No, There Is No Weed Killer in Your Cereal
The Environment Working Group knows how to play the media like a damn piano. They take the category of health benefits we all use – sunscreen, cosmetics, vegetables, now cereals – and divide them into “safe” and “toxic” categories. They imply that you know the difference better .
Most recently, they were looking for glyphosate, a common weed-killer used in agriculture, in oat-based cereals. They found only the smallest footprints under anyone’s safety criteria, so there really is no history here. But with the right approach, this report – a press release, not peer-reviewed scientific information – made headlines.
What has the EWG done?
The EWG has tested several oat products in an external laboratory. To be clear, this is an unpublished peer-reviewed scientific study. The EWG is a group of activists ready to go, and they set the terms for the study, commissioned it and sent out press releases to get attention.
Bottom line: The numbers are in line with government guidelines, so take it easy . Your porridge will not kill you. But that’s not all.
What is glyphosate?
Glyphosate is a chemical that can kill plants, turning it into a herbicide and therefore a pesticide. It is widely used and, thankfully, is one of the less toxic pesticides . It is best known as Roundup and is sold by the demonized Monsanto corporation. (Technically, Monsanto no longer exists; Bayer bought the company and stopped using its old name.)
Roundup Ready crops were among the first commercially successful GMOs, and the pesticide is particularly noticeable. But neither GMOs nor Roundup are associated with serious health risks.
In addition to killing weeds, glyphosate is often used to kill crops, including oats, to dry them before harvesting. This is why tiny traces of it can end up in food.
Does glyphosate cause cancer?
Nobody knows, and this is a moot point. The International Agency for Research on Cancer is known to have determined that, based on animal studies, it “probably” can cause cancer. That puts him on the same list of naughty as a bunch of nasty chemicals, as well as hot coffee , red meat, and night shifts.
Even if we know that something is related to cancer, we must consider the dose and consider how the risks compare with the benefits. I know alcohol can increase the risk of breast cancer, but I also love beer, so I drink it anyway. I also eat hamburgers, but given the link between red meat and cancer, I try to work with less dangerous sources of protein as well.
So the dose is important, and we’ll come back to that in a minute. But it’s also important to ask if the IARC was correct in saying that glyphosate is likely to cause cancer. They didn’t have a lot of evidence and other groups came to different conclusions.
Weed scientist Andrew Kniss has put together research on glyphosate and cancer into a handy chart that shows how many have found it has decreased as has increased cancer rates. If we look at non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in particular, more studies support the risk than not, but there is still enough doubt in the data that it’s hard to say for sure.
Do cereals contain dangerous amounts of glyphosate?
The EPA permits a glyphosate content of up to 30 ppm in oats . The EWG found that glyphosate levels range from undetectable to 1.3 ppm . So far so good, right?
But California has a different take on this. The state has proposed a regulation limiting glyphosate exposure to 1,100 micrograms per person per day. This tiny, tiny, tiny amount, far less than any amount considered dangerous, even if you must eat it daily. They call this the “negligible risk level” (NSRL). At this level, if glyphosate causes cancer, it is not expected to cause more than 1 cancer in 100,000 people.
But the EWG also did not use this level. They divided the California NSRL by 100 to represent the “one in a million” standard with a “tenfold factor of children’s health.” They then asked the lab to test a bunch of oat products. According to Olga Naydenko, EWG Senior Scientific Advisor, glyphosate is more commonly used in oats than in other grains, so they decided to study oats.
At this level of 0.01 milligrams of glyphosate per person per day, some grains have passed the EWG test and some have not. So the EWG can send out a press release stating that they’ve found a cereal weed cure for your kids – technically correct – and then you need to go to their website to see which cereals have gone through and which ones – no, even if by any other parameter besides the EWG they are all right.
We should all know better by now
We have already seen the machinations of the EWG. They love to issue press releases that some foods or foods are good and others are dangerous, and you need to know which ones to eat. But each time they carefully build tests or ranking systems to get that result.
If the EWG agreed that there is no significant level of risk in California, they would find that all grains are safe. On the other hand, if they were to say that any glyphosate is unacceptable, they would find that most cereals are supposedly dangerous.
When they do this with certain products, including cosmetics and sunscreens, you can view the ratings on the EWG website and order the products in a way that will give the EWG a share of the profits. Companies can also pay for the “ EWG Verified ” seal, which creates a huge conflict of interest for the group. Currently, the seal is limited to personal care products only, and the company says they currently have no plans to enter the cereal market.
So this is a biased study by a group with a history of advertising stunts in this vein, and yet a lot of news outlets have taken the bait. Remember when I said the EWG can play with the media? They conveniently left their report right after the California resident won a lawsuit over the chemical.
Dewane Johnson contracted non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma after working as a gardener where he frequently sprayed weeds with Roundup. California law allows citizens to sue companies for substances “known to cause cancer in the state of California,” including glyphosate. The jury had to reach a verdict and decided that Johnson deserved $ 289 million . This is not to say that scientists believe this chemical causes cancer – they disagree – just the jury was convinced. So that doesn’t mean anything in terms of breakfast cereal for your child, which is almost certainly normal, but it looks like the EWG is using cancer in a man to draw attention to its scientifically dubious report.