A study published this week in the journal Science Reports has found that long term exposure to low doses of Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ weedkiller (the main ingredient of which is the controversial herbicide glyphosate) can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). The rats in the study were given doses of Roundup at a glyphosate daily intake level that was 75,000 times below the EU and 437,500 times below the US permitted levels over a period of two years.

Analysis of the protein composition profile (proteomics) and small molecule metabolite biochemical profile (metabolomics) of liver tissue, which both directly measure the actual composition of the organ and provide definitive assessment of its health or disease status, confirmed liver functional dysfunction due to chronic and low-level doses of glyphosate exposure.

The research, led by Dr Michael Antoniou at King’s College London, is significant in being the first to show a causative link between consumption of Roundup (and therefore glyphosate) at a real-world environmental dose (thousands of times below what is permitted by regulators worldwide) and a serious disease condition.

NAFLD currently affects around 25% of the global population, and one in three people in the UK has early stages of the disease, with risk factors including being overweight or obese, diabetes and high cholesterol or high triglycerides in the blood. Symptoms can include fatigue, weakness, weight loss, loss of appetite, abdominal pain and others, and the disease can progress to the more serious condition of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis which causes the liver to swell and become damaged.

In the words of Dr Antoniou:

“The findings of our study are very worrying as they demonstrate for the first time a causative link between an environmentally relevant level of Roundup consumption over the long-term and a serious disease – namely non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Our results also suggest that regulators should reconsider the safety evaluation of glyphosate-based herbicides.”

Given that regulators worldwide accept toxicity studies in rats as indicators of human health risks, this study shows that Roundup may have serious consequences for human health.

In response, Mark Buckingham, a spokesperson for Monsanto which produces Roundup, stated on Farming Today that:

“We’ll have to look at the paper in detail. Our experts are looking at it today…There is political pressure and debate around glyphosate, it’s going through its EU review at the moment. But we are very focused on the enormous benefits [of Roundup] one of the most thoroughly tested products in the world. Those tests by independent regulators have consistently concluded that it is safe to use.”

This study is doubly significant because it comes hot on the heels of the European Commission’s decision to extend the licence for glyphosate use by 18 months in June 2016. This allows the European Chemicals Agency until the end of 2017 to give its opinion on glyphosate. Pressure to ban the widely used weedkiller has been building since the International Agency for Research on Cancer – the World Health Organization’s cancer agency – classified glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ in 2015. A subsequent analysis in 2016 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WHO found the chemical was ‘unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans’ , but this finding was criticised when it emerged that the chairman of the UN’s joint meeting on glyphosate was vice-president of an institute that had received a large donation from Monsanto.

Clearly any political decision about glyphosate in the near future, a decision that affects millions of people, needs to be based on the best possible science: fully transparent, independent and peer-reviewed.

This research was supported by a number of funders, mostly from the US Foundation Community whose donations were channelled through the Sustainable Food Alliance (SFA) a so called 501c3 not for profit body which enables individuals and organisations to make tax efficient contributions towards projects which are educational and in the public interest.  The SFA also makes regular grants towards the work of the Sustainable Food Trust in the UK.

Photograph: AgriLife Today

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