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SKEPTOID BLOG:

The Glyphosate Zombie... Again

by Eric Hall

January 9, 2015

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Donate The sad truth of reading my social media feeds is that I see at least one article a day on glyphosate. Glyphosate, aka RoundUp, is an over 40-year-old herbicide that has the advantage of being toxic to plants in low amounts while having a low toxicity in humans. Plants have been genetically modified to be resistant to the effects of glyphosate, so it can be applied to fields to control weeds while sparing the crops, which dramatically increases yields. However, because of its wide use, there are those that rally against it and do so with very little scientific basis.

An article came up on my social media feeds claiming hospitals are poisoning children with feeding tubes by feeding them PediaSure. Warning! Woo links ahead! The site and the original source claim a study was done that shows "high levels of glyphosate" in the drink due to the use of genetically modified (GM) crop products. Let's point out a few problems with these statements.

A primary red flag here is the assumption that the glyphosate is due to the presence of GM crop products. While one could say there is a decent chance that the corn and soy products came from GM crops because they make up a decent percentage of those crops grown in the US, there is no way to know without further research it is actually GM crops. Second, glyphosate can be used on non-GM crops, thus its presence isn't proof of GM crop presence. We also fall under the weaseling of the words genetically modified, which anti-science groups usually mean ones created in a lab instead of cross-breeding. Even organic crops have had some genetic modifications, or at the very least selective breeding. Using the words "genetically modified" to equate to evil is usually evidence of bias.

The idea of calling this a study is problematic, since it suggests that the source of the claim compares to legitimate, published work in a peer-reviewed journal with time for other scientists to actually review the data. This doesn't even come close to that. It was a witch hunt, funded by the advocacy group Moms Across America (MAA). They didn't publish in a journal. They don't show the testing methods. Their citations link to two open-access journal studies. The first is the infamous Séralini study, which was pulled from its original publication due to its gross errors. (It was subsequently republished in an open-access journal.) One of my favorite statements in the Séralini study is the following:
Due to the large quantity of data collected, it cannot all be shown in one report, but we present here the most important findings.
This is a huge red flag. Omitting data is generally a bad idea, and a bad sign.

The other study is one showing the effect of glyphosate on various bacteria. The claim here is that pathological bacteria go relatively unharmed by glyphosate, and that beneficial bacteria are harmed by it. However, they used different concentrations for the different types of bacteria, and I didn't see any reasoning given for doing so in the study. They also actually cite unpublished data within their discussion. For these reasons, and again being published in a pay-to-play journal, I am highly suspicious of the results.

The data MAA provided were pretty vague. There was no reason given for the minimum level they chose (a concentration of 75 parts per billion). I would guess it was a limitation of the lab, but they don't state that directly. Only six of the 20 bottles tested made it above this level, the highest of which was 111 ppb. It is starting to remind me of the time Dr. Oz claimed to have found dangerous levels of arsenic in apple juice (guess what: it wasn't actually). They then go on to cite the usual anti-science players, such as Stephanie Seneff (whom I wrote about previously), who purposely cherry-pick data, rather than look at the science as a whole. (Note: they list Seneff as a Senior Research Scientist at MIT, while conveniently skipping the part that her research there is in computer science). It is complete nonsense. Why? Well, math for one. Update: The MMA post corrected the Seneff omission.

Looking through the literature of tests on animals such as rats, pigs, rabbits, and other mammals, and studies as long as two years, the smallest no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) I could find is 30 mg of glyphosate/kg of body weight per day. These studies observe that most of the glyphosate ingested is passed out of the body, via urine, without ever being changed. Let's look at 30 mg/kg per day for a moment. For a child of 10 kg, this would be 300 milligrams of glyphosate per day before any effect would be observed. Let's say a eight-ounce bottle of PediaSure had a level of 200 ppb, about twice as much as was found in the highest concentrations reported. This would mean 1 liter at this level would contain about 0.2 milligrams of glyphosate. This means each each eight-ounce bottle would contain about 0.047 milligrams of glyphosate. Let's be generous to their side and just say each bottle contains 0.05 milligrams of glyphosate. This means in order to get to the 300 milligrams, the 10 kg child would have to be fed 6,000 bottles of Pediasure in a single day to reach the lowest level of effect. This is about 1.5 metric tons of PediaSure. I think these kids will be a few bottles short of this level.

Kavin Senapathy also makes a good point about how ludicrous the claims against glyphosate and these same players trying to deny the science on it:
Make no mistakes — this is utter hogwash. There is no known cure for autism. If it were as simple as avoiding GMOs and pesticides, the affected foods would have been recalled. Furthermore, dietary treatment of autism has no basis in scientific evidence. If and when recommended, dietary approaches are based on adjustment of vitamin and mineral levels, or on avoiding allergens. Elimination of GMO foods is not a recommended dietary approach.
While I think this is oversimplifying a bit, it gets the point across. Every substance is unsafe at certain levels. If it was found that glyphosate at current levels is indeed harmful, the levels allowed would be lowered. If it was found to be harmful at levels far below current levels, scientists would work harder to find new pesticides that would work better—and why wouldn't they? New substances could be patented (glyphosate is no longer under patent protection) and sold. A company could make more money with a new substance. So the idea that "they don't want us to know because... profit" is nonsense that just doesn't hold weight.

Kavin also has a great Facebook comment on the appeal to emotion used when the claim is we are "poisoning our kids." Here's part of the quote, but I encourage you to go read the whole thing:
If I were actually poisoning my children, I'd be a criminal and a bad mom, neither of which I am. My husband and I are fortunate enough to be able to afford all of what our family needs, and a hell of a lot of what we want. We understand that we can feed our family healthy food without having to pay a premium for ideology.
I've said it many times in my writings: if we can find a way to use less pesticides to grow crops, I am all for that. It reduces the energy needs and environmental costs of crop production, and would theoretically reduce the cost of food further, which benefits a lot of people. I also have some concern about the reduction in biodiversity, though the science is still incomplete there. Organic foods do not solve this problem; they use more pesticides and also have the same monoculture problem faced by traditional farming. However, these are problems that can be solved by sticking to science without resorting to ideology.

If you are concerned about giving your child PediaSure, throw that concern out the window. Don't take your diet advice from anyone on the Internet, including me. For most children not allergic to the ingredients, PediaSure doesn't raise any unusual concern. If you are concerned, talk to your child's doctor. Rest assured, glyphosate is not something to worry about with this product.

by Eric Hall

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