Last week, the Federal Council, Switzerland’s executive, rejected the Green party’s plan to ban the use of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, a compound classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation.
According to 20 Minutes, the Federal Council thinks glyphosate residues in Switzerland are low and harmless to health. It sees no reason to ban its use. Others however prefer a precautionary approach: if it might be harmful then don’t eat it.
An early glimpse of the results of a Swiss government study on glyphosate levels in food, due to be published in coming weeks, shows around 40% of 230 samples across 19 categories of Swiss farm produce were found to have measurable traces of glyphosate. It is worth noting that the Swiss study looks at Swiss farm produce and doesn’t cover imported products.
The highest levels were found in grains and pulses, with one sample showing a level of 2.9 milligrams per kilogram. According to the Swiss Federal Office of Food Security and Veterinary Affairs, none of the levels exceed the maximum allowed levels.
So what are these maximum allowed levels?
Well, it depends. Swiss rules on maximum allowable glyphosate levels follow EU regulations, but these vary depending on the produce. An apple is allowed to have 0.1 milligrams (mg), or 100 micrograms (μg) of the substance per kilogram. But wheat can have 10 mg, one hundred times the level. Levels for oats and barley are an even higher 20 mg.
In fact all of the produce with higher levels in the Swiss study also have higher allowable maximums. This raises an interesting question: why might glyphosate residue on wheat, and some other grains, be safer than glyphosate residue on apples?
In addition to IARC’s cancer research, a separate study done in 2013 shows a close correlation between rising glyphosate use, since its introduction in 1974, and a rise in the number with celiac disease, a serious reaction to gluten. This chart shows the correlation with celiac disease. The paper looks at other disease associations too. This chart shows a correlation with thyroid cancer.
In addition to the correlated trend over time, celiac disease rates were found to be higher in parts of the world using more glyphosate.
The study suggests that glyphosate interferes with gut bacteria, which goes on to trigger an autoimmune response and celiac disease in some people.
Other research, referred to in this study, shows glyphosate exposure in carnivorous fish had adverse effects throughout the digestive system.
For those wishing to reduce their exposure to glyphosate, maximum allowable residue levels could be used a rough and ready guide. Produce with high allowable maximums would rise to the top of the organic shopping list.
Some items for the organic basket would include: flour and anything containing it, oats, barley, rye, sorghum, sunflower seeds and oil, rape and canola seeds and oil, soybeans, mustard seeds, cotton seeds and oil, lentils, peas, beans and sugar. Click here for more information – opens a PDF with a full list of maximum residue levels for glyphosate by product1.
Avoiding GMO produce is another rough guide to avoiding heavy pesticide residue. Some who promote the advantages of GMO foods forget that many have been modified to make them pesticide resistant.
GMO and pesticides fans like to argue that these things are essential to feeding the world. But, if we reduced one of the largest inefficiencies in the current food system we might not need these yield gains. If humans ate the crops fed to grain-fed animals there would be a lot more food.
By one calculation, producing plant protein requires 6% to 17% the land required to produce meat protein.
And, if we decided to go further and tackle climate change, we could plant CO2-hungry trees on any unused pasture.
20 Minutes article (in French) – Take a 5 minute French test now
Concerns over use of glyphosate-based herbicides and risks associated with exposures: a consensus statement (in English)
Glyphosate, pathways to modern diseases II: Celiac sprue and gluten intolerance (in English)
Celiac disease foundation (in English)
1 This list was downloaded from the EU pesticides database.