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Monday, September 13, 2004

Weird science

Here's how a species gets so smart that it eventually becomes supremely stupid. First, it invents and mass-markets something as toxic as Roundup. Then, it bio-engineers plants that are immune to Roundup.

Presumably, we'll continue to create and indiscriminately spray around ever more toxic substances, and propagate ever more resistant plants, until some day the only thing that's not immune are humans. At which point, we'll disappear from the planet.

Comments (17)

I've already asked my doctor if the Roundup Immunity Gene Implant is right for me.

Jack, God bless you, but sometimes you really are wrong. Glyphosate (Roundup), for all the greenie yelling, is about as non-toxic a substance as is out there. I would be willing to eat a great big spoonful of the compound to get you to understand that fact. (Yes, I know that wouldn't prove anything -- but you get my point.)

From an educational institution in your state:
"The EPA has evaluated use practices, environmental fate, potential exposure routes, and toxicity of glyphosate and has set a Reference Dose (RfD) for glyphosate of 2.0 mg/kg/day. A 70 kg (154 lb) person would have an RfD of 140 mg/day. The RfD is the amount of daily pesticide exposure judged to pose no appreciable risk over a 70-year lifetime."

Roundup is a close cousin, I'm told, of duct tape.

To those who would downplay the risks of herbicides to human health: Yes, please do eat your government-approved "safe" dose every day.

Roundup is only a class III toxin, so its relatively benign. We know this because our EPA has tested it on rats, mice, rabbits and beagles at varying dosages for periods up to 1 year with only mild cases of weight loss, pancreatic lesions, ocular anomalies, and testicular tumors. These were generally due to doses that are higher than we'd expect on our food.

"Glyophosphate is no more than slightly toxic to birds and is practically non-toxic to fish, aquatic invertebrates, and honeybees" if you were wondering. http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/old_reds/glyphosate.pdf

What concerns me more is the use of patented plants, and the reliance on heavy applications of herbicides. We're currently seeing what the dependence upon foreign petroleum looks like, and fate of farmers not using the genetically tailored plants looks grim if Canadian courts say those farmers are at fault for a few GM plants ending up in his fields. Get ready for a whole new kind of corporate farm.

But seriously, folks, let's analyze the science behind Roundup. It is an inhibitor of enzyme that synthesizes amino acids in plants; humans simply DO NOT have this enzyme.

Moreover, Roundup is a simple modification of glycine, the simplest amino acid in nature. (To be technical, it is the addition of a phosphorus atom, 3 oxygens, one carbon and three hydrogens.) This modification makes the compound even more soluble in water, which makes it that much more likely to simply pass through your system via the urinary tract.

It is this knee-jerk reaction against "toxic substances" (can anyone give me a definition of 'toxic' that doesn't mean "man-made! bad! bad!" that condemns developing nations to poverty and disease. It is far more likely that you are exposed to more toxic substances in your glass of red wine than you are in a field full of Roundup-ready plants.

Are you an herb?
If not, don't worry. There are bigger food travesties over which you should get your undies in a bunch (start with antibiotics in the food chain, and go from there). Roundup is a windmill.

What worries me as much as the growing dependency upon herbicides is the genetic transfer from crop plants to the non crop plants or "weeds". It is a highly rare event, but genetic drift does occur and eventually we'll be looking at greater and greater doses of herbicides.

I'm not an herb. I can read warning labels.

Have you ever read the warning label for a jar of sodium chloride from a chemistry lab? I'll bet it reads just like your bottle of Roundup.

After walking around my lab, I found a bottle of sea sand -- it's just regular ol' sand in a plastic jar, we use it to filter solvents sometimes. I swear, it's just like sand from the beach.

And I quote:

"CAUTION! May cause eye and skin irritation. May cause respiratory and digestive tract irritation. May cause lung damage. For eye contact, flush with water and get medical aid. For skin contact, get medical aid if irritation occurs or persists. If ingested, get medical aid if irritation or symptoms occurs. If inhaled, remove to fresh air and get medical aid immediately. IMPORTANT! Do not use this product until Material Safety Data Sheet has been read and understood."


You guys remind me of the salespeople up at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, who will eat uranium in front of a group for effect and tell you the radiation in that place "is safer than sunshine."

I'm going to send readers to this, this, and this, and I'll even let you folks have the last word.

But I won't back down. Herbicides are dangerous. Genetically altered crops that resist herbicides aren't a good idea.

I think its more popularly likened to cutting off one's nose...

Glyphosate may not be the ideal chemical for this discussion, but the concept is the same.

In loving admiration of the masterful way in which you have attracted a band of genetic engineers from Lane County. Just be careful. As time goes by I find that it gets harder and harder to send them back!



It's a shame you missed the No Nukes concert. Bruce wore a poor man's shirt, and James Taylor (former heroin addict) talked about preserving a healthy world.
Roundup might kill me in 25 years. Me, I'm worried about an Uzi !

Roundup safe? Reminds me of the DDT advocates before they figured out that it bioaccumulates, and travels around the planet without breaking down. Will we ever learn that our default stance on herbicides should be caution?

The herbicide advocates are just trying to make their case for history to be able to tell their grandkids that they didn't know better. Just like lawyers, eh?

It's a fascinating discussion. Personally, I'm of the opinion that we don't know enough about endocrinology or the role of nucleic acids to be able to offer definitive statements that these types of chemicals--synthetic modifications of naturally occuring organic molecules--are safe. We don't even know the structures of 90-95,000 of the roughly 100,000 human proteins, so do we really think that we know how each of those proteins and their building blocks will interact with different synthetics?

Arguing that glyophosphate is just a simple modification of glycine doesn't mean it's safe, and even attempting to advance this argument is a departure from scientific method. Look at the synthetic variation on progesterone, which is a very simple departure from the real thing, yet is currently being linked to cancer. It seems to me that one of the attractive qualities of a synthetic to a corporation is that it can be patented. But the simplicity of the molecular modification says nothing of how that molecule will interact with other molecules.

On the other hand, I think the substances that become the poster children for these debates are selected somewhat arbitrarily by our popular discourse. When you consider that 1) we have no pesticide registration requirements in this state and 2) there are no rules on agricultural runoff in the Willamette Valley, then it's easy to realize that we don't what's in our waterways or how much of it there is. Where does Roundup fit into this reality? I can't really say.

Personally, I'm not convinced that our regulatory agencies have the ability to exhaustively evaluate new synthetics that are used for drugs, pesticides, or industrial applications. Our experience shows us that some substances make it through the regulatory approval process, but then later are proven to cause big problems. For these reasons, I think we need to err on the side of caution.

In reality, though, the genie is out of the bottle, and the only real remedy that the average person has is the class action lawsuit, after the damage has been done.

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