Wheat’s eating you?

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Spaghetti can be topped with meatballs and Parmesan cheese, but according to some crusaders, it can also be accompanied by digestive aliments. Not only can spaghetti pose a risk, they say, but with any food made with wheat, thanks to the herbicide glyphosate. But these concerns are based on misunderstandings of how glyphosate is used, how widespread it is, and its toxicity level.

The most frequent claim is that wheat is drenched with glyphosate just days before going to market, leaving unsafe levels of dangerous residue which cause health issues when the food breaks down inside us.  

However, only about five percent of North American wheat farmers apply the herbicide in the days immediate before a harvest, and this is done because of its power as a drying agent. This may be needed in northern climes during wet summers. However, glyphosate (trade name Roundup) is not the most efficient method of achieving this, so it is not the first choice for most farmers.

Whatever product they use, one must always consider dosage when assessing safety. Herbicide labels are not suggestions, but rather federal law. Restrictions on the concentrations of glyphosate mandate that its dosage be equivalent to 20 ounces of Kool-Aid being mixed with 10 gallons of water and spread over a Canadian Football League field. 

On a related note, toxicity is determined by amount, not ingredient. “Lethal Dose 50” is a term for how much of an ingested substance will kill half of laboratory test animals. On this scale, vinegar and salt are more toxic than glyphosate. In fact, the EPA classifies glyphosate as a Group E, which it reserves for products that show no evidence of human carcinogenicity. Glyphosate has negligible toxicity, and any dose a person might be exposed to will be well within safety limits. Furthermore, farmers must abide by a Maximum Residue Level, which is the highest amount of pesticide that can safely remain on crops after application.

This entails more than just taking farmers at their word or believing that government regulations are adequate. There is substantial science behind the assertions of glyphosate safety.

A systemic review in 2000 found that, “No significant toxicity occurred. The use of Roundup herbicide does not result in adverse effects on development, reproduction, or endocrine systems in humans and other mammals.” 

More recently, a 2011 review reported that there was “no evidence of a consistent pattern of positive associations indicating a causal relationship between any disease and exposure to glyphosate.” 

Then in 2012, a review showed there was “no solid evidence linking glyphosate exposure to adverse developmental or reproductive effects at environmentally realistic exposure concentrations.” That same  year, another study “found no consistent pattern of positive associations indicating a causal relationship between total cancer or any site-specific cancer and exposure to glyphosate.”

Still, claims persist that glyphosate-saturated wheat is causing digestive ailments in North America, though these alarms are in the form of anecdotes instead of data. The panic is partly attributable to glyphosate’s indirect connection to GMOs, which are a boon to agriculture but which misinformed detractors see as a bane. Glyphosate has been used for 44 years, but has become much more common since genetic modification came along. The connection is that GMOs are Roundup resistant.

Glyphosate prevents nearly all plants from producing proteins they need to survive. So while it would kill a noxious weed, it would take out the desirable wheat as well.  At least until Monsanto devised a method to make GMOs Roundup resistant. Now, genetically modified wheat can be treated with glyphosate, a herbicide which repeated studies have shown to be harmless and which has a low toxicity.

So go ahead and safely eat that spaghetti. Or give into unfounded fear and leave more for me.

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