Roundup, scientifically called glyphosate, is the most widely used and most widely criticised weed killer. Official studies find over and again that the agent is not very toxic to humans and animals; but there is a stubborn undercurrent that links up Roundup with all modern ailments. It is much like in the climate debate, in particular through the connection with that other problematic issue, genetic modification: stakeholders predominantly listen to themselves. Therefore, a study in Roundup is also a study in (non-)communication.
This column was inspired by an article on the Dutch site duurzaamnieuws.nl (Sustainable News), based on a new study by Samsel and Seneff; they found indications for carcinogenic properties of Roundup, and also for manipulation of data by Monsanto. Cancer, Roundup, Monsanto: all deadly threats in one breath. For Sustainable News the issue is clear: it stinks. So far, I did not come across any refutations of this latest study, but their previous article got convincing criticism on pro-GMO sites like geneticliteracyproject.org. The most important point being that ‘there was absolutely no data’. Samsel is an independent researcher, Seneff works in the Computing and Artificial Intelligence division of MIT. In their article, they show many statistical relationships, but fail to establish causes. Which would be required for scientific conclusions. One critic spends a thousand words on the refutation of the suggestive conclusion of one single sentence, ‘so much disinformation in one pesky little sentence and so much specialist knowledge required to debunk it. Imagine how much there must be in the entire thing….’ The ultimate criticism is that farmers must control weeds – and Roundup is a relatively harmless agent, at least for humans and animals.
And yet, these comments are completely beside the point in a certain respect – in the background lurks this even bigger bogeyman, genetic modification. Many farmers use Roundup in order to clear their land from every single weed plant, after which they can sow crops that have been made resistant to this agent by means of genetic modification. We can only explain the ferocity and perseverance of the criticism on Roundup by taking genetic modification as its hidden goal. And debaters do not shy away from gross exaggerations. Séralini, another figurehead, finds cancer all the time, both from Roundup and from genetically modified food and feed. In experiments that cannot be duplicated by other researchers, or that the latter reject because of flawed experimental designs. And Samsel and Seneff, in their previous article, linked Roundup with almost all Western ailments like ‘digestive issues, obesity, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, Parkinson’s disease, liver diseases, and cancer, among others.’ One interesting comment: ‘Anytime a study is claiming to have discovered the reason for a literal grab bag of diseases (like these), huge, blaring alarm bells should go off. These are dramatically different diseases; presuming to find one cause doesn’t just stretch the imagination, it sounds insane.’
The distrust of official information
Science journalists who would like to reflect on such controversies in a well-considered way are faced with a big dilemma. It is impossible for them to read all the relevant literature. Even competent researchers can hardly do this. Considering the time they can spend on such issues: quite often, the really knowledgeable people retract from the discussion after having said twice what is on their minds, feeling that they can spend their time in better ways than with such nonsense. Then, the science journalist can only weigh the arguments. Which argument in a debate is the most plausible one? Do debaters give real answers, of merely reiterate their point of view? The similarity with the climate debate is striking. Albeit with changed colours. In the climate debate, ‘conservatives’ distrust official information, in the Roundup debate ‘liberals’ do so. People accept or reject scientific insights, as pleases them best. If they are’nt to their liking, there is bound to be some secret hidden behind them. The sad similarities being the distrustful citizen and a very polarised debate that almost forces participants to take sides.
In the climate debate, this polarisation has given rise to proliferous disinformation. Very well described and documented by Jan Paul van Soest in his book The doubt brigade (in Dutch). Van Soest shows that climate deniers have grown into a community of their own, taking themselves seriously and being taken seriously but actually venting a lot of bogus. They recycle the same half-truths over and again, ideas that become credible if repeated often enough. This community is kept alive with funds from companies with a stake in CO2 emissions, i.e. the oil industry. Their existence is based on distrust of ‘official’ information, all information coming from the government and from people with an ‘official’ aura like scientific researchers. Sadly enough, a similar community has grown around Roundup and genetic modification, a circuit of Roundup deniers. Here too, we find disinformation that becomes information once repeated often enough. Not based upon money but upon people who mean well by the world and who readily believe that anything coming from Monsanto is bound to be a lie. Roundup, genetic modification and cancer: it is bound to be true! That the reports by Séralini are judged to be methodically flawed and that he has retracted one of them, so what…. But in science, anything that is methodically flawed is untrustworthy.
The real problem with Roundup
All these reflections do not touch the heart of the problem with Roundup, an issue often downplayed by its proponents. Our agriculture cannot be based on an agent that kills all weeds. Because such an agent will not kill every single weed plant, in actual practice; a very small proportion, say one in every ten thousand, will survive. Plants that will invigorate themselves, year after year in which the farmer sprays Roundup. Until in the end the so-called super weeds surface, weeds that have become resistant to Roundup. Agriculture needs continuous innovation, in a ‘battle’ with nature which always will try to restore the former situation. Roundup has allowed us for some decades to foster the illusion that we could deliver the final blow in this battle. We now know better. Preferably, we start developing crops that outperform weeds and that are resistant to parasites by themselves, instead of trying to sterilise the land. Genetic modification would be a perfect instrument to develop such crops. Provided we would be prepared to include this technology in our toolbox.