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Roundup's Effect on Agriculture and the Environment

New science suggests that Roundup, the most popular weed killer in the world, may be seriously harming the environment, contaminating fields and water supplies, damaging plant life (and thus disrupting whole ecosystems), and sparking a biochemical arms race as pesticide-resistant weeds flourish, prompting ever more intense use. How do scientists quantify Roundup's environmental effects? Is there empirical data to support people's concerns?

Is Roundup Weed Killer a Danger to the Environment and Agriculture?

To answer these questions, we first need to understand the herbicide's history. Since the 1970s, glyphosate has been used to control weeds in public spaces like parks and schoolyards, and private spaces like residential yards and gardens. You probably even have some in your garage or shed right now. It's a broad-spectrum herbicide, which means that it will kill all vegetation with which it comes into contact if not applied precisely. Today, Monsanto reports more than $2 billion in annual sales of Roundup. The product outsells its leading competitor by five to one, meaning Roundup controls about 80% of the market for weed killers that do not target specific weeds.

Because of Roundup's popularity, it's often used as a lawn and garden weed killer. Monsanto promoted the herbicide as easy to use and effective on poison ivy, kudzu, dandelions, and many other weeds. But despite its widespread use on gardens and lawns, Roundup's main use is now agricultural. In fact, nearly all corn, soy, and cotton grown in the United States gets treated with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.

Since Roundup generally kills all plants indiscriminately, this limited its use agriculturally because farmers could not spray it across all fields. However, in the 1990s Monsanto developed a series of “Roundup Ready” seeds. These seeds were genetically modified to be immune to Roundup, meaning that farmers can spray the weed killer across entire fields, killing only the weeds and leaving their crops undisturbed. Roundup's agricultural use surged from 11 million pounds in 1982 to 300 million pounds by 2012. While this may seem like an ideal solution to eliminate weeds and protect crops, Roundup Ready seeds resulted in more glyphosate and other chemicals entering the environment through a combination of Roundup resistant weeds, product drift, and runoff.

  • Is Roundup Weed Killer a Danger to the Environment?
  • How is Roundup Used in the Agricultural Industry?
  • How Does Roundup Affect Crops?
  • Where is Roundup Predominantly Used?
  • Which Crops Have the Highest Roundup Application?
  • How Does Roundup Affect Agricultural Workers?
  • History and Profit of Roundup

    • Roundup Resistance

      Herbicide resistant crops are enticing. With easier weed management and reduced damage to crops, what's not to love? But then herbicide resistant weeds developed. As the use of Roundup on agricultural crops increased, the weed resistance to glyphosate increased as well, meaning it took more and more of the herbicide to kill them. Eventually some weeds developed complete resistance to Roundup, making the herbicide nearly useless on these “super weeds.” Farmers have now reverted to using a combination of pesticides while still using glyphosate. Roundup and glyphosate use on crops has increased 15 fold since the introduction of Roundup Ready seeds.

    • Product Drift

      As Roundup is sprayed on large fields, farmers are unable to control where the herbicide drifts in the air. Roundup is a broad-spectrum weed killer that kills all plants that aren't genetically modified to resist it. As a result, nearby crops are killed by glyphosate, particularly if neighboring farmers aren't using Roundup Ready seeds resistant to herbicides. Product drift isn't just happening from agricultural fields, it's also coming from vegetable fields, lawn applications, right of way and industrial areas, and homeowner-related lawn and garden applications. Vapor drift can occur up to one mile from application, causing financial devastation for some farmers.

    • Increased Runoff

      As Roundup and glyphosate are used in greater quantities, along with other herbicides and pesticides, these chemicals enter our ditches, streams, and lakes in higher quantities. With glyphosate weed resistance developing, farmers are also back to tilling their land to kill weeds, which can result in even more pesticide runoff into ditches, streams, and lakes. A recent U.S. Geological Survey's National Water Quality Assessment study of waterways in 38 states found that 70% of water samples contain glyphosate.

      Research indicates that exposure to constant low levels of glyphosate is impacting microorganisms and may affect plant, animal, and human health. While Monsanto has long claimed that Roundup and glyphosate have minimal impact on the environment, evidence is growing that glyphosate impacts the metabolism, reproduction, behavior, and growth of aquatic animals. Scientists are also concerned that the chemical is impacting the gut bacteria of animals and insects, including bees. Animal lab studies indicate that glyphosate may affect reproduction in mammals, even at levels considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.

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    How is Roundup Used in the Agricultural Industry?

    As a broad-spectrum herbicide, Roundup originally had limited application in agriculture because it could only be sprayed in targeted areas where it wouldn't harm crops. Once Monsanto rolled out its genetically modified “Roundup Ready” seeds, this changed for crops like soybeans, corn, and cotton. These crops were now genetically manipulated to be immune to Roundup and glyphosate. This meant that farmers could now spray Roundup on their entire field, killing all of the weeds and leaving the cash crops unharmed.

    With the development of Roundup Ready seeds, the use of glyphosate agriculturally surged. The use of Roundup in agriculture increased dramatically from 11 million pounds in 1982 to 300 million pounds by 2012. According to a Wall Street Journal report, “Biotech crops [heave] helped make glyphosate the most widely used weed killer in the world, accounting for about $5 billion in annual sales, or roughly one-fifth of the entire herbicide market.”

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    How Does Roundup Affect Crops?

    The key ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate, works by interrupting production of a key enzyme, called EPSP synthase, that plants and bacteria use to make amino acids. Glyphosate is structurally very similar to the amino acid glycine and can therefore bind to the portion of the EPSP synthase enzyme that is responsible for producing amino acids. All plants use the EPSP enzyme to produce amino acids, so all plants are sensitive to Roundup. (To get a bit more technical, per this PNAS research paper, the herbicide “targets the shikimate pathway enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate 3-phosphate (EPSP) synthase.” Plants engineered with the CP4 EPSP enzyme bind the glyphosate and thus protect themselves from the destructive biochemical action.)

    Glyphosate, once applied, is quickly absorbed by leaves and shoots and cannot be broken down by the plant. As the chemical moves through the plant, it destroys its ability to produce amino acids and the plant can no longer grow. The plant usually dies within a week or so due to lack of proteins, nutrients, and dehydration.

    Initially, Roundup and Roundup Ready seeds were thought to be a boon to agriculture. Farmers could easily control weeds and protect their crops. Now, we know that nature is never so straightforward. Once the product began drifting to neighboring fields and “super weeds” resistant to glyphosate emerged, Roundup and glyphosate no longer looked so miraculous.

    • Product Drift

      As the use of Roundup Ready seeds and large-scale application of Roundup and glyphosate increased, neighboring farmers discovered a big drawback to the genetically modified seeds – product drift. When sprayed on large fields, and not in targeted areas, Roundup can drift through the air up to one mile. Because Roundup is a broad-spectrum weed killer, it kills all plants that aren't genetically engineered to be immune. This means that Roundup was killing crops nearby.

      In some cases, even very small amounts of glyphosate drift were harming crops at concentrations much smaller than that used to control weeds. Penn State scientists noted that some crops are more sensitive to herbicides and can be more dramatically affected by Roundup and glyphosate. These sensitive crops include grapes, tomatoes, fruit trees, watermelons, tobacco, sweet potatoes, and certain ornamentals. In many instances, Roundup Ready seeds and Roundup drift ended in lawsuits between neighboring farmers.

    • Roundup Weed Resistance

      As often happens when we try to kill something in nature, nature fought back and herbicide resistant weeds developed. Weeds first began to develop a higher tolerance to glyphosate, requiring larger amounts of Roundup to kill them. Eventually, “super weeds” that were immune to Roundup emerged. As a result, farmers ended up applying larger amounts of glyphosate and also applying additional herbicides to their fields. A recent report using U.S. Department of Agriculture data indicated that farmers are actually using hundreds of millions more pounds more of herbicides than they would have if Roundup had never been developed. Moreover, the widespread use of Roundup on crops means that glyphosate is now in our food supply. A 2016 study found that levels of glyphosate in our bodies have increased 1000% in the last two decades.

      Because Roundup is widely used in agriculture in the U.S., agricultural workers and herbicide applicators may be at higher risk for developing non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or other cancers. If you or a loved one have been diagnosed with cancer after exposure to Roundup, contact us for a free consultation.

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    Where is Roundup Predominantly Used?

    Roundup is predominantly used in agriculture. is the biggest consumer of Roundup and glyphosate in the U.S. Illinois is the state with the highest agricultural glyphosate use in the country, with more than 11,000 kilograms of the herbicide used in Illinois farms in 2016. Illinois is followed closely by Iowa at 10,915,748 kg., Nebraska at 9,915,178 kg., Kansas at 8,864,771 kg., and North Dakota at 8,860,949 kg. According to U.S. Geological Survey high end estimates for glyphosate use in 2016, Rhode Island has the smallest glyphosate consumption, not surprising for the smallest state, with only 750 kg of glyphosate used in 2016.

    Chart of Glyphosate Use in Continental U.S. States from Highest to Lowest

    1. Illinois
    2. Iowa
    3. Nebraska
    4. Kansas
    5. North Dakota
    6. Minnesota
    7. South Dakota
    8. Texas
    9. Indiana
    10. Missouri
    11. Ohio
    12. Montana
    13. California
    14. Arkansas
    15. Wisconsin
    16. Michigan
    17. Colorado
    18. Kentucky
    19. Tennessee
    20. North Carolina
    21. Louisiana
    22. Mississippi
    23. Oklahoma
    24. Florida
    25. Georgia
    26. Washington
    27. Pennsylvania
    28. Virginia
    29. Alabama
    30. Idaho
    31. South Carolina
    32. Maryland
    33. New York
    34. Oregon
    35. Arizona
    36. New Mexico
    37. Wyoming
    38. Delaware
    39. Utah
    40. New Jersey
    41. West Virginia
    42. Vermont
    43. Nevada
    44. Connecticut
    45. Maine
    46. Massachusetts
    47. New Hampshire
    48. Rhode Island

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    Which Crops Have the Highest Roundup Application?

    The most common crops are corn, cotton and soybean. The genetics used to most commonly with Roundup or Glyphosate are naturally those with “Roundup Ready” seed varieties, so that Roundup can be applied indiscriminately without killing crops. Crops now genetically modified to be glyphosate-resistant include corn, soybeans, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, and cotton. Currently, 90% of corn in the U.S., 91% of cotton, and 68% of soybeans are planted with herbicide tolerant seeds. Surprisingly, many farmers don't use glyphosate on wheat.

    The top soybean producing states in the U.S. are Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Indiana, and Nebraska. Perhaps it's unsurprising that each of these states is among the top 10 users of glyphosate on crops in the United States.

    The herbicide can be found in many common foods, including oats, granola, breakfast cereals, wheat, barley, crackers, beans, snack bars, sugar, ice cream, orange juice and even canned fish in oil.

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    How Does Roundup Affect Agricultural Workers?

    Roundup has been on the market since 1974, and for decades it was believed to be safe because its active ingredient, glyphosate, works on a plant enzyme that mammals, including humans, don't possess. But research in the last two decades indicates that glyphosate isn't as benign as we once thought. In 2015, the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer noted that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans and may lead to non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and the scientific evidence is mounting.

    The people most at risk for harmful exposure to Roundup and glyphosate are agricultural workers, herbicide applicators, landscapers, groundskeepers, and farmers. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer after repeated exposure to Roundup, contact us for a free consultation.

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    What is the History and Use of Roundup?

    The history and use of Roundup are extensive. Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, was first patented in the United States in 1961 as a chelating and descaling agent by the Stauffer Chemical Co. Descaling agents bind to calcium, magnesium, and heavy metals, making them water soluble and easily removed. As a result, glyphosate was originally used to clean out calcium and mineral deposits in the pipes and boilers of hot water systems. In 1970, Monsanto scientist John Franz discovered that glyphosate was also an effective herbicide or weed killer and Monsanto brought glyphosate to market in 1974 as Roundup weed killer.

    Roundup was marketed as an easy-to-use, broad-spectrum herbicide. It is sold in a concentrate, which is mixed with water and then applied with a garden sprayer. However, because Roundup is a broad-spectrum weed killer, it will kill all plants, not just weeds. As a result, Roundup had to be applied in targeted areas to keep other plants safe. Because of this, Roundup originally wasn't used often in large scale agriculture. All of that changed in the 1980s.

    In 1982, Monsanto was already working to develop genetically modified seeds for use in agriculture. These seeds would be immune to glyphosate, allowing farmers to apply Roundup to entire fields to kill weeds without fear of harming cash crops. At the same time, Luca Comai, a scientist from biotech company Calgene, was also working on a similar product. Monsanto would later acquire Calgene to combine the genetic seed research of the two companies.

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    How Much Does Monsanto Profit From Roundup?

    Monsanto profits from Roundup are astronomical. After Roundup hit the market, profits grew steadily and by 1984 Roundup was the first herbicide to hit one billion in sales. In the 1990s, Monsanto rolled out a new product – genetically modified seeds. These “Roundup Ready” seeds were engineered to be immune to glyphosate. Farmers using these seeds could spray Roundup on their entire fields to kill weeds without worrying about the herbicide harming their cash crops. With the onset of Monsanto's Roundup Ready seeds, profits soared. Since Roundup was introduced in 1974, U.S. users have applied more than 3.5 billion tons of glyphosate. Globally, the use of glyphosate has increased 15-fold since Roundup Ready seeds debuted in 1996.

    Monsanto's patent on glyphosate as a weed killer expired in 2000, which means that several companies are now marketing glyphosate-based products. However, glyphosate continues to be a big profit center for Monsanto. In 2015, Monsanto made $4.76 billion in sales and $1.9 billion gross profit from herbicide products, mostly Roundup. The herbicide still outsells its leading competitor by 500%, so Roundup basically controls the market for weed killers that do not target specific weeds. In September 2016, Bayer announced its intent to acquire Monsanto for $66 billion. The sale was finalized in 2018 for approximately $62.5 billion.

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    We can Help, Contact Us Now

    If you or a loved one need more information about Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Roundup, please contactthe Roundup lawsuit attorneys at Rosenfeld Injury Lawyers LLCtoday by calling888-424-5757. Your consultation is free.

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