailer then points out that in various places on my site, I mention Roundup without condemning its use as evil, child-killing, planet-destroying poison. The new twist on the e-mails, and the claims of this group, is that Roundup causes birth defects in humans. Well, now. That’s a claim to be taken seriously.

Here is the full version of the most recent e-mail, followed by my reply (as many of you know, I’m pretty good at responding to e-mails). Let me warn you, my reply, while brilliantly written, highly entertaining, and vastly educational, is lengthy, and there’s nothing gained by adding pictures. So if you are curious about this issue, read on. If not, skip this and move on instead to Plant Spotlight, Don’t DO That, or other useful articles on the site.

First, the e-mail:

Hello Don,

I stumbled on your column and it looks really good. I also saw that you had an old myth-of-the-week column dismissing concerns about Round-Up (sic). I was wondering if you were aware of these problems concerning Round-Up and the next generation of GMO seeds:

Scientific evidence is mounting that Monsanto’s best-selling herbicide RoundUp also causes birth defects. A new generation of babies born near fields of “RoundUp Ready” (genetically modified) soy in Argentina are suffering birth defects as terrible as those found in the Agent Orange contaminated areas of Vietnam. Scientific research published in 2010 showed that Monsanto’s RoundUp and the chemical on which it is based, glyphosate, cause birth defects in frog and chicken embryos at dilutions much lower than those used in agricultural and garden spraying. [He then attaches a link]

Industry and regulators knew as long ago as the 1980s and 1990s that glyphosate causes malformations – but that information was not made public.

Monsanto’s “exciting” new GMO seeds are resistant to more than one kind of pesticide. Rather than resisting Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup alone, they will now also be resistant to Dow AgroScience’s pesticide 2,4-D. Agent Orange is a mixture of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D.

This means that Monsanto is planning on using one of the major ingredients of Agent Orange on our food. How do you feel about that?

I hope this information has been helpful to you.



Henry’s e-mail arrived at a busy time for me. After several weeks, I replied:

Dear Henry:

Have a bit of time here to respond to your e-mail and questions.

What is helpful in any discussion is a sense of perspective. Glyphosate has been around for 37 years, developed by Monsanto. Why? Up to the end of WWII, there were no herbicides available to farmers to control weeds in their fields. Weeds either had to be ignored, or pulled by hand. Ignoring them impacted crop yield, as weeds draw off nutrients and water from the soil. Hand-pulling involved large amounts of labor and was never totally successful, which contributed to high food costs. Both factors were of concern in America and other countries as farmland acreage increased, due to increasing populations and world food demand.

And of course there was the severe and recurring problem of entire crops being rendered useless by outbreaks of diseases and insect infestations occurring at least once every generation in various agricultural regions around the globe, including the US.

Then along came 2,4-D, a synthetic herbicide invented by scientists working for the US government during WWII. It was kept secret, its purpose to knock out the Japanese rice crop and help win the war. The war ended before this secret weapon was used. But there it was afterward, a fairly effective herbicide that became widely used in farming beginning in the 1950s. Moderately low impact on the environment when used according to directions. What made it work even better, however, was mixing it with Sodium Hyphochlorite – but this created very, very nasty stuff, with an EIQ off the charts. But this new form of 2,4-D worked great, killed weeds, lowered food costs and increased food production.

Then along came glyphosate – a new synthetic that worked even better, but with a far lower EIQ (Environmental Impact Quotient, assume you know). The ‘60s and ‘70s also saw a revolution in the development of synthetic chemicals to control insects and fungal diseases in agriculture. Again, why create this stuff? Because some of the organic chemicals in use for decades prior were not particularly effective, while all were extremely nasty. Lead arsenate. Copper sulfate. Copper hydroxide. All very bad for the environment, in terms of soil build-up, water contamination, human health issues, etc.

All with EIQs way above the high warning level. Long before links were made and verified of health hazards due to misuse leading to repeated high-level exposure to synthetic chemicals, farm workers around the world experienced all manner of debilitating health effects, including death, from lead and copper poisoning of the liver and kidneys. Plus the stuff stayed in the soil for ages, and contaminated groundwater.

Synthetic chemicals for use in agriculture (and then, home gardening) – pesticides, herbicides, fungicides – were developed, many of which were actually safer for the user and the environment than the organic chemical treatments they replaced. There is not a university scientist in the field of agricultural chemistry in the world who would disagree with that statement. You should spend some time researching Environmental Impact Quotients, if you never have, look at an EIQ chart of common agricultural and garden chemicals. I’ll send you one that I use when I teach certain gardening classes, in a following e-mail.

You chose glyphosate as your cause? FYI, the most commonly used pesticide in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, copper sulfate, is far more toxic and still widely in use today in the US and around the world. Where? Organic farming. Copper pesticides are organic, understand, and approved for use today in the US, England (well, not for long) and many other countries. Each season, organic farmers spray it by the hundreds of thousands of gallons. It has an EIQ of 47.8! That’s off the charts!!

University experts that I know tell the public to try to keep the synthetic and organic chemicals that they use on their gardens around or below EIQ 20. Yet copper sulfate is available to home gardeners in a bottle on a thousand nursery shelves across America and Europe as you read this. It’s always labeled “for Organic Gardening,” to take advantage of gardeners who want to help save the earth. Don’t know if you are a gardener, but NEVER purchase and use copper-based organic gardening products! Nasty, evil, highly toxic stuff. There are two or three synthetics on the same shelf that are safer, more environmentally friendly, and with much lower EIQs. Also a helluva lot cheaper. By the way, here’s a corroborating link about copper sulfate in organic farming, a news story from our friends across the pond:

But back to glyphosate – and the famed “Chicken Test.” Glyphosate injected into chicken and frog embryos was a lab test first conducted in 2000 (not 2010, as your e-mail states). Here’s what you need to understand: Virtually every chemical that comes down the pike is injected into chicken and frog embryos – salamanders also. Ag students at universities around the world spend their semester injecting animal embryos with chemicals, until they are blue in the face (the students). Their friends are out drinking before the big football game, they’re stuck in the lab.

Guess what? It’s tough to inject a chicken or frog embryo with an alien chemical or substance without it doing something to the resulting baby chick or tadpole. Very often, a chemical injected into an animal embryo will cause a birth defect. Well, duh! But this allows scientists to compare and classify Chemical K with Chemicals B, L and Y. I doubt anyone has ever injected Coca-Cola into frog embryos, but if they did, it’s very possible that it would affect the tadpole in some scientifically quantifiable way.

Now, the next question a scientist will ask, is, can human placenta cells be exposed to Chemical K, or, in the case at hand, can they be exposed to Roundup/glyphosate? You are making the layman’s mistake of taking the conclusion of a lab study and assuming that getting a whiff of Roundup, or eating something made from a crop from a farm where Roundup is used could somehow cause birth defects in humans. You’re further being fooled by the sentence in the paper you linked me to where it is stated that the levels injected into the embryos were at dilutions “much lower than those used in agricultural and garden spraying.”

Most scientists would ream out the authors for the deception being promulgated on the non-science community by that single sentence. The dilution rate may have been lower than those used when you mix up a sprayer of Roundup, but they injected it into an embryo.Do you have any idea the effect of a chemical injected into an embryo in the most minuscule amount, versus exposure to the animal after birth, regardless of dilution? Good God, man, you’re trying to come off as someone who knows the science?  To the list of things you need to bone up on, I’ll add severity of embryonic response to severity of response to same, post-birth. Plus the topic, “immune systems in mammals.”

Scientific comparisons and projections always have to be apples to apples, Henry. You get outside of this, and you can use research to seemingly prove anything to the masses. I don’t think you have any idea how much manipulation of research is going on, as evidenced here.

Anyway, as I said, the next question a scientist will ask is, can glyphosate be introduced at the same level, or in any level, to human placenta cells? The answer is no. And that’s not me talking, that’s a university scientist I’ve e-mailed prior to responding. Do you have any idea the build up of glyphosate you would need in the human body?

However – your e-mail mentions a study concerning birth defects in Argentina, but you didn’t send me the study. It sounds very interesting, seriously. Please, send me the study. I put this onus on you, because you’re the one that initially e-mailed me. Send me the study and I’ll read it, research the response in the scientific community, plus make inquiries to scientists at the University of Minnesota and Iowa State.

What you sent me (and, I assume, others when you e-mail) was a link to an article offering opinion about a paper, the document written by a scientist or scientists that announces and discusses their data from a recently concluded scientific study. I read through dang near most of it, and it doesn’t look promising. For twenty of the pages scientists inject everything from frog embryos to goldfish with high doses of glyphosate, but you have to understand more about the process of scientific research than that. A big question a scientist will ask about a published research study is, was it a field study, or a lab study? A lab study tells you one thing – such as that a chicken embryo injected with glyphosate, and a hundred other chemicals (including numerous organic chemicals, copper, for one), will cause a birth defect of some kind.

A field study is the biggie, because that is a study of what is occurring in the environment that possibly is caused by the chemical (or, if a Sociologist, what is the impact of video games on teenage obesity, etc.).

Lab studies that then attempt to project what will happen in the field are discounted all the time. For that matter, field studies are discounted all the time. Here’s how it works: Scientists perform research, publish studies, then scientists in a similar field around the world read them, and respond. Sometimes it will spur scientists to try to discover the same thing, or they will be very intrigued and ask the publishing scientist to send them the raw data. As often, scientists will debate it, poke holes in the research, attempt to duplicate data, discover flaws, and discount it. Happens all the time.

The article you linked to was written by a group of Brit and South American scientists, and appears to be a mildly pissed-off response to a paper written by a different scientist that has been discounted. These are all over the Internet. One clue about this is the very first thing I read, the opening statement of the article:

“Concerns about the best-selling herbicide Roundup are running at an all-time high. Scientific research published in 2010 (OK, so they’re the ones who have it wrong) showed that Roundup and the chemical on which it is based, glyphosate, cause birth defects in frog and chicken embryos at dilutions much lower than those used in agriculture and garden spraying.”

Have I changed your perspective at all about that statement? Do you see the bait-and-switch that’s coming? An earnest and concerned person – you, for instance – who is not a scientist, reads that and goes, “Holy smoke! This is huge!!” While scientists look at the lab study (and I verified the response of one via phone yesterday), and say, Big Whoop, a laboratory took some chickens, injected embryos with Roundup in a totally unrealistic setting, got a birth defect, it’s not a field study, this proves nothing relative to the field.

Do you see why another sentence in your e-mail, “Industry and regulators knew as long ago as the 1980s and 1990s that glyphosate causes malformations – but that information was not made public,” does nothing for me? The information did not stir the public because it was a Big Whoop, what-else-is-new lab study. A hundred of these come out every month. You stating that glyphosate “causes malformations” in your e-mail might draw the desired, horrified response from someone who has no clue about the scientific research process, but not me. In fact, now you’re giving me the bait-and-switch. Thanks a lot!

The people who wrote the article (an entirely lesser entity than a paper announcing results of a scientific study) you linked me to are certainly scientists, but now we get into the whole political and environmental camps that scientists fall into, political agendas and factions, publicity in hopes of capturing their lifeblood – grant money – and I’ve spent enough time on this. By the way, in case you didn’t read it, there are places in the paper where reference is made to other possible contributing factors for the birth defects, other chemicals present in the environment, and additional unknowns are acknowledged.

Point is, this link is worthless to me. Send me the study. And my advice, start reading the papers and studies you find referenced in articles on the Internet, or are sent via link by whatever loose organization of like-minded individuals to which you devote your spare time. You can inject a person with peanut oil and kill them. So we should call for the banning of peanut oil? And I’m sorry that I’m getting flippant. I truly do want to find out more about the situation in Argentina. It’s just that nothing in the scientific community has come of this.

Glyphosate is not perfect, and I’ve never said it is. You don’t stick to strict application directions, it can cause health problems, no question. There’s a reason gas pumps and cans have stickers warning against breathing gas vapors. I want to find out what current science says. If scientists prove a link between Roundup and birth defects, I’ll write about it, I assure you.

GMOs – and I’ll be brief, sorry for the length of this – first, be clear on the difference between GE (genetic engineering) and GMO (genetically modified organism) because lay people (and hell, every journalist I’ve read on the topic) think they are interchangeable, and they’re not.

You reference Monsanto’s new GMO seeds and you actually mean their new GE seeds. Genetic Engineering describes the high-tech methods used to incorporate genes directly into an organism. The only way scientists can transfer genes between organisms that are not sexually compatible is to use recombinant DNA techniques. This results in plants that could not be created in nature. If you’re talking Bt-infused or Roundup Ready seeds, it’s always GE.

Genetically Modified Organism is any organism, plant or animal, produced through any type of genetic modification, be it high-tech GE work or traditional plant and animal breeding methods (cross-pollinating plants, or breeding two different kinds of cattle, for example). The important distinction is that all GE crops are GMOs, but not all GMO crops are GEs. Genetic engineering is distinguished by the act of inserting genes through recombinant DNA techniques to create a plant or animal that could not be created in nature.

These definitions are in keeping with current USDA definitions, in addition to concurring with scientists in these fields with whom I have spoken. Many in the anti-GMO/GE crowd have taken to using “GMO” as a catchall for all scientific food advances, when it’s actually GE crops that they should reserve for their Frankensteinian terror. GMO crops have, after all, been around ever since Norman Borlaug’s pioneer work in 1944, cross-pollinating wheat strains and later, other crops, that led to him winning the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize and being heralded by Time Magazine as “the man who saved two billion lives.” His GMO work and the work of those that followed was of course the turning point in the war against worldwide famine.

(If you’re not up to speed on Norman Borlaug and the early days of GMO work, here is his Wikipedia page, and a fascinating read:

Whereas “GMO” refers specifically to genetic modification guided by the hand of man, it’s important to realize that pretty much every plant you see when you walk in a park or look out a window (the animals, too, come to think of it) are naturally occurring, genetically modified organisms. As a professor of Agriculture at the University of Minnesota explained it to me, cross-pollination of plants before man entered the picture has created genetically modified organisms for millions of years. Every “heirloom” tomato grown on the planet is, in a broad sense, a GMO; that’s just how far it had evolved in nature before some human got a hold of it and said, Hey, great tomato, I don’t want this one to evolve any further.

Anyway – to stay in the broad sense for a minute – I once asked a professor of agriculture at the University of Minnesota, “What would be the starvation rate in the world today if farmers were growing the same exact crops from seed as the crops they grew in 1910, with no advancement from GMO or GE scientific research?”

His eyes lighted up, and he said, “That would be a fascinating study!” You’d have to make some extrapolations based on the historical length of viability for one seed type, before major pest response or a natural virus wipes it out, but there’s no question that were we planting the same crops from seed as one hundred years ago, starvation rates on the planet would be massively higher.”

Doesn’t happen nearly as often now. Why? Science. Nature is constantly on the move. Some people get all shocked that some crop is becoming resistant to some chemical, or rats to their poison, but in a sense, that too is natural. Before man walked the earth, plants and animals developed resistances to a huge array of natural forces, including poisons, insects and fungi. This is not a new thing. Scientists expect resistance after a period of time, and plan for it. When it comes to food science, what the science is about, and always has been about, is staying ahead of the game.

An expert in the field once said to me, “What people who oppose scientific exploration as it pertains to food don’t understand is the immense scope of production. They have absolutely no concept of what is involved in growing billions of tons of food and distributing it around the planet.” Especially when these people fail to realize that over the course of millions of years, nature has become fabulous at wiping out the plants and animals it tires of. Luckily, humans developed highly advanced brains in addition to opposable thumbs.

A little secret: In the US, yield of GE crops is not significantly higher than non-GE crops. But in places like Africa, yield of GE Roundup Ready crops is significantly higher, and are having a major impact on combating starvation. Why? Because suddenly, they can use Roundup to grow their crops, increasing yield, or plant Bt corn, with a built-in organic pesticide so they don’t lose crops to insect borers. Bt corn also means they don’t spray nearly as high the amount of synthetic chemical pesticides as they had to in the past. (I always love it when some people flip out about Bt corn. Bt – Bacillus thuringiensis – is organic. I guess food scientists can’t do anything right.) The biggie about Bt crops, it’s saving people’s lives in many areas where the pesticides and means of application are not consistently available. Henry, it’s all pluses and minuses. There are risks, there are trade-offs, nothing is perfect. Nothing is ever perfect.

Last thing in your e-mail, you make a statement, and ask me a question, so I will answer it. You mention that the newest generation of “GMO seeds” (sic) will also be resistant to 2,4-D. Then, accurately state that Agent Orange was a combination of 2,4,5-T and 2,4-D. Then ask me how I feel about one of the compounds used to create Agent Orange being sprayed on our food.

It’s a nonsensical question. It might work as a terrific close on someone who doesn’t think with his brain, but it’s just more non-scientific hyperbole to me. One of the companies I own manufactures a heat conductive compound for the heating industry. One of the main ingredients in the compound is powdered aluminum. Now, if you mix powdered aluminum with water, it expands very rapidly. Explosively so. In World War I, powdered aluminum mixed with water was used to make bombs.

Sometimes we run short of the aluminum, and if I’m handy, I’ll hop in my truck and run to the local supplier to pick up a few drums. So there I am driving back to the plant, over 35 miles, with 500 pounds of one-half of the ingredients of a powerful bomb in the back of my truck.

But guess what? Doesn’t bother me. It’s in a sealed, waterproof drum, in a covered truck. Furthermore, I have absolutely zero intention of stopping, popping the lid, and pouring in copious amounts of water. So that’s what I think about your question. I don’t know whether you thought of this close on your own, or if you are writing entirely from a script. It might cause alarm to uninformed individuals you select to send unsolicited e-mails, but it doesn’t work on me. A synthetic compound is sprayed on a plant. Again, a scientist will ask, what are the levels retained in the food? Is the level harmful to human health? You say it turns out it’s 7 parts per million? Hell, there’s approved toxic organic chemicals that test higher than that, and the body shrugs them off. OK… next!

Do you hear what I’m saying? You grasp maybe five percent of the topic you are sending me a supposedly instructive e-mail about. It’s like you stumbled upon a news item that fifteen years ago a plane crashed, and are devoting your life to trying to convince people not to board airplanes. You don’t understand scientific process, peer review, cost-benefit analysis, and most glaringly, have no idea what is involved in food production. You want to see people suffer and die? Then ban all synthetic chemicals, and rid the world of all GMO and GE crops. Plant nothing but heritage seeds and grow everything under strict organic rules. I’ll even let you use copper sulfate. The world’s food supply would collapse. On this, the world’s most esteemed food scientists agree.

Henry, don’t get me wrong. Health concerns and environmental impact of everything we create and do needs to be researched, monitored, tested, and when problems occur, they need to be corrected. Ever heard of lead paint? Good example. I really hope I have helped you broaden your perspective. You have been fed, and are now dispensing, monstrously biased and unscientific information and analysis.

Learn the accurate truths behind all sides of an issue or argument. The final truth, you will find, always lies somewhere in the middle.

Thanks for visiting my site.


End Note: I did not receive a reply, and I never received the scientific study.

Don Engebretson
The Renegade Gardener