Published September 23, 2020
Keywords: Environmental Studies, Health and Society, Regulation
Title: Living with Pervasive Agrichemicals
Article by: Caroline Funk
Marion Werner, Christian Berndt, and Becky Mansfield are co-organizing the upcoming Baldy Center workshop, “Global Glyphosate: New Challenges in Regulating Pervasive Chemicals in the Anthropocene.” Marion Werner is an Associate Professor in the UB Department of Geography, Christian Berndt is a Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Zurich, and Becky Mansfield is a Professor in the Department of Geography, Ohio State University. They lead a collaborative, interdisciplinary team focused on researching multiscalar regulation of pervasive chemicals. The Baldy Center’s Caroline Funk spoke with them about their work and the upcoming conference.
What is glyphosate, and what does it mean that it is a “pervasive agrichemical”?
Glyphosate is a non-selective herbicide introduced by Monsanto as “Roundup” in the early 1970s, when they marketed it as a boutique product that was very expensive and used only for the most difficult weeds, Werner explained. A non-selective herbicide is designed to kill all grasses and broad leaf plants, until plants develop resistance. Glyphosate was marketed as safe alternative to the extremely toxic herbicides prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s. Mansfield said glyphosate was defined as safe because it breaks down in the environment quickly, but we now know that it breaks down into other chemicals that persist. Well-documented struggles over legitimate science meant that it took until 2015 for the World Health Organization to formally acknowledge links between glyphosate and cancer, and these are still disputed by major regulatory agencies like the EPA.
Werner, who is a human geographer specializing in development and trade in the Caribbean, explained that the pervasiveness of glyphosate developed with changes in farming practices. According to Werner, this began with the introduction of conservation, or no-till farming. Farmers sprayed glyphosate between cropping cycles to eradicate weeds, using chemicals instead of machinery. This was a cost-effective, erosion-reducing alternative to tilling, and glyphosate was one of the main chemicals that allowed it to happen. Herbicides were being used in a new way, and they were now a tool of land use change. Then in the 1990s, the development and introduction of genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant corn, soy, cotton, and canola seeds revolutionized agriculture. These “Roundup ready” seeds were rapidly taken up by farmers.
Berndt explained that this means glyphosate could be sprayed more frequently during the production cycle, on entire fields many times, between cropping cycles, pre-emergent, post-emergent, and during the preharvest desiccation stage. According to Berndt, this was very attractive for farmers. “The result was staggering increases in glyphosate use,” Werner said. Use increased more than six-fold in soybeans in the first five years and more than twelve-fold in corn over ten years. All told, the U.S. went from using 17 million pounds of glyphosate for agriculture in 1995 to 250 million pounds by 2014 (1). Berndt, who studies markets and commodities, with a recent focus on soy production in Argentina, explained that glyphosate is a commercial product that was patented by Monsanto. Different formulations and production processes were patented. But, as Berndt explained, “at some point patents expire,” and the last patent on glyphosate ran out in 2000. According to Berndt, at that point new companies produced it for much cheaper, and glyphosate received a boost in production, mainly in China, and prices collapsed massively. Glyphosate became more pervasive because it was more financially accessible to farmers globally.
Mansfield, a specialist in chemical geographies and the biopolitics of toxicity, introduced a third form of pervasiveness. According to Mansfield, glyphosate is everywhere on earth. Because it has been used in such large quantities and over such spatial spread, it is widespread in the environment. Glyphosate, including the breakdown metabolites, is inside human bodies and other organisms’ bodies.
Are the impacts of glyphosate felt unequally?
The team explained that the story of inequality and exposure is complicated. Mansfield said there are obvious differences between agrobusiness owners versus farm workers, but the situation is more complex in in middle income nations. Middle income nations are home to more than half of the world’s poor, yet they areas of economic growth. Marginalized farmer-owners in middle income nations are working to compete in the agricultural marketplace, and they turn to glyphosate as a labor-saving device. “Yes, glyphosate exposure might rebound to those who are less privileged in the global economy, and yet it might be their own choice to use glyphosate, given the structural position they hold within that context,” Mansfield explained.
Werner elaborated that the need for labor saving devices is not simply economic, but is part of changing rural contexts. Small farms, family farms, “eke out a living though family labor, but increasingly the kids don’t want to work on the farm for various reasons,” she said. She explained that glyphosate becomes part of the solution, because it is a cheap alternative to weeding, the second most labor-intensive part of farming. Berndt pointed out that in the large-scale soy production in Argentina, the use of agrichemicals like glyphosate may be the wedge between the medium-sized family farmer who finds it hard to compete and large-scale production. The small farmers can invest more heavily in this practice, or go out of business, or become a service contractor for the larger-scale companies. “There’s a bit of a trap in the whole system, a structured dependency,” he said.
How do you approach the study of global glyphosate in the context of the Anthropocene?
According to Mansfield, agrichemicals, including the pervasive glyphosate, DDT, and PCBs, are among the key markers of the Anthropocene. She believes that the pervasiveness of these chemicals challenges the “myth of separation,” which is the modernist notion that humans are separated from nature and that are we are sovereign bodies, only impacted by external influences. Chemical pervasiveness teaches us something different about the relationship between humans and nature, showing us that we are shaped by and not separate from the environment. She believes that part of the change of the Anthropocene, including studies of chemical exposures, the microbiome, and the epigenetic impacts of stress, is that we understand how our bodies are shaped by chemicals. Then, she said, we can start talking about the effects of pervasive chemicals, including profound low dose effects.
Berndt elaborated on this, pointing out that there was, and is, a dualism in the romantic notion of what the environment should be and the idea of the modern promise of control. On the one hand there is the modernist belief that there is always a technological fix for any environmental problem - for example finding better chemical substances. On the other hand, is the romantic notion of a pristine nature that many critics seem to have in mind when discussing alternatives. Berndt believes we have to go beyond that. Mansfield agreed, and said the Anthropocene way of thinking, where the dominance of the influence of human activity on climate and the environment is recognized, is to say, “this is the environment we have now. So how do we deal with that?”
If glyphosate is already everywhere, how do we move forward?
“Regulation and paradigms of regulation,” explained Werner. She believes the definition of “safe” was and is variable for regulation purposes and for farmers using herbicides. According to Werner, in the case of glyphosate, Monsanto publicly defined “safe” as not acutely toxic like DDT, paraquat, and other chemicals that were used in the mid-twentieth century. She said that Monsanto actively blocked data about the dangers of long-term exposures and pervasive toxicity. The paradigm of safety leads to questions about regulation. She believes that bringing people together from many sides of the complex problem will help to address issues of regulation. “For so long regulation has rested on the idea that the dose makes the poison, that you can remove things from the environment and you can reinstate nature in a purified body,” Werner said.
Mansfield explained that the regulation of glyphosate implicates the same issues as the regulation of any other potential toxin: what counts as a health effect? What is good science in identifying negative impacts? According to Berndt, regulatory issues and decisions in the United States and the European Union transfer directly to the global south, where different countries may follow “the principle of incorporation” and take on the decisions of one or the other. The less cautious U.S. and more restrictive E.U. struggle to make regulation decisions, and both have reregistered glyphosate with few restrictions on how it can be used, Mansfield said. Larger global political-economic dynamics are impacting regulatory debates in the U.S and the E.U., according to Mansfield. Weed resistance is increasing. Natural processes are altering the way glyphosate is used. Generic producers will change how the chemical is used. Lawsuits may impact its use. “There is a vast gap left by regulators over what happens next,” she said.
Werner, Berndt, and Mansfield recently were awarded an NSF grant to advance their research into the multiscalar regulation of globally incorporated glyphosate and other pervasive herbicides. As Berndt pointed out, they can’t focus their research on glyphosate alone. Companies add new ingredients to keep the herbicides working, and they return to the old toxic chemicals all the time. With increasing weed resistance to glyphosate, “rather than change the paradigm from chemical to something else, the solution has been to double down and create mixtures with older generation herbicides that already have weed-resistance and known toxicity. So now the farmer has a menu of options,” Werner said. Activists are taking this on, she explained, and this team’s academic research can inform these regulatory debates.
What drives you to take on these challenging questions?
The complexity of the issue drives the research for each member of the team. Werner said she wants her research tools and relationships to be useful in understanding new geographies of uneven development. She is particularly intrigued by south-south trade relationships and their impact on glyphosate trade, regulation, and use. She is gratified that community-based organizations are interested in this research, and that the research can help them to focus regulation concerns on the generic producers of pervasive chemicals. And, at the core of her research, Werner’s long-term work in issues of labor and farming mean that she is sympathetic to the kids who want to leave the farm and to the dilemma faced by the adults who stay behind. Berndt is passionate about understanding the “black box” production input of pervasive chemicals in his studies of markets and commodities in soy production in Argentina, and in understanding complexity and fragmentation in supply chains. Mansfield said she is engaged by thinking about environmental health questions, about what constitutes regulation, and what is knowable. “We know there are these pervasive chemicals in the world, and they are never going away. What do we do?” she questioned. She believes that if chemicals are pervasive in our world, we need to move away from the healthist notion that we are in control of our health if we just live properly: “We are constituted by our own world. We can’t think of it as messed up. We can think of it as different and how to live with those differences, while still holding companies and regulatory agencies responsible for some of these problems.”
The “Global Glyphosate: New Challenges in Regulating Pervasive Chemicals in the Anthropocene” workshop will be held June 3 & 4, 2021 at the Baldy Center conference center. The workshop is sponsored by the Baldy Center and UB Department of Geography, The Gnamm Faculty Research Fund, UB Confucius Institute, and UB Community for Global Health Equity.
(1) Benbrook, C.M. Trends in glyphosate herbicide use in the United States and globally. Environ Sci Eur 28, 3 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12302-016-0070-0
Caroline Funk, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, University at Buffalo. Funk has a Research Assistant Professor appointment in UB’s Department of Anthropology and currently leads and collaborates in federally funded multidisciplinary research which focuses on the history of human-environmental dynamics in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
Marion Werner, PhD, is an Associate Professor in UB’s Department of Geography. Her research is located at the nexus of critical development studies, feminist theory, and political economy with a focus on Latin America and the Caribbean. Werner explores these topics through the study of farmers in the Dominican Republic who produce rice for the domestic market and cocoa for the international market. Learn more.