How Pesticides and Herbicides Affect Farmers

These cancer-causing chemicals are a risk in our food, but they're an even greater risk for the people who grow it

In the past few decades, thousands of studies have revealed the negative consequences of herbicides and pesticides on human and planetary health. But few people—even among those who buy organic—think about who’s really most at risk.

According to a report released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 81.4 percent of Americans older than the age of 6 tested positive for high levels of glyphosate, an herbicide linked to cancer.

Three months later, another study, conducted by a nonprofit group dedicated to children’s health, found detectable levels of glyphosate in 95.3 percent of the public school lunches tested. The highest quantities were in soft tacos and pizza.

Research from Mississippi published in 2014 showed that glyphosate was the predominant new herbicide detected in both the air (86 percent) and rain (77 percent) as early as 2007.

Cure for a Common (Weed) Killer

Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, is very effective at killing weeds. However, the herbicide also interferes with the symbiotic relationship between beneficial soil bacteria and plant roots. This results in food crops that are deficient in the nutrients that humans need for optimal health.

That’s why many health experts, including functional medical doctors and nutritionists, urge their patients to buy organic food. When food is grown without pesticides and herbicides and is glyphosate-free, it’s more nutritious.

The good news is that the demand for organic food has increased so much that most supermarkets offer consumers at least one generic, affordable brand.

The bad news is that even though it’s easier and more affordable to buy organic food than ever before, most Americans still purchase nonorganic food. While the demand for organic food seems to be rising, the Department of Agriculture still estimates that organic food sales account for only about 4 percent of all food sales in the United States.

There are many reasons people don’t buy organic. According to the Organic Farming Research Foundation, the No. 1 reason is cost. Many people also say they can’t find organic food in their area. Food deserts in urban areas make this especially challenging.

At the same time, even the most diehard consumers of organically grown fruits, vegetables, meats, and packaged products usually buy conventionally grown flowers and decorative plants.

After all, if you aren’t eating it, why buy organic?

Here’s why: Every farm worker exposed to glyphosate is at an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia, among other health problems.

In fact, recent scientific evidence—from studies done long after glyphosate was approved for use in the growing of food—shows this herbicide is a major factor in several debilitating diseases, including neurological, metabolic, autoimmune, reproductive, and oncological illnesses.

Glyphosate Causes Blood Cancer

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma is a blood cancer that develops in the body’s white blood cells. Symptoms include exhaustion, night sweats, swollen glands, fever, and unexplained weight loss, and the condition is often fatal.

Scientists have been publishing studies on the link between exposure to pesticides and the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma for more than 20 years.

One particularly well-done study, conducted by scientists in Sweden and published in 2008, analyzed pesticide exposure in Swedish individuals between the ages of 18 and 74. This population-based case-control study found a twofold increased risk of lymphoma for glyphosate-exposed people compared to controls, and a threefold increased risk for the rare type of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called hairy cell leukemia.

A 2019 meta-analysis, conducted by research scientists from the University of Washington and published in the journal Mutation Research, found that glyphosate exposure increases the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma by 41 percent.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer now states that glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans.

When the issue was brought to court, the evidence was convincing. In 2018, after just three days of deliberation by the jury, a California groundskeeper was awarded more than $289 million from a court that found Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, hadn’t done enough to warn consumers of the cancer risk. Although industry lawyers kept the case tangled up in court for more than three years and the amount Monsanto was finally ordered to pay was reduced by other courts, the verdict in Johnson v. Monsanto Co. was upheld in 2020.

In 2019, Monsanto was ordered by a court in California to pay $86.2 million to a couple who both suffered from non-Hodgkin lymphoma after using Roundup.

Monsanto appealed, but the lower court’s decision was upheld by the California Supreme Court in November 2021. Since then, more than 100,000 others have filed lawsuits against Monsanto, according to HerbicideFreeCampus.org.

Any farmer or agricultural worker who is farming soil treated with glyphosate and its adjuvants is at higher risk for non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Buying all organic food, flowers, and plants is a way to keep them safe and protect them from potentially developing cancer.

Protect Agricultural Workers From Kidney Failure

Agricultural workers also need to be protected from glyphosate-induced kidney failure. Alarmingly, sugar cane workers in Central America are experiencing an unusual form of kidney disease not linked to diabetes. Many have been dying from this condition at a young age.

This condition has been called chronic kidney disease of unknown etiology, or CKDu. A similar phenomenon is happening among workers in the rice paddies in Sri Lanka.

In these cases, as explained in a 2019 study (co-authored by Stephanie Seneff), it appears that glyphosate works synergistically with another herbicide, paraquat, to damage the kidneys.

Sugar cane isn’t a genetically modified crop, but it’s often sprayed just before harvest with glyphosate, which acts as a ripener to increase the sugar yield. The workers who harvest the cane get high exposure to glyphosate, especially during harvest.

The Sri Lankan government actually banned glyphosate in 2015 in response to this clear evidence of harm. Sadly, due to pressure from the agricultural industry, the ban was lifted in November 2021.

Main Factor in Neurological Decline?

Another concern for farmers is the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease due to exposure to pesticides. A 2021 study published in the journal Gerontology found a higher prevalence of dementia among agricultural workers compared to others.

While several studies have shown that glyphosate causes neuroexcitotoxicity by exciting glutamate receptors in the brain, it wasn’t until this July that a definitive experimental study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation pointed directly to a link with Alzheimer’s disease.

This study, involving mice, showed that glyphosate infiltrated the brain and increased levels of a well-known inflammatory agent, as well as of the toxic form of amyloid beta, the protein linked to Alzheimer’s. It further showed that glyphosate is directly toxic to cells.

Organic food is safer and healthier for your children, your family, the workers who pick your crops, and the planet. If you go to farmers markets, you can find even more organically grown local food and flowers at affordable prices.

If your pockets are feeling pinched, befriend the farmers in your area and find a way to do trades. Growing your own flowers and garden vegetables—or joining a local gardening club or cooperative—will also help you have a steady supply of healthy food and beautiful blooms.

What’s more, ongoing research is leading to creative technological solutions to the weed problem that don’t depend on toxic chemicals. Organic food has already become more affordable as we learn how to focus on regenerative, renewable agricultural methods that will increase yield without harming the ecosystem.

We must protect farmers from toxicant-induced diseases. If we all stop buying conventionally grown food and garden plants, the demand for these will drop, and organics won’t be just a luxury for the rich.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science writer and regular contributor to The Epoch Times. Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., is a senior scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of “Toxic Legacy: How the Weedkiller Glyphosate Is Destroying Our Health and the Environment,” which was recently released in paperback.

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author of “Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family.” A Fulbright awardee and mother of four, she has worked on a child survival campaign in West Africa, advocated for an end to child slavery in Pakistan on prime-time TV in France, and taught post-colonial literature to non-traditional students in inner-city Atlanta. Learn more about her at JenniferMargulis.net
Stephanie Seneff is a Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She received the B.S. degree in Biophysics in 1968, the M.S. and E.E. degrees in Electrical Engineering in 1980, and the Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science in 1985, all from MIT. For over three decades, her research interests have always been at the intersection of biology and computation: developing a computational model for the human auditory system, understanding human language so as to develop algorithms and systems for human computer interactions, as well as applying natural language processing (NLP) techniques to gene predictions. She has published over 170 refereed articles on these subjects, and has been invited to give keynote speeches at several international conferences. She has also supervised numerous Master’s and PhD theses at MIT. In 2012, Dr. Seneff was elected Fellow of the International Speech and Communication Association (ISCA).
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