Certified organic, certified humane, Non-GMO Project verified, BPA-free… It seems that these days, when you pick up a natural food item, it’s covered in a veritable plethora of labels. And one more has just joined the party: Glyphosate Residue Free, a certification launched by the Detox Project in March.
Of course, it’s no surprise that of all of the synthetic chemicals used in agriculture, glyphosate would be targeted. In 2015, the World Health Organization wrote that glyphosate was a “probable” human carcinogen, and the herbicide is so omnipresent that glyphosate residue has been detected in everything from breakfast cereal to fresh fruits and vegetables. In April, nearly a third of over 3,000 food products tested by Canada’s food regulator contained glyphosate residue; the FDA, meanwhile, quietly resumed glyphosate testing in June after the “special assignment” to this end, launched last year, was halted in November.
“We go down to the lowest possible limits of lab detection,” explains project director Henry Rowlands of the new certification, which also requires that any new brands be certified three times in the first year of certification and at least twice a year for every subsequent year. “If we find any trace of glyphosate above the limit of detection, then we don’t certify.”
Almost 200 brands have already reached out to be certified, approximately 80 percent of which, according to project director Henry Rowlands, are certified USDA organic. Most of the remaining 20 percent are Non-GMO Project Verified. And here’s where the problem lies.
Glyphosate is an herbicide, which means that it kills plants – unless, of course, that plant was grown from a genetically engineered glyphosate-resistant seed, such as the corn, soy, canola, alfalfa, or sugar beet seeds developed by Monsanto to resist the company’s proprietary glyphosate-based Roundup. Since Non-GMO Project Verified items, by their very definition, cannot use these GMO seeds (and USDA organic items can use neither these seeds nor any synthetic pesticides at all), any USDA organic or Non-GMO Project Verified item should be in the clear.
And yet Rowlands alleges that the problem of glyphosate residue contamination is widespread – even in USDA certified organic food. Of the items that have undergone testing by the project so far, only five brands have been certified as being completely free of glyphosate residue.
How is Glyphosate Residue Getting on Organic Food?
Glyphosate contamination in organic food is certainly puzzling, explains Mark Kastel, co-founder of organic watchdog group the Cornucopia Institute. After all, if glyphosate were applied as an herbicide to a plant not designed to resist it, that plant “would be dead.”
And while testing for glyphosate isn’t common in organic commerce, testing for GMO traits is.
“People aren’t going to say, ‘Here’s some genetically engineered glyphosate-sprayed corn or soybeans, and I’m gonna sneak it through as organic – mwa ha ha,” says Kastel. “They’re going to get caught, not because people are testing for glyphosate, but people are testing for the GMO resistance.”
Unfortunately, applying glyphosate as an herbicide is not the only way that the chemical can get into our food supply. Not only are these chemicals persistent in our environment, down to soil and rainwater, but there are three clear ways in which a food not treated with glyphosate could still test positive for glyphosate residue.
1. Spray Drift
Organic farmers do not treat their crops with glyphosate, but they can’t control what their neighbors do. The law requires buffer zones to separate organic crops from treated crops – something that Kastel notes is “sadly the responsibility of organic farmers” but that rule “does a pretty good job” of protecting these crops from contamination.
However, “spray drift” can and does occur, contaminating organic crops with trace amounts of glyphosate. Contamination in this case would have to be minimal.
“If you get spray drift, you have evidence of damage, because if it lands on any plant that’s not glyphosate resistant, it’s gonna kill it all,” says Kastel. “No farmer is going to market an organic crop that accidentally got sprayed, because their crop’s gonna be dead.”
It’s no coincidence that two of the five companies that the Detox Project has certified so far are honey-based, and 20 percent of the companies currently applying for the certification make honey.
“Those pesky little critters just will not respect our fence lines and property lines,” jokes Kastel.
Jokes aside, glyphosate contamination of honey is a huge problem in the United States. Last year, an FDA chemist and a colleague from the University of Iowa not only found that some honey samples contained glyphosate residues to the tune of 653 parts per billion (10 times the European limit), but another FDA researcher shared in an internal email revealed through a Freedom of Information Act request that, “It is difficult to find blank honey that does not contain residue.”
Bees regularly forage two and up to nine miles from the hive, and the widespread use of glyphosate throughout the United States makes it difficult – nearly impossible – to create a large enough perimeter for bees to forage without encountering the chemical. As a result, nearly all American honey samples have been tainted to some degree with glyphosate residue, and companies like Heavenly Organics, which sources its honey from the remote forests of India, have good incentive to hold the Glyphosate Residue Free certification.
3. Problems in the Supply Chain
On the domestic level, contamination most frequently occurs when conventional crops and organic crops come into contact with one another, especially in the case of cereal grains like wheat and oats which, even when they are not genetically modified to withstand glyphosate, are frequently sprayed with the chemical to dry them out in preparation for harvest.
“Maybe somebody didn’t clean the combine or the semi-truck out, and there was a little bit of the previous load in there,” says Kastel, who notes that the amount of glyphosate residue in this case would be quite minimal.
When organic companies turn to international imports, there is even more room for error. In May, a load of 36 million pounds of soybeans and maize arrived in the United States from Turkey with an organic label, even though the cereals were later proven to be conventional; and Rowlands notes that a California energy bar got a rude awakening when the Detox Project discovered that the USDA cinnamon that they were importing was actually very high in glyphosate.
Is Another Label Really Necessary?
In all three of these scenarios, the amount of glyphosate residue present on a product would tend to be minimal: while not ideal, this doesn’t point to a widespread glyphosate contamination issue.
But Rowlands alleges that the problem is bigger than this. He claims that there are “consistent levels of specific pesticides in USDA organic products” due to a lack of regular, correct testing.
“I really don’t want to attack organic by bringing out results that show how much or how little glyphosate is in USDA organic; I’m sure other people will do that,” he says. “All I can say is that it’s definitely an issue, and I’m not just talking about spray drift.”
But Lunder says that she hasn’t “seen data suggesting that there’s a widespread problem.”
“There is certainly drift, and there are certainly issues where synthetic pesticides are detected on organic food due to bins or processing facilities, but the tricky thing there is that it kind of comes and goes,” she says. “Those things are episodic.”
To devote a new label just to glyphosate residue is to contribute to the widespread “label fatigue” that Kastel notes has become common in industry lexicon and may even add to consumer confusion. For example, many shoppers don’t realize that certified organic products are, by definition, non-GMO, leading some brands to certify their products both USDA organic and Non-GMO Project Verified and prompting California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), the nation’s first organic certification agency, to launch the campaign, “Organic is non-GMO and more.”
“It creates this kind of haze that consumers have to cut through,” says Kastel.
EWG scientist Sonya Lunder also notes that while specific labels such as this one offer “a very clear and verifiable claim,” they don’t address other aspects of the food. Certification of a food devoid of glyphosate residue is all well and good, but what of the other synthetic chemicals that the food could be tainted with or the fact that organic food has been proven in peer-reviewed studies to be more nutritious than conventional?
“This would be an example of a single-purpose label that somebody would then have to be savvy enough to read in context of another,” she adds, asking, “Is it better to have an organic product or a glyphosate-residue free product?”
This is the important question, especially given the fact that these two designations should be synonymous. While evidence so far does not point to glyphosate contamination being a widespread issue, it is still an issue, and glyphosate is a risky chemical to play games with.
“Generally with carcinogens it’s the fact that you get exposure long-term over the lifetime, and that’s what causes the risk,” explains Lunder, who also says that the EWG wrote a response letter to the California Prop 65 program in June noting that the established safe exposure level for glyphosate should be lowered.
But a new label is a Band-Aid on the problem. Our real goal should be to force USDA organic to fulfill its promises with regards to synthetic chemicals, something we all can agree on.
“I have really supported organic all along,” Rowlands says. “I come from organic farming in Wales. I would prefer, obviously, if USDA organic would be the gold standard, and would push organic standards in the right direction, but I think it’s doing the opposite.”
“This is a symptom of the organic label not living up to its value proposition,” says Kastel. “Some of that has to do with industry participants, and a lot of it has to do with the USDA’s execution of what Congress has charged them to do.”
Kastel notes that the USDA organic certification still “comes the closest” to being the healthiest choice for consumers, but there is work to do.
Until organic comes through for us, glyphosate is yet another thing we as consumers may have to monitor for ourselves. And, says Kastel, “We all have to be engaged in banning dangerous chemicals from our environment.”