“If glyphosate is so safe, go ahead and drink it.” This is a favorite “gotcha” phrase of opponents of genetically engineered (GE) foods. I’m a science writer, biotechnology advocate, and mom of two young children. If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve been asked to drink glyphosate or Roundup (the commercial formulation of glyphosate) I’d be swimming in nickels. The idea that Big Behemoth Agrochemical creates GE varieties to resist pesticides without regard to safety is pervasive, but false.
This is why I recently started tweeting with tongue-in-cheek hashtag #IfItsSafeThenDrinkIt, and I implore you to join in! A recent YouTube clip in which alleged “Monsanto lobbyist” Dr. Patrick Moore refused to drink a glass of glyphosate has provided fuel for the anti-biotech fire. French filmmaker Paul Moreira cornered the biotechnology advocate, who does hundreds of live interviews per year. When he expressed his belief that glyphosate doesn’t cause cancer, and that drinking a “whole quart” of it won’t hurt a human being, Moreira produced a glass which he claimed contained glyphosate, and proceeded to pester Dr. Moore to drink the liquid. After a few heated exchanges, Moore snapped, “No, I’m not an idiot” and stormed out of the interview.
On March 29th, Moore released a statement confirming that he’s not a Monsanto lobbyist, and admitting that he made a mistake in the interview. His blunder wasn’t in his refusal to drink the liquid, but in allowing the interviewer to corner him, and in losing his composure on camera. He should have explained more clearly that while glyphosate isn’t harmful to humans, only a pushover and fool would drink it on what amounts to a sophomoric schoolyard dare.
We must turn to logic in the wake of poor Dr. Moore’s blunder. Americans’ rampant failure to grasp the integral tenet of toxicology, “the dose makes the poison,” demonstrates our nation’s lack of critical-thinking skills. Indeed, there are plenty of substances that like glyphosate, are safe when used as directed. Nevertheless, nobody in his right mind would drink a glassful. Some amusing yet apt examples have made their way through social media with hashtag #IfItsSafeThenDrinkIt. How about some Bioneem Organic Fertilizer? Bottoms up! Or a tall, refreshing glass of salt water, vinegar, dish soap, or laxative? While the hashtag is tongue-in-cheek, it demonstrates the sheer absurdity of taking Moore’s refusal to drink glyphosate as affirmation of its danger.
While I’m not a scientist, as a science writer I have a high level understanding of genetics, genomics, and biotechnology. I know that while glyphosate kills weeds, its mechanism won’t hurt humans when used as directed. Humans, weeds, and other organisms carry out functions of life with proteins, the basic functional components of living things. They serve all purposes from structure, immunity, metabolic, nutritive, and enzymatic functions. Proteins are comprised of amino acid chains. Yet the precise manner in which different organisms obtain the necessary amino acids to build proteins varies.
The shikimate metabolic pathway, which is not found in animals, produces specific amino acids in weeds. Mammals, on the other hand, do not synthesize these particular amino acids. Considered essential amino acids, humans must consume them in our diets because our bodies cannot synthesize them. (There are other amino acids that the human body does have to synthesize, but glyphosate doesn’t affect those pathways.) Glyphosate interferes with the shikimate pathway, preventing the synthesis of certain amino acids without which weeds cannot produce vital proteins, and they die.
I’m not scared of glyphosate harming me or my loved ones. Yet even without high level science savvy, anyone with a bit of common sense would know not to drink something simply because it’s safe.
Despite WHO sub-agency IARC’s recent classification of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic,” scientists aren’t biting. Echoing other experts, Melbourne analytical chemistry lecturer Dr. Oliver Jones explained, “People might be interested to know that there are over 70 other things IARC also classifies as ‘probably carcinogenic’, including night shifts. In the highest category of known carcinogens are ‘alcoholic beverages’ and ‘solar radiation’ (sunlight) – along with plutonium.”
Dr. Jones went on to reiterate the “dose makes the poison” adage. “[Y]es, pesticides can be dangerous, but are many other common things which are also dangerous in sufficient amounts or over long periods of time – the dose makes the poison.” As a mother of two young children, I’m not afraid of glyphosate. I’ll continue to purchase foods made with genetically engineered ingredients. Indeed, I fear the intrusion of unscientific fear-mongering into the minds and hearts of my loved ones far more than I fear a bit of pesticide residue. If I ever agree to an interview by anyone with an anti-biotech agenda, be warned: If you ask me to drink glyphosate, I’ll go tit for tat, armed with a bottle of naturally-derived organic pesticide.
What is something safe that you would never drink? Tweet with hashtag #IfItsSafeThenDrinkIt!
***Note – Kavin did not actually swallow mouthwash, nor does she condone drinking liquids that aren’t intended for drinking.
Featured image © 2015 Kavin Senapathy