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Feds must decide whether to protect monarch butterflies by June 2019

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is now legally bound to determine whether to protect imperiled monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act, according to the terms of an agreement reached conservation groups.

The agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety requires the agency to decide by June 2019 whether the butterflies will receive federal protection. The two conservation groups and allies petitioned in 2014 for protection of the species, which has declined by 80 percent over the past two decades.

“An 80 percent decline points to extinction if we don’t act fast. Protecting monarch butterflies under the Endangered Species Act is essential to their survival, and will provide a roadmap for safeguarding their habitat and ensuring their recovery,” said George Kimbrell, Center for Food Safety senior attorney and counsel in the case.

In March, the groups filed a lawsuit to force the agency to set a legally binding deadline for a decision on the petition. Under today’s agreement the agency must propose protection for the monarch, deny protection or assign it to the “candidate” waiting list for protection by June 30, 2019.

“The monarch’s future is bleaker today than ever before,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “On top of the loss of milkweed in its summer grounds, logging of its winter home in Mexico has increased, a severe winter storm this spring killed millions of monarchs, and a mine now threatens the Monarch Biosphere Reserve. Endangered Species Act protection can’t come soon enough for this beautiful but beleaguered butterfly.”

In March, a study by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that there is a substantial probability that the eastern monarch butterfly population could decline to such low levels that they face extinction. Researchers estimate that there is between 11 percent and 57 percent probability that the monarch migration could collapse within the next 20 years. In April Cornell researchers published a paper indicating that in addition to loss of summer milkweed, monarchs are threatened during the fall migration by multiple factors including habitat fragmentation, drought and insecticides.

The butterfly’s catastrophic decline has been driven in large part by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs hatch. The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food source.

The dramatic surge in Roundup use and “Roundup Ready” crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in midwestern corn and soybean fields. It is estimated that in the past 20 years these once-common butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds.

UN experts: Glyphosate unlikely to cause cancer

The pesticide glyphosate, sold by Monsanto in its Roundup weed killer product and widely used in agriculture and by gardeners, is unlikely to cause cancer in people, according to a new safety review by United Nations health, agriculture and food experts.

In a statement likely to intensify a row over its potential health impact, experts from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization said glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans” exposed to it through food. It is mostly used on crops.

Having reviewed the scientific evidence, the joint WHO/FAO committee also said glyphosate is unlikely to be genotoxic in humans. In other words, it is not likely to have a destructive effect on cells’ genetic material.

Diazinon and malathion, two other pesticides reviewed by the committee, which met last week and published its conclusions on Monday, were also found to be unlikely to be carcinogenic.

“In view of the absence of carcinogenic potential in rodents at human-relevant doses and the absence of genotoxicity by the oral route in mammals, and considering the epidemiological evidence from occupational exposures, the meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet,” the committee said.

Glyphosate is also “unlikely to be genotoxic at anticipated dietary exposures”, it added.

The group reaffirmed an acceptable daily intake (ADI) of up to 1 milligram of glyphosate for every kilogram of body weight.

CONTRADICTORY?

The conclusions appear to contradict a finding by the WHO’s Lyon-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which in March 2015 said glyphosate is “probably” able to cause cancer in humans and classified it as a ‘Group 2A’ carcinogen.

Seven months after the IARC review, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent agency funded by the European Union, published a different assessment, saying glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans”.

The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which first assessed glyphosate in 1986 and has reviewed it several times since then, had also previously concluded it has “low toxicity for humans”.

The differing findings thrust glyphosate into the centre of a row involving EU and U.S. politicians and regulators, the IARC experts, the WHO and environmental and agricultural scientists.

The EU’s pesticides committee is due to meet later this week to decide whether to re-license glyphosate. The U.S. EPA is being investigated for withdrawing a report saying the chemical is probably not carcinogenic.

In a question-and-answer document issued alongside the joint FAO/WHO statement, the WHO denied that the conclusions by the joint group and by IARC were contradictory. It said they were “different, yet complementary”, with the IARC assessment focussed on hazard while the other looked at risk.

“IARC reviews published studies to identify potential cancer hazards,” the WHO said. “It does not estimate the level of risk to the population associated with exposure to the hazard.”

In contrast, it said, the joint FAO/WHO committee looks at published and unpublished studies to assess the health risk to consumers from dietary exposure to pesticide residues in food.

Monsanto’s glyphosate most widely used weed-killer

Monsanto’s signature herbicide glyphosate, first marketed as “Roundup,” is now the most widely and heavily applied weed-killer in the history of chemical agriculture in both the U.S. and globally, according to a report published today.

The paper, published Feb. 2, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Sciences Europe, reports that to date 8.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate have been used globally. Glyphosate use has risen almost 15-fold since so-called “Roundup Ready” genetically engineered crops were introduced in 1996.

In 2014, enough glyphosate was sprayed to leave more than three-quarters of a pound of the active ingredient on every harvested acre of cropland in the U.S., and remarkably, almost a half pound per acre on all cropland worldwide (0.53 kilogram/hectare).

The paper by Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., titled “Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and Globally,” is available free online at Environmental Sciences Europe. 

“The dramatic and rapid growth in overall use of glyphosate will likely contribute to a host of adverse environmental and public health consequences,” Benbrook wrote.

Last year, 17 of the world’s top cancer researchers voted unanimously to elevate glyphosate’s cancer profile on behalf of the World Health Organization. After the panel of experts reviewed all of the publicly available research, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classified the weed-killer as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”  Following WHO’s action, the state of California is currently in the process of listing glyphosate as a known human carcinogen under its Proposition 65 law.

As Benbrook’s paper notes, other recent studies have found connections between glyphosate exposure and a number of other serious health effects, including liver and kidney damage and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, among others. 

Remarkably, 74 percent of all glyphosate sprayed on crops since the mid-1970s was applied in just the last 10 years, as cultivation of genetically engineered corn and soybean crops exploded on both U.S. and global croplands.  

Glyphosate was first sold commercially in 1974, but its use by farmers was limited at first because the active ingredient killed both weeds and crops. The subsequent development and approval of genetically engineered (GE), herbicide-tolerant (HT) crops dramatically changed how farmers could apply it. Starting in 1996, Monsanto and other seed companies began marketing GE-HT versions of three major crops – cotton, corn, and soybeans – making it possible for farmers to apply glyphosate for months after crops started growing.

The use and efficacy of HT technology, particularly in its first decade, led to its rapid and near-universal adoption in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and a half-dozen other countries. As a result, glyphosate use by U.S. farmers rose from 12.5 million pounds in 1995 to 250 million pounds in 2014, a 20-fold increase. Globally, total use rose from 112.6 million pounds in 1995 to 1.65 billion in 2014, a nearly 15-fold jump.

“My hope is that this paper will stimulate more research on glyphosate use and human and environmental exposure patterns to increase the chance that scientists will quickly detect any problems that might be triggered, or made worse, by glyphosate exposure,” Benbrook added.

“This report makes it clear that the use of glyphosate, combined with the dominance of genetically engineered crops, has produced a looming public health threat both in the U.S. and around the world,” said Mary Ellen Kustin, senior policy analyst at EWG. “Farmers have sprayed billions of pounds of a chemical now considered a probable human carcinogen over the past decade. Growers spray glyphosate several times a year on the majority of U.S. cropland. The sheer volume of use of this toxic weed-killer is a clear indication that this chemical dependency is a case of farming gone wrong.” 

Report: USDA scientists harassed for questioning Roundup’s safety

A watchdog organization is calling on the U.S. Senate and House agriculture committees and the inspector general at the USDA to investigate a possible coverup for Monsanto and whether USDA scientists were harassed for questioning the safety of Roundup and other Big Ag products.

The call from U.S. Right to Know for review follows a report on March 27 from Reuters news service, which cited a claim from the the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: “Some scientists working for the federal government are finding their research restricted or censored when it conflicts with agribusiness industry interests…. At least 10 USDA scientists have been investigated or faced other consequences arising from research that called into question the safety of certain agricultural chemicals…. Research into glyphosate, the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, and neonicotinoid insecticides, which have been linked to honey bee and monarch butterfly endangerment, face particular scrutiny…”

Gary Ruskin, executive director of U.S. Right to Know, said, “If true, this is a major scandal at USDA. It is not the proper role of the USDA to engage in a cover up for Monsanto or other agrichemical companies.”

He continued, “It is intolerable that the agribusiness and agrichemical should be able to interfere with USDA scientists and their work. Those scientists work for the public, not Monsanto nor the agrichemical industry.”

Letters from the group to House and Senate committee members and the USDA Inspector General asked for an investigation into alleged “corporate interference with USDA scientists,” as well as for the release of any evidence of industry interference with USDA scientists.

Earlier this month, U.S. Right to Know released “Seedy Business,” a report on the chemical-food industry’s $100 million campaign to keep consumers in the dark about genetically engineered food: how they manipulated the media, public opinion, science and politics.

Study: GE crops threaten monarch butterflies

The Center for Food Safety this week released a detailed scientific report revealing the severe impacts of herbicide-resistant genetically engineered crops on the monarch butterfly population, which has plummeted over the past two decades.

The CFS said the report, “Monarchs in Peril: Herbicide-Resistant Crops and the Decline of Monarch Butterflies in North America,” makes it clear that two decades of Roundup Ready crops have nearly eradicated milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s sole source of food, in cropland of the monarch’s vital Midwest breeding ground.

At the request of scientists and public interest groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service currently is considering listing the monarch as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The CFS has presented the report to Congress for a briefing on the decline of the once common butterflies.

“This report is a wake-up call. This iconic species is on the verge of extinction because of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready crop system,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director at Center for Food Safety. “To let the monarch butterfly die out in order to allow Monsanto to sell its signature herbicide for a few more years is simply shameful.”

Monarch population numbers have fallen by 90 percent in less than 20 years. This year’s population was the second lowest since careful surveys began two decades ago. The critical driver of monarch decline is the loss of larval host plants in their main breeding habitat, the Midwestern Corn Belt. Monarchs lay eggs exclusively on plants in the milkweed family, the only food their larvae will eat.

Monarch butterflies have long coexisted with agriculture, but the proliferation of herbicide-resistant GE crops is threatening that balance. Monsanto’s glyphosate-resistant Roundup Ready corn and soybeans have radically altered farming practices, sharply increasing the extent, frequency and intensity of glyphosate use on farm land. Glyphosate — one of the very few herbicides that kills common milkweed — was little used two decades ago, but has become by far the most heavily used herbicide in America thanks to GE Roundup Ready crops. As a result, corn and soybean fields in the Corn Belt have lost 99 percent of their milkweed since just 1999.

“The alarming decline of monarchs is driven in large part by the massive spraying of glyphosate herbicide on genetically engineered crops, which has virtually eliminated monarch habitat in the corn and soybean fields that dominates the Midwest landscape,” stated Bill Freese, Center for Food Safety science policy analyst and co-author of the report. “Glyphosate is the monarch’s enemy number one. To save this remarkable species, we must quickly boost milkweed populations and curtail the use of herbicide-resistant crop systems.” 

Milkweed grows outside of cropland, but there is too little habitat to support a viable monarch population. First, corn and soybeans dominate the Midwest landscape, leaving little area in roadsides, pastures and other land where milkweed grows. Second, monarchs produce almost four times more eggs per plant on milkweed within agricultural fields than on milkweed growing elsewhere.

“Milkweed growing in Midwest cropland is essential to the monarch’s continued survival. Without milkweed, we’ll have no monarchs,” said Dr. Martha Crouch, biologist with Center for Food Safety and co-author of the report.

As the monarch population declines other threats have greater impacts, and the butterflies are less likely to bounce back from adversity, according to the Center for Food Safety and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The groups, along with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and scientist Lincoln Brower, filed a legal petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect monarchs as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

In December 2014, the FWS announced that ESA listing may be warranted.

Endangered species protection sought for monarch butterfly

The Center for Biological Diversity and Center for Food Safety filed a petition with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service seeking Endangered Species Act protection for monarch butterflies, which have declined by more than 90 percent in under 20 years.

During the same period the once-common iconic orange and black butterflies may have lost more than 165 million acres of habitat — an area about the size of Texas — including nearly a third of their summer breeding grounds, according to a statement from the organizations.

“Monarchs are in a deadly free fall and the threats they face are now so large in scale that Endangered Species Act protection is needed sooner rather than later, while there is still time to reverse the severe decline in the heart of their range,” said Lincoln Brower, monarch researcher and conservationist, who has been studying the species since 1954.

“We’re at risk of losing a symbolic backyard beauty that has been part of the childhood of every generation of Americans,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The 90 percent drop in the monarch’s population is a loss so staggering that in human-population terms it would be like losing every living person in the United States except those in Florida and Ohio.”

The butterfly’s decline is being driven by the widespread planting of genetically engineered crops in the Midwest, where most monarchs are born, according to the center.

The vast majority of genetically engineered crops are made to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a uniquely potent killer of milkweed, the monarch caterpillar’s only food. The dramatic surge in Roundup use with Roundup Ready crops has virtually wiped out milkweed plants in Midwestern corn and soybean fields.

“The widespread decline of monarchs is driven by the massive spraying of herbicides on genetically engineered crops, which has virtually eliminated monarch habitat in cropland that dominates the Midwest landscape,” said Bill Freese, a Center for Food Safety science policy analyst. “Doing what is needed to protect monarchs will also benefit pollinators and other valuable insects, and thus safeguard our food supply.”

Monarch butterflies are known for their multigenerational migration each year from Mexico to Canada and back. Found throughout the United States during summer months, in winter most monarchs from east of the Rockies converge in the mountains of central Mexico, where they form tight clusters on just a few acres of trees. Most monarchs west of the Rockies migrate to trees along the California coast to overwinter.

The population has declined from a recorded high of about 1 billion butterflies in the mid-1990s to 35 million butterflies last winter, the lowest number ever recorded.

The overall population shows a steep and statistically significant decline of 90 percent over 20 years.

In addition to herbicide use with genetically engineered crops, monarchs are also threatened by global climate change, drought and heat waves, other pesticides, urban sprawl and logging on their Mexican wintering grounds.

Scientists have predicted that the monarch’s entire winter range in Mexico and large parts of its summer range in the states could become unsuitable due to changing temperatures and increased risk of drought, heat waves and severe storms.

Monarchs need a large population size to be resilient to threats from severe weather events and predation. Nearly half of the overwintering population in Mexico can be eaten by bird and mammal predators in any single winter; a single winter storm in 2002 killed an estimated 500 million monarchs — 14 times the size of the entire current population.

“The purpose of the Endangered Species Act is to protect species like the monarch, and protect them, now, before it’s too late,” said George Kimbrell, senior attorney at the Center for Food Safety. “We’ve provided FWS a legal and scientific blueprint of the urgently needed action here.”

“The monarch is the canary in the cornfield, a harbinger of environmental change that we’ve brought about on such a broad scale that many species of pollinators are now at risk if we don’t take action to protect them,” said Brower.

The Fish and Wildlife Service must now issue a 90-day finding on whether the petition warrants further review.