You may have spit out your morning coffee recently if you happened across headlines proclaiming that a bunch of breakfast foods contain glyphosate residues.
According to a press release and corresponding blog posts, a new study published by the Alliance for Natural Health tested several popular breakfast food items and they were positive for residues of the popular herbicide. Most concerning is that the residues are even showing up in organic products. (Interestingly enough, the only products that had higher residue levels than allowed by the EPA were actually organic products.) As the Alliance’s press release regarding the study concluded this is particularly worrisome, because it means that glyphosate is pervasive in the environment and human beings are ingesting it on a daily basis.
Of course, that sounds pretty scary and certainly something we should be worried about – no one wants to actually consume herbicides! Instead of taking the press release and blog posts for face value, I decided to dig a little deeper into the actual study and what I found confirmed my initial skepticism.
Show Me the Study
Digging a little deeper into the results of the study revealed a very, very serious flaw in the research – there was no published study! The only actual information released about the research that was supposedly performed is this report. Aside from a brief history on glyphosate and the current safety standards, the report simply lists the data it found.
Sorry, but that’s not how legitimate scientific studies are released.
A scientific study should give us enough information that we know exactly how the scientists performing the study actually accomplished it. In other words, we should be able to reproduce the experiment and check the results. That isn’t here. We know virtually nothing about how it was conducted.
Most importantly, the research was never peer reviewed and it was never published in a legitimate scientific publication. Peer review, the process by which other scientists review research before it is published to determine accuracy or point out flaws, is an important part of our scientific process. It puts a check on the scientific process and it gives us a way to evaluate whether published works are reliable. We don’t have that here and it makes it very difficult for us to verify anything.
What we do know about the study is that it used the ELISA method of testing for the glyphosate. Even people that aren’t fans of glyphosate, such as The Detox Project, admit that this is an unreliable method for testing for glyphosate because it can show the presence of the herbicide, even when it isn’t there. The Detox Projects states:
ELISA testing methods for pesticides can produce false positive and false negative results and thus can not be used by regulators – ELISA methods can give inaccurate results. These methods are usually used as a screening tool and any positive results have to be confirmed by a chromatographic method to be usable in risk assessment.
So aside from not publishing the study or having it peer-reviewed, ANH used an unreliable method of testing. That should certainly raise a bunch of red flags…
Consider the Source
Another important point is to consider the source of the so-called study. While funding or affiliation does not necessarily taint a valid and legitimate scientific study, the same cannot be said about this particular research. This research didn’t follow the usual protocol because the actual study was not released, the methodology was not explained, there was no peer review performed, and the results were questionable. Therefore, taking a look at the source of the information is absolutely justified.
According to their website, the ANH “is committed to sustainable health, the recognition that true health requires a proactive and preventive approach that focuses on a nutrient-rich diet, proper supplementation, and limiting our exposure to toxic substances.” Browsing their website, it’s clear the organization is against biotechnology, vaccines, and modern medicine. Instead, the group focuses on promoting supplements and alternative medicine.
It’s also important to point out that the ANH released the results as part of a “Take Action” press release. The announcement of the results also included a correlation of glyphosate with a number of maladies and a dig at “Big Food” and “Big Biotech.” At the end of it, ANH asked readers to contact the EPA and urge them to reconsider of their approval of glyphosate. Clicking on the link takes the reader to a handy form where one can personalize a message to the director of the EPA.
Honestly, I have never seen a real scientific study or publication follow-up the release of research results with an action item button. The ANH clearly had an agenda ahead of performing this so-called study and, when they got the desired results, attempted to use it as a political tool. If you don’t want to believe the scientific limitations of this alleged research, the fact that an organization with an agenda against biotechnology performed a study that conveniently gave them results they could use as an advocacy campaign against biotechnology should also raise some red flags.
The Presence of Something Doesn’t Mean You Need to Panic
The game plan here is painfully obvious: perform some sloppy science, find glyphosate, and declare there is a huge problem! Just as with organizations like the Environmental Working Group and its terribly inaccurate Dirty Dozen list, the ANH is attempting to make the mere presence of glyphosate sound scary, even though it’s not really an issue in such microscopic amounts.
Literally, you can find trace amounts of pretty much anything anywhere (I know you’ve heard about scientists finding human feces on your toothbrush) and then write a headline screaming about how you’re feeding your child glyphosate for breakfast (or brushing your teeth with your own crap)!
In reality, our ability to detect residues is extremely sensitive and we can pick up things at a much smaller level. Chemicals are everywhere and we’re finally able to find them in submicroscopic amounts that don’t actually matter. This is something science has known for a while: the presence of a chemical does not equal the presence of risk, and the dose always makes the poison.
Contrary to the uproar, the results of this study (to the extent we can extrapolate or rely on it for anything) show us just how safe our food really is, despite the use and residue of pesticides. Almost all of the residue samples, ironically except for organic cage free eggs, came in well under the EPA’s set tolerances. As I have explained before, these tolerances are set by the EPA to show how much of a certain chemical we can consume before we would start to see any ill effect. Most importantly, they’re set very, very conservatively so that you and your family are safe.
At the end of the day, this was sloppy, questionable scientific work put out by a special interest group that wanted to prove a point. But even if you want to accept the results at face value, it’s important to understand that there is nothing here to disrupt the most important meal of the day.
Jim Harris says
Another great article, Amanda. I was especially intrigued by the last section where you discussed the ability of modern analysis to find very small residues. This was the same reasoning I used when defending farming practices at the first Earth Day in 1970. Not much has changed as far as the naysayers, there are just a new brood of them produced continually.
Eric Bjerregaard says
Thanks, young lady, and well done. I appreciate it when you smart folks save me time looking for the reasons why something is wrong.
Ian Morrison says
Thank you, Amanda. I use your blog as a source of sanity against a tide of anti-science nonsense around farming practices here in northern california. Your hard work is greatly appreciated.