Are We Round-up Ready?

The other day my sister-in-law, who’s a nuclear physicist, overheard me talking to her daughter about the corn we grow at Great Country Farms.

“Most of the corn in America comes from seeds that have been genetically engineered to produce a protein known as Bt, which kills the worms that like to eat sweet corn,” I said. “We don’t use that kind of seed, so some of our corn has worms under the husk at the top of the ear. But you just cut off the part the worms have eaten, and you eat the rest.”


“The results of a comparison of GM and non-GM corn from adjacent Midwest fields in the US that first appeared on the Moms Across America March website [1] are reproduced in Table 1.”

“I didn’t hear the beginning of that conversation,” my sister-in-law said later, “but you must have said you’re opposed to using GE seeds. Why is that?”

Knowing that I’m temperamentally inclined to subvert powerful conglomerates that pretend my welfare motivates their business models, and believing that such temperamental inclination is a sorry excuse for indoctrinating twelve-year-olds, I told the physicist that I don’t yet understand the issue as well as I’d like, and that I’m trying to learn the benefits of genetic engineering, but the downsides I’m aware of now are these:

1. Genetically engineered crops haven’t existed long enough for anyone to have a clear sense of how they might affect the human body over time.

2. One company, Monsanto, makes both the herbicide that allows for greater corn yields and the GE seeds that tolerate heavier doses of that herbicide, and I distrust that kind of profit-driven harmonious interest, especially when it controls 90% of the American corn market.

“I thought genetic engineering was supposed to reduce pesticide use,” she said.

“I think Monsanto’s corn has one added gene that makes Bt and another that tolerates glyphosate, which is the toxin in Round-up.”

“So why is the glyphosate necessarily worse than the problem it prevents?” she asked. “Isn’t glyphosate actually less toxic than pesticides farmers used before there was Round-up?”

“I think that’s true,” I said, “but Round-up is used so heavily now that its cumulative effect may be worse than the pesticides it replaced.”

“Maybe,” she said, “but it’s also possible that the adverse effects are a reasonable trade-off for a lot more food.”

That seemed unlikely to me, but without any evidence to the contrary, I had to admit that it was possible. Two days later, Mark Zurschmeide sent me a link to this article, which provides a lot of specific information that makes glyphosate look like a bad idea. The argument in favor of glyphosate has always been that it doesn’t hurt people because it works by disrupting production of amino acids that are crucial to plants but not to people, so it kills them but not us.USDA-pesticides-applied-to-wheat

But Doctors Anthony Samsel and Stephanie Sennef of MIT recently published a paper pointing out that the microbial cultures in our intestines need to produce those same amino acids, and that glyphosate effects those cultures the same way it effects broadleaf cultures in a cornfield. So glyphosate may not in fact directly damage human tissues, but by killing off our inner flora, it undermines our health substantially.

“Roundup significantly disrupts the functioning of beneficial bacteria in the gut and contributes to permeability of the intestinal wall and consequent expression of autoimmune disease symptoms.” says Sarah Pope, the Healthy Home Economist.

I still consider myself relatively uninformed about these matters, and I realize that everyone who takes a stand on the issue has a bias of some kind — I’m trying to neutralize mine by copping to it — but it makes sense that glyphosate, a pesticide, would trounce my inner flora.

That can’t be good.



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