Interdisciplinary Minor in Global Sustainability
Senior Seminar (Instructor: Peter A. Bowler)
University of California, Irvine, March 1998

Are we Roundup® ready?

By Dore Burry

"If you read Wall Street’s reports, they don’t talk of soya bean as originating in China. They don’t talk of soya bean as soya bean. They talk of Monsanto soya. Monsanto soya is protected by a patent. It has a patent number. It is therefore treated as a creation of Monsanto, a product of Monsanto’s intelligence and innovation." – Vandana Shiva (Barsamian, 1997) Introduction

Monsanto is a Saint Louis Chemical manufacturer that is a major player in the weed killing business. Monsanto has quite a portentous past. They developed and produced the notorious defoliant "Agent Orange" used in the Vietnam War, they invented the controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), and they were the inventors and world’s main producer of polychlorinated biphenols (PCB’s) which are now banned but still linger in our soil and water (Arax, 1997).

Presently, Monsanto is commonly known for its potent herbicide named Roundup. As the biggest-selling weed killer in the world, Roundup accounts for 17 percent of Monsanto’s total annual sales of $9 billion (Arax, 1997). The main ingredient of Roundup is glyphosate. Glyphosate is the eighth most commonly used herbicide in U.S. agriculture and the second most commonly used herbicide in nonagricultural settings (Cox, 1995). It’s estimated annual use according to the U.S. EPA is between 15 and 20 million pounds in agriculture and between 4 and 6 million pounds elsewhere (Arax, 1997). Monsanto claims that Roundup breaks down quickly in the soil, so that little or no toxic byproduct accumulates in plant or animal tissue - a viewpoint often disputed.

Monsanto’s patent on Roundup will expire in two years, and when this happens, countless chemical companies will undoubtedly jump into the market of manufacturing Glyphosate. Monsanto, not wanting to give up their Roundup market without a fight, has developed a genetically engineered soybean that can withstand doses of Roundup and is marketing it to farmers under very strict, legally binding conditions.

Important Issues

Roundup Ready Soybeans

Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Soybean (RRS) is a genetically engineered variety of soybeans, which contains gene sequences from a cauliflower mosaic virus (CMV), a petunia, and a bacterium (Agrobacterium sp.) (Greenpeace, 1997). The two bacterial genes, in short, provide for resistance against Roundup, resulting in a crop of soybeans that can be sprayed with Roundup to protect it from weeds, while not injuring it. In 1996, U.S. farmers harvested about 1.2 million acres of Roundup Ready Soybeans, and although this crop represented only about 2 percent of U.S. soybeans, it will be mixed with conventional soybeans – unlabeled – to become part of as much as 60 percent of all processed foods that contain some soy-based ingredient (Bruno, 1997). In the United States, most consumers are likely to have already ingested small amounts of transgenic soy in such common food as margarine, chocolate, baby food, and bread (Bruno, 1997). The total number of RRS planted in 1997 is not yet known, but Greenpeace believes it might be as much as 33 percent of the total U.S. soybean production due to aggressive marketing techniques.

The system set up by Monsanto to have their RRS cultivated is quite a marvel. Farmers that choose to use Roundup Ready® seeds can only use Roundup, because any other broad spectrum herbicide will kill their crops (Arax, 1997). Every time a farmer decides to plant RRS, he has to buy a seasons worth of Roundup as well. Farmers then have to enter into a legally binding contract promising not to sell, or give away any seeds or save them for next years planting, and the company has the right to go to the farmers house and inspect for any violations. Monsanto contends that the more the farmers rely on Roundup, the less they will need harsher herbicides and that the savings for farmers in herbicides will offset the premium price of seeds (Bruno, 1997). However, it is possible that over time that farmers will have to use greater amounts of Roundup to combat weed problems and there is also a danger of the emergence of new herbicide tolerant weeds through increased reliance on glyphosate, as has occurred in Australia. However, glyphosate tolerance is only one problem


Glyphosate persistence in soil is very variable. Monsanto claims that glyphosate breaks down within a couple days. This is only a half-truth. Initial degradation is faster than the subsequent degradation of what remains and in some cases Roundup can fully degrade in as little as three to five days (as its label says). However, long persistence has been measured in the following studies: 55 days on an Oregon Coast Range forestry site; 249 days on Finnish agricultural soils; between 259 days and 296 days on eight Finnish forestry sites; 335 days on an Ontario forestry site; 360 days on 3 British Colombia forestry sites; and, 1 to 3 years on eleven Swedish forestry sites (Cox, 1995). In addition, glyphosate desorbs in many cases and one study stated that, "this herbicide can be extensively mobile in the soil environment (Cox, 1995). This can lead to non-target crop damage, poisoning of anything around the application area, and perhaps even water supply contamination.

Water Contamination

Glyphosate has been found in both ground and surface water (Cox, 1995). The fact that it has not been found more frequently may be because routine monitoring for glyphosate is non-existent. Examples of water contamination include two farm ponds in Ontario (one from run-off from an agricultural treatment and one from a glyphosate spill) and seven documented U.S. wells (one in Texas and six in Virginia) (Cox, 1995).

Effects on non-target animals and plants

The International Organization for Biological Control found that exposure to freshly dried up Roundup killed over 50 percent of three species of beneficial insects: a parasitoid wasp, a lacewing, and a ladybug (Cox, 1995). Roundup treatment of a Maine clear-cut caused an 89 percent decline in the number of herbivores insects – although these are not beneficial insects, they serve as an important food source for birds (Cox, 1995). Other casualties include:

Studies in Iowa, Australia, eastern Canada, and Ontario Canada have shown that commercial glyphosate can reduce nitrogen fixing or nitrification activity in soils – the formation of nitrogen fixing nodules on clover roots was inhibited 120 days after treatment (Cox, 1995). Glyphosate is extremely toxic to Mychrrhozal fungi (beneficial fungi) at concentrations between 1 and 100 PPM and repeated biweekly applications of low rates of glyphosate caused increased mortality and reduction in growth in earthworms in New Zealand.

More test results

In tests, decreased body weight, excessive growth of particular liver cells, death of the same liver cells, and chronic inflammation of the kidneys were some effects found in lifetime glyphosate feeding studies in mice (Cox, 1995). The potential of glyphosate to cause cancer has been a controversial subject since the first lifetime feeding studies were analyzed in the early 1980’s. The first study (1979-1981) found an increase in testicular interstitial tumors in make rats at the highest dose tested (30 mg/kg of body weight per day) (Cox, 1995). Catherine Cox points out some interesting test results that should be review by anyone interested in this topic (See bibliography).

Fraudulent test results

The EPA found Industrial Biotest Laboratories (IBT) to have "serious deficiencies and improprieties" in toxicology studies and stated that "countless deaths of rats and mice that were not reported," and IBT had "fabricated data tables (Cox, 1995)." IBT handled about 30 tests on glyphosate. In addition, in 1991, the EPA alleged that Craven Laboratories had "falsified laboratory notebooks," – Roundup residue studies on plums, potatoes, grapes, and sugarbeets were among the tests in question (Cox, 1995)

Human Exposure

In California, where reporting of pesticide-caused illnesses is more comprehensive than in other states, glyphosate was the third most commonly reported cause of pesticide illness among agricultural workers – and for landscape maintenance, glyphosate ranked the highest (Cox, 1995). Obviously those who use glyphosate in occupational settings are most at risk of glyphosate poisoning, but eating contaminated food, exposure caused by drift, contact with contaminated soil and drinking contaminated water are also contact opportunities. Glyphosate residue testing is expensive and it is not included in government monitoring of pesticide residues in food, but research settings glyphosate has been found in strawberries, wild blueberries and raspberries, lettuce, carrots, and barley following treatment (Cox, 1995). The U.S. EPA has found glyphosate residues in lettuce, carrots, and barley at harvest when planted a year after treatment (Greenpeace, 1997).

A recent question being raised by skeptics of genetically engineered foods are in the area of allergens. The are recent findings that a gene from a Brazil nut was engineered into soybean and caused allergic reactions in sensitive humans (Greenpeace, 1997). Monsanto has had a special difficulty in assessing the allergic potential of RRS because, unlike the Brazil nut, it does not come from a source recognized to be allergenic – thus Monsanto have no specific tests they can conduct to gather evidence suggestive of safety (Greenpeace, 1997). Greenpeace and others claim that Monsanto has not completely evaluated the possible allergenic risk to humans. Karen Marshall, Monsanto manager of public affairs responds that RRS has been subjected to 1,800 tests and "is the most tested in the history of soybeans (Bruno, 1997)." Michael Hansen, a biologist with the Consumers Union of New York sees the situation in a different way. He states that if transgenic foods are going to be introduced, "the prudent thing to do would be to label it so you can trace allergic reactions (Bruno, 1997)."


The bottom line is that Roundup is not going to kill anyone. It is not one of the most "Earth spoiling" chemicals that are being used – but it does have consequences. It is also used by an enormous amount of people, therefore the risks begin to multiply. In addition, there are many aspects of Roundup that are not completely explored. One such aspect is that of its "inert" ingredients. Many scientists question the "inertness" of Roundups ingredients.

Roundup is (unfortunately) an incredible herbicide. Its ability to choke the life out of weeds is amazing. There are times in which there is no choice but to use "the spray." We know that all too well on the UCI campus - we are literally forced into using it because of artichoke thistle.

I personally think we need to use fewer chemicals and more labor. In situations where weed can be removed by labor or other non-pesticide means we should not simply resort to the sprayer. I feel that if there is time for TV, there is time to weed.

I also realize the need for Roundup. We have no other alternative in times. However, we need to try other alternatives before we resort to the sprayer. I do not think we need more chemicals in our environment, and I definitely do not think we need to grow genetically engineered crops that are no tastier nor cheaper just to keep a chemical company in business.

Some issues brought up in this paper are important to all of us. They raise some very fundamental questions. Such as:

Other People's Perspectives Dr. Mae Wan Ho – "Far from providing cheaper food for all, agricultural biotechnology will further undermine the livelihoods of small organic farmers all over the world, resulting in increased loss of indigenous agricultural biodiversity (Perils 1996)."

Dan Glickman (Secretary of Agriculture) – "As world leaders, we shouldn’t fight sound science. Countries that choose to turn away form biotechnology should recognize the consequences of their actions to the world (Arax, 1997)."

Greenpeace Policy Statement - "In the light of the known risks of introducing genetically engineered organisms in to the environment, Greenpeace is opposed to the growing, production and marketing of genetically engineered crops and food (Greenpeace, 1997)."

Vandana Shiva - "Monsanto makes farmers sign a contract for Roundup Ready soya because the soya bean has been genetically engineered to tolerate high doses of herbicide, which means that it will allow increased use of Roundup by farmers. It is projected to reduce chemical use, but increase Roundup use. The reason Monsanto has done this is because their patent on roundup runs out in two years, and it is their biggest selling commodity. They sell over $1 billion a year of Roundup. The contract with farmers forces farmers to only use Roundup. They cannot use any other chemical. Monsanto can come and investigate the farms three years after planting to see if farmers have saved the seed – having even one seed in your home – is treated as a crime in which you are infringing on Monsanto’s property.

"The kind of capitalism we are seeing today under this expansion of property into living resources is a whole, new, different phase of capitalism. It is totally inconsistent with democracy as well as sustainability. What we have is capital working on a global scale, totally uprooted, with accountability nowhere, with responsibility nowhere, and with rights everywhere (Barsamian, 1997)."

Literature Cited

"A Critique of Monsanto’s Risk Evaluation" – A Greenpeace Report.


Arax, Mark, Susan Benson, and Rachel Burstein. "A Growing Concern." Mother Jones January / February 1997: 37-43.

Barsamian, David. "We Can’t Afford To Have a Sacred Car Rather Than a Sacred Cow." The Progressive September 1997: 36-39.

Bruno, Kenny. "Say It Ain’t Soy, Monsanto." Multinational Monitor January / February 1997: 27-30.

Cox, C. "Glyphosate, Part 1: Toxicology." Journal of Pesticide Reform Fall 1995 Vol. 15, No 3.

Cox, C. "Glyphosate, Part 2: Human Exposure and Ecological Effects." Journal of Pesticide Reform Winter 1995 Vol. 15, No 4.

"Perils Amid Promises of Genetically Engineered Foods" by Dr. Mea Ho. Biology Department, Open University, U.K. November 1996.


"Why Consumers and Farmers Should Avoid Monsanto’s Genetically Engineered Soybeans" – A Greenpeace Report.