Do we need a Sugar Tax?

sugar cubes on top of coins

“Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes.”
-Dr. Douglas Bettcher Director, Department for the Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases World Health Organization

Last year, responding to the rise of obesity around the world, the World Health Organization accelerated a growing movement to address the role of sugar – and more directly, sugary drinks – in our modern diet.

Their recommended action: fiscal policies that raise the price of sugary drinks to levels that discourage consumption.  In simple terms,  – a tax to promote healthier eating habits.

  • Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
  • In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 600 million were obese.
  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2014, and 13% were obese.
  • Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
  • 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2014. WHO, 2016

The WHO argued that a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks such as soda, sports drinks, and sweetened iced tea would result in “proportional reductions” in the consumption of sugary products. The report’s official recommendation has helped accelerate actions by a range of local, state, and national governments to tax sugary drinks.

The sugar tax also has fueled a corresponding debate about the effectiveness of using tax policy to shape consumer behaviors – and the unintended consequences that often come with such taxes.

Obesity is a major health concern

The health concern driving the attention on sugary-drink taxes is not in question. Data and analysis collected by academics and health organizations paint a bleak picture of rising obesity, heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay, and other health problems, and an apparent link with consumption patterns for various “free sugars.” But, it is not the consumption of sugar, it is the over-consumption which is the issue.  You may recall, we recently discussed how the average American consumes 2-3x more sugar than is recommended per day!

What is “free sugar?” Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to a variety of foods and drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrate. (World Health Organization, June 2016 Fact Sheet)

McKinsey Global Institute asserts that obesity rates have reached “crisis proportions,” with associated healthcare costs in the United States of $190 billion annually, including $14 billion devoted to caring for children. And the public response to this rising health concern has taken new forms in the past 15 years. Health organizations, governments, and consumer groups launched aggressive public education efforts on both sugar consumption, high caloric intake, and lack of exercise.

Obesity is often linked to many other health issues, including diabetes (costs are estimated at $312 billion per year), cardiovascular disease (healthcare costs are estimated to reach $818 billion by 2030) , and even cancer (oncology treatments in the United States were estimated at $100 billion last year).

State, local, and national governments shaping consumer behaviors

Worldwide, state, local, and national governments also initiated efforts to shape consumer behaviors through various actions. Clearly, the use of tax policy to fight for better dietary habits was gaining momentum…

Mexico, for example, implemented an excise tax on all non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar.  Hungary imposed a tax on packaged products with high levels of sugar, salt, or caffeine.  Most recently, France announced a total ban on the sale of unlimited soft drinks at a fixed price.  The Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom also announced intentions to discuss and potentially implement taxes on sugary drinks.

Earlier this year, the debate over the role of sugar in modern diet entered a new front when a nonprofit group in California filed a federal lawsuit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association alleging an “unlawful attempt to mislead the public regarding the link between sugar consumption.” The suit included a lengthy roster of health problems that have affected Coca-Cola consumers.  Additionally, a comparison is being drawn between the legal strategy used to attack the tobacco industry and that being used against Coca-Cola. But is this taking the sugar debate too far…?

In the United States, Berkeley, Calif., pioneered the sugary-drink tax approach in 2014.  Three Bay Area cities – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany – followed suit with their own tax of “one cent per ounce” on sugary drinks.  Boulder, Colo., initiated a tax of two cents per ounce, and Philadelphia, Pa., joined in with its sugary-drink tax of 1.5 cents per ounce. Cook County, Ill., also has a sugary-drink tax in the process.

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a visual of sugar and soda sizes.  Image Source: Vosisneias

Similarly, Major Bloomberg received a heavy amount of criticism when he attempted to ban the sale of large soft drinks in New York. Ultimately, this ban was overturned by New York state’s highest court, however, its aim was to raise awareness and fight against the rising levels of obesity (particularly in low-income areas).

The tax revenue is significant

The amounts raised by such taxes are significant.  The tax is estimated to raise about $15 million in San Francisco, from $6 million to $10 million in Oakland, and $3.8 million in Boulder. (This is just under the $4.83 million 2015 tax revenue from medical marijuana.) Revenues from the Philadelphia tax could run a high as $91 million, according to some media reports. Draft legislation on the sugary-drink tax in the UK projected has projected an additional cost of 18-24 pence (24-31 U.S. cents) per liter, with an estimated 520 million pounds (675 million U.S. dollars) of revenue in its first year.

As these taxes have been discussed and implemented, the debate regarding their effectiveness has also picked up steam. Supporters of the tax defend them as important tools in the effort to build better public health and critics question just how effective the tax really is. Additionally, these critics are skeptical of the unintended consequences of using tax policy in this way, as it may be causing harm to other important public interests.

Sales had been slowing before the taxes

Sales of sugar-sweetened beverages showed declines well before the implementation of these taxes.  As public attention to this burgeoning public health issue increased in the early 2000s, consumption patterns began to change.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult in 1999-2000 drank 196 calories’ worth of sweetened beverages per day. By 2009-2010, that number had fallen to 151. Between 2011 and 2014, it fell a few calories further, to 145.  U.S. soda sales dropped 1.2 percent in 2015 alone, according to industry statistics.

However, children are still drinking too many sugary drinks

Of concern to many health officials, consumption of sugary drinks among children seems to have plateaued, partly in response to the rising public attention to improved diets and healthy dietary habits.

According to the CDC, children drank 223 calories of soda and other drinks in 1999 and 155 calories in 2009. The number has stuck at 143 since then, which represents 7.3 percent of a child’s calorie intake, on average. “The latest declines were not considered statistically significant,” CDC concluded.

Nonetheless, the U.S. childhood obesity rate, CDC also observed, stands at 17 percent – or roughly 12.7 million children.  On a global basis, WHO estimates that as many as 42 million children under the age of five were obese in 2015. Amazingly enough, almost half lived in Asia and one quarter in Africa.

“If you extrapolate our findings, that means 111 million adults and 147 million kids still drink at least some sugar-sweetened beverage daily,” said Asher Rosinger, a CDC epidemiologist.

Health officials at CDC suggest consumption of no more than one sugary drink per week for children.  Yet agency data suggests that two-thirds of children still make at least one sugary drink part of their daily diet.  An estimated 30 percent of children have two or more sugary drinks daily.

Experts remain divided on the reasons behind the caloric numbers, although some speculate the stall may be attributable to increased consumption of other beverages, such as tea and other liquids, to which consumers may add their own sugar or sweetener.

Is the tax efficient, fair and effective?

The sugar tax has also fueled a corresponding debate about the effectiveness of using tax policy to shape consumer behaviors – and the unintended consequences that often come with such taxes.

In the face of this mixed picture of changed consumer behaviors, critics of the tax – and the larger issue of using tax policy to shape consumer behavior – have raised a number of issues for further debate.

Taxes such as those placed on sugary drinks simply aren’t high enough to affect consumption to the degree their supporters desire, Snowdon argues.

“For a tax to be justified, it should be efficient, fair, and effective,” according to Christopher Snowdon of the Cato Institute. “Taxes on food and drink meet none of these criteria.”

“Herein lies the problem with obesity-related taxes,” he says.  “If they are set low enough to be politically acceptable, they are merely stealth taxes which make no difference to health.  But if they are set any higher, they become politically toxic.”

Other academics have also weighed in on the debate…

“My guess is that we may be seeing different trends by age and socioeconomic status,” says Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University.  “People with higher levels of education and income have made dramatic changes to their diets overall in recent years.  Many people with lower levels of education and income have seen no improvement.”

What happens at the retail store level?

Reaction to the tax in Philadelphia highlights other noteworthy criticisms.  Neighborhood retailers – especially the nearly 1,500 corner stores operating in the city — point to sales of snacks and beverages as major contributors to their economic survival.

When shoppers see a tax of $1.92 imposed on a container of tea priced at $1.77, their purchase patterns will undoubtedly change. In fact, store owners in Philadelphia reported a drop of 25-30 percent in revenues following implementation of the tax and the resultant “sticker shock” among customers.

One trenchant observer of the Philadelphia tax noted that the sugary-drink tax is 24 times the per-ounce tax levied on beer.

Is the tax a ruse to shore up tax-revenue streams?

In the seeming political cynicism of our age, critics also question how much of the initiative behind the sugary drink tax is driven by genuine health concerns versus a desire to shore up tax-revenue streams.  Why stop at sugary drinks, they ask?

If the governments do, in fact, believe so strongly in public health, why not impose comparable taxes on other products linked to public health issues— not just beer but also such foods as hamburgers and French fries and other fried foods? Critics fear this tax eventually extend to other products using sugar as an ingredient and to other foods containing “free sugars.”

Source: Food Navigator

Is there a magic bullet to resolve the role of sugar in public health?

Proponents of the sugary-drink tax point to tobacco and alcohol as examples of the ability for taxes to shape consumer behaviors.  Opponents argue education is the more favorable cornerstone of any policy response to obesity.

Others suggest a middle ground may prove more effective in the long run.  Like most complicated public policy questions, the debate over the role of sugar in public health may best be addressed not with a single “magic bullet,” but rather through a combination of incentives, disincentives, and comprehensive health education, as well as attention to other related issues.

For example, healthcare professionals need to be better trained in addressing obesity and lifestyle issues with patients. In the face of such a complicated public policy issue, they argue, a simplistic approach based on a new tax just won’t be enough to solve a complex problem.

Court challenges to the tax already are underway in Pennsylvania, and other legal actions can be anticipated elsewhere.  But no one expects final answers in the on-going debate anytime soon.

Let’s go to the MED!

salmon and fresh vegetables

Rarely do we find a well-balanced “diet” or weight loss approach that fulfills its claims for health and manageability…

Enter: The Mediterranean Diet

Originating in Southern Italy and Greece, this diet takes a different approach to eating— and focuses on the importance of whole, well-balanced foods including lots of fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables. In fact, it is not really a “diet” at all— it’s more of a healthy approach to food!

Perhaps this is because “eating like a Mediterranean” conjures up a stress-free lifestyle, with images of the sea, sailing under sunny skies, and large families enjoying a relaxing afternoon around fresh food. While this diet certainly doesn’t include the benefits of living a Mediterranean lifestyle, it does focus on the importance of eating healthy fats and lots of fruits and veggies. The evidence discussed below is based on a “Mediterranean” diet rather than the Mediterranean lifestyle.

So, what do Mediterranean people typically eat?

Well, the diet is high in healthy fats— and as we have previously reviewed on D2D, fat is our new friend! These healthy fats often come from olive oil, nuts, and fish, which happen to be indigenous, fresh and plentiful in the Mediterranean.

This means the diet is high in healthy fatty acids like omega-3 and omega-6, which are the only two fatty acids that your body cannot create naturally. In addition to fat, the diet also emphasizes the importance of eating fruits, vegetables, legumes (like beans and chickpeas), and whole grains. Lean protein, like eggs and poultry, are also included in moderation and red meat can be consumed on occasion. Clearly, this approach gives you a lot of choices— but, it asks you to cut back on the sugar. While we all love the occasional sugar fix, as we reviewed in “Sugar is Sugar is Sugar,” most of us are over-indulging.

The average American typically eats 2-3x more than the recommended daily amount of sugar. The World Health Organization recommends that we reduce the intake of added sugar to at least 10% of our daily energy intake. They further indicate that a reduction to below 5% would provide additional health benefits.  This equates to about 100 calories or five to six teaspoons a day.

Taking this one step further, the Mediterranean diet recommends that you only eat refined sugar (i.e. baked treats, sweetened beverages, and candy) a few times a week.

How is the Mediterranean diet different?

Unlike most diet regimens, the Mediterranean diet does not fixate on the inclusion or exclusion of any specific foods, like Atkins with protein or Paleo with grains and legumes. Other than discouraging the overconsumption of red meat, sugar, and refined foods, there are no gimmicks. No, you are not asked to mix lemon, cayenne, maple syrup, and water and give up solid foods for days on end! This sounds like a step in the right direction, right?

Pyramid Source: Oldways: Inspiring Good Health Through Cultural Food Traditions

People are catching on to the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet.

Recently, U.S. News and World Report named the Mediterranean diet the second best diet to follow, after the DASH diet. Because of its food variety and slow approach to weight loss, this diet promotes healthy eating habits over your lifetime.

In January the New York Post dubbed the Mediterranean diet “still the best way to lose weight.” The article reported that over 3,000 studies have been performed on this regimen and Nutritionist and author of the book Zest for Life, Conner Middelmann-Whitney commented, “to my knowledge [no studies] have found that the diet has any adverse effects” to be concluded from these studies.

Additionally, according to the Harvard School of Public Health, Department of Nutrition, “Together with regular physical activity and not smoking, our analyses suggest that over 80% of coronary heart disease, 70% of stroke, and 90% of type 2 diabetes can be avoided by healthy food choices that are consistent with the traditional Mediterranean diet.”

The Mediterranean diet is linked to a reduction in heart disease.

The reason this diet method first became popular and gained notoriety in the U.S. is actually because of the spread of heart disease. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Roughly 610,000 people die of heart disease every year. That is 1 in 4 people! Unfortunately, as American’s continue to struggle with obesity these numbers get bigger.

In the early 20th century, as heart disease was first being understood by doctors and scientists, researchers began to look at different populations and how they were affected by this disease. It soon became clear that those living in places like Southern Italy and the island of Crete in Greece experienced far fewer instances of heart disease than in the U.S.

That got the food scientists and researchers thinking—could their diets have something to do with this?

To date, there have been roughly 3000 studies affirming the positive effects of the Mediterranean diet. Within these studies, there are several conclusive long term human trials studies on the health benefits of the diet.

One study worth noting was conducted in 2013 and called “PREDIMED” or Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with the Mediterranean Diet.

This randomized study monitored 7447 participants who were considered “high risk” for cardiovascular disease (CVD) over a five-year period. The study included three groups:

  1. Mediterranean diet, provision of extra-virgin olive oil
  2. Mediterranean diet, provision of mixed nuts
  3. Reduced dietary fat diet (control group)

The famed essential unsaturated fatty acids are linoleic omega-6 and linoleic omega-3. They are the only two fats your body cannot synthesize from other fatty acids. Thus, they need to be replenished through your food. As far as your brain is concerned, these fats protect the nerve fibers and enable your brain to send messages faster. Fat also helps your body absorb vitamins (particularly fat-soluble vitamins K, D, E & A)

The study concluded, “As compared with the control group, the two groups that received advice on a Mediterranean diet reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by approximately 30%. Specifically, in the context of a Mediterranean-style diet, increased consumption of mixed nuts or substitution of regular olive oil with extra-virgin olive oil has beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease.” (The New England Journal of Medicine)

On January 4th, 2017 the American Academy of Neurology released a press release that stated, “a new study shows that older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely.” The participants of this study that followed the Mediterranean diet “lost less brain volume” than those who maintained a standard diet. It included 967 participants from Scotland and tracked their brain over a three-year period.

“As we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells which can affect learning and memory. This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health.” -study author Michelle Luciano, Ph.D., of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland

Additionally, a  second “PREDIMED” study began in 2013, ran for three years, and included 3000 participants. This study targeted cardiovascular disease prevention and the results from this study will be available in 2020.

Can I eat like “a Mediterranean”?

Yes! You can. It takes a more thoughtful approach to food purchase and preparation, but ingredients are readily available at any grocery store and cookbooks are full of information.

Have some fun in the kitchen, and start to recognize healthy ingredients when you dine out! What we like about the Mediterranean approach is that you are not forced into any particular diet plan. And one of its biggest benefits? A variety of food choices!

It is important to keep in mind, however, that everyone’s body is different and processes food a little bit differently. In fact, individual ingredients are not usually unhealthy or healthy on their own, but rather the over-consumption or under consumption of that one particular item. Thus, portion control and diet variety are important on this regimen. Over-consuming almonds and olive oil, for example, can be unhealthy!

In an interview with The NY Post, Lisa Dierks, Wellness Nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic, highlights a very important part of the Mediterranean diet— the dedication to the number of servings. The average American falls short on the daily recommended intake of both fruits and veggies, and the Mediterranean diet asks that you increase that intake from five servings a day to roughly six or seven servings. You need to be aware of the number of fruits and vegetables you are getting every single day.

Farming from the Thermosphere

man controlling drone flying above field

At D2D, we often discuss the importance of feeding a growing global population while keeping our environmental resources secure for future generations. The fact is, world population is growing at a fast pace— so, we need to find ways to better manage and preserve our existing resources. For example, we have investigated indoor agriculture and crop biotechnology as innovative ways that our farmland and natural resources have benefited from technological advancements.

What do drones and satellites do?

For generations, farmers have relied heavily on old fashioned senses, such as touch, smell, and taste to ascertain how their crops and soil are managing through the growing season. Today, they have the advantage of relying on advanced equipment and heavy-duty machinery to efficiently and productively sow seeds, apply fertilizers and pesticides, feed animals and harvest crops. Now, technology is taking crop management to the skies. Drones and satellites are new, exciting tools to help farmers reduce chemical inputs, manage water usage, ensure animal welfare, and increase crop yield.

Helping Farmers manage their crops

During a typical growing season, farmers face many different types of challenges, such as weeds, pests, and weather inconsistencies. Drones and satellites allow them to monitor and handle these impending crop threats as quickly as possible.

For instance, the average drone can cover over 160 acres of cropland in one hour and satellites can take detailed pictures every 24 hours to identify weed species, plant heights, population densities, and specific types of crop damage caused by pests.

Close examination of a crop

This data helps farmers quickly recognize problem areas, such as water and pest issues. Invariably, drones and satellites have a positive environmental impact as farmers are able to manage their chemical inputs, increase their yield, and minimize machine passes through the field, hence minimizing pollution.

For those not familiar with drone technology, a drone is considered an unmanned aerial device vehicle (UAV). They are commonly used by amateur and professional photographers as a flying camera to take cool pictures, document events, or make movies. They have also become very useful to survey weather systems or act as a surveillance device for the U.S. military.

The technology that makes drones so effective is imagery that measures wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, which enable a farmer to see specific areas where crop inputs need to be applied. (image source)

Companies such as AgEagle and DroneDeploy offer services that take aerial infrared images to detect the health of crops. The images are processed and consolidated, and a specific “prescription” map is provided to the farmer.

However, some farmers find it more efficient (and cost saving) to operate the drones themselves. Drone image mapping can be used by corn farmers in Iowa, potato farmers in Idaho, fruit growers in Georgia, or cattle ranchers on the remote plains of Montana. In fact, some vineyards in California use specially-designed drones to look like hawks to scare pesky birds away from their grapes.

Robert Blair, a wheat farmer in Idaho, recently invested in drone technologies and praised the effectiveness of drones. “Instead of spraying 100 percent of the field I’m spraying exactly where it is needed instead of across the whole field. That’s huge to be able to identify those areas to treat before the treatment takes place.” (AOPA Pilot Magazine)

Some drones can even take the place of a crop duster airplane and spray the crops. However, this is mostly used for fruits and produce. Source

Helping farmers manage their animals

Animal farmers are using drones to monitor their cattle in the field and in the feedlot. Drones help provide answers to questions like: are any of my cattle sick? Have any wandered off? Are there predators harassing my animals? This new technology is starting to play an important role in how crops and animals are grown and managed. 

Drones keeping an eye on cattle

A cowboy can see, via a drone, whether any animals are sick by a hanging head, shaking body, or excess heat coming off the cattle. On large-scale dairy farms, drones can quickly ascertain who is limping, who has strayed away from the herd, and who might be suffering from mastitis (an udder infection).

For instance, cattle are social animals. Cows that spend time in the feedlot like to be with their fellow cow-brethren from the ranch. If they feel sick they don’t want to leave the herd to go to the infirmary. So, when the cowboys ride the pens checking on the animals, a cow can actually “fake it” and pretend to be healthy because he doesn’t want to be separated.

Drone view of a mixer box feeding cows.

While drones have many great benefits, not every farmer has a drone waiting to fly out of the barn.

While flying over 160 acres an hour is a lot of ground to cover, they eventually run out of battery power! The farmer also needs to operate the drone, and even if it is pre-programmed it needs to recharge. Additionally, in order to be precise, they have to fly exact coordinates. Thus, drones have not been implemented into all farming practices quite yet. AgFunder reported a 68% drop in investments in agricultural drone technology for 2016.

Up to the Thermosphere! Satellites


Of course, we all know how satellites provide GPS to get us to our destination. Satellites are rocketed into the thermosphere by companies such as Geoimage, who set up satellite constellations with 150 or so stations circling the earth. Recently, Planetary Resources raised $21 million with their Bayer CropScience partnership.  They will have a ‘constellation of 10 Arkyd 100 microsatellites in low Earth orbit’.  The images are refreshed daily and are incredibly clear and precise, pinpointing locations to a 5-meter radius. The data is compiled and downloaded to an intermediary, such as Descartes or IntelinAir, who make sense of this data along with weather forecasting and agronomy analysis to provide agriculture mapping for crop and soil analysis.

Satellite images provide a color map of soil and crop health.  This is not as easy as it sounds as there are many variables which occur from day to day, such as the atmosphere, cloud cover, shadows, angle of the sensor, the angle of the sunlight, etc. Additionally, pixel size, the number of satellites, and the quality of near-infrared wavelengths are all considerations to reliable data.

Yet, the data has to be consistent and trusted. To be a successful farmer, one has to know and understand any changes in the color or health of the soil, water, plants, and weeds. Are there more or fewer pests? Is the crop darker or lighter? Are there more weeds or less? Is the soil appropriately hydrated compared to yesterday?

Satellite imagery helps farmers maximize their harvest and minimize damage to their fields. Source

Using an iPhone or computer, satellite technology allows the farmer to literally track the fields by comparing the color and visuals on a day-by-day basis. Farmers can see any change immediately, program their combine or tractor, and go right to that specific location with the needed chemicals, fertilizer, or water.

Precision agriculture has a whole new meaning!

Let’s bring this technology to life:

  • On the very desolate high plains of Nebraska, you can see if your cattle are fed, watered, and healthy.
  • In California, you can see the exact areas of your field that need water by looking at the color of the soil.
  • In Colorado, you can see what part of your wheat field needs extra spray for the weeds.
  • A soybean farmer can tell by the color whether part of the crop is being eaten by pests

Using satellite technology, a farmer can get a good idea of their farm’s yield as well as the overall yield of the crop in the area. They can also tell which part of their fields had the best/worst yields. This knowledge helps to manage a farm’s income and expenses.

image credit: Asia K. Kalcevic

The weekly satellite imagery of growing crops enhances the field scouting and increases the accuracy of the field by identifying the best and troubled areas of the crop. With consistent monitoring, the farmer can define trends in the field and make better-informed decisions in specific areas of the field or the farm. I relate it to a weekly x-ray of our crop and soil health.
A 65,000-acre wheat farmer, Colorado

What is RoundUp?

farm equipment spraying the crop

While the Dirt to Dinner team has been somewhat outspoken on the undeniable global benefits of genetic engineering technology, we are admittedly concerned about our environment and the effect pesticide use has on a surrounding ecosystem. But, we asked ourselves—what is the science behind this herbicide? What is verified research telling us? And…what is glyphosate?

Glyphosate is the world’s most widely-used broad-spectrum herbicide and the primary active ingredient in the popular “Roundup Ready” brand of herbicide products. There are over 750 products containing glyphosate for sale in the U.S. It is registered in more than 130 countries and approved for weed control in more than 100 crops. Glyphosate is used in agriculture, golf course management, forestry, lawns and gardens, and even aquatic environments.

According to Dr. Kay Day, “chemically, glyphosate is a fairly simple molecule. It’s similar in structure to amino acids— the building blocks of all proteins— in that it contains a carboxylic acid group (the COOH on the far right) and an amine group (the NH in the middle). In fact, glyphosate is most similar to the smallest of all amino acids, glycineWhere it deviates, however, is the phosphonic group (PO(OH2)) on the left. This makes it an aminophosphonic analogue of glycine.” (The Chronicle Flask, 2016)

In fact, no other herbicide compares in terms of numbers of approved uses!

The primary agricultural crops for glyphosate application include soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, cotton, and sorghum. According to USDA survey data, in 2016 HT (herbicide-tolerant) soybeans represent 94% of soybean acreage, HT cotton represents 89% of cotton acreage, and HT corn represents 89% of corn acreage.

How does glyphosate work?

In simple terms, glyphosate prevents a plant from growing. How? It inhibits the activity of an enzyme, called EPSP, which is essential to plant growth. This particular enzyme is not found in humans or animals. Manufacturers formulate the glyphosate acid with a salt which makes the product easy to handle and mix well with other products. The formula also includes a surfactant which assists the delivery of glyphosate into the plant by attaching itself to the leaf’s waxy surface, where it is broken down and enters the plant tissue. Once inside the plant, glyphosate inhibits the activity of the EPSP enzyme, which in turn prevents the plant from manufacturing certain amino acids essential for plant growth and life.

Glyphosate absorbs quickly and tightly binds to the soil. Microbes in the soil rapidly decompose the product so little—if any— product leaches from the applied area.

What are the benefits of glyphosate?

Crop Duster. Image Roger Smith, flickr

Herbicide-tolerant crops, otherwise known as “Roundup Ready” or GMOs, were created so a farmer could spray glyphosate on the fields and not harm their crop. These crops contain a version of the enzyme that is not inhibited by glyphosate. Primarily, glyphosate is applied a couple of weeks after the crop emerges from the ground, which is a critical time when the weeds and crops are competing for water, mineral nutrients, and light, and before the crops get large enough to create a canopy to shield out the weeds themselves.

By killing all the weeds and not the crop, a farmer can make fewer herbicide passes through his crop. In addition, the farmer doesn’t have to “till” their field to rip out the weeds. This benefits the fertile topsoil and prevents it from run-off or displacement.  In wet areas, glyphosate is sometimes used as a tool for drying down crops before harvest.

How much glyphosate does the average farmer use?

Soybean and wheat farmer Brian Scott, who writes from A Farmer’s Life, farms 2,300 acres of land in northwest Indiana. In this video, he shows how much glyphosate is applied to his soybeans, which ends up being less than 2 cans of 12oz. soda for every acre of land.

Contrary to what is often reported by much of the media, farmers do not douse, drown, drench or saturate crops in chemicals. Farmers actually do what they can to minimize total herbicide use. After all, chemicals are expensive, it takes resources and time to apply them, and there are crop rotation and herbicide resistant issues to contend with.

Is glyphosate toxic?

Glyphosate is an herbicide, so it is a toxic substance. As we have mentioned in Nix the Toxins, toxicity is related to the dose or the amount you consume, inhale or rub on your skin. To examine toxicity, scientists look at something called the LD50 value. This metric is a standard measurement of acute toxicity for chemicals.

The dose makes the poison.

For example, caffeine, vitamins, and other substances are beneficial in small doses but can be harmful in large amounts. The lower the LD50 value, the more toxic the substance.

The LD50 of glyphosate is 5600mg/kg

Caffeine has a much lower LD50 of 192 mg/kg 

Sodium chloride (table salt) has an LD50 of about 3000 mg/kg.

Rotenone, approved for use on organic farms,  has an LD50 162-1500 mg/kg

Copper sulfate, approved for use in organic farming, has an LD50 of  30mg/kg


What about the long-term effects of glyphosate?

LD50 values are not the only metric the EPA uses to evaluate toxicity. Sub-chronic and chronic effects of a chemical substance are evaluated as well.

The EPA sets maximum safe levels of pesticide residues for crops, called tolerances. The EPA also calculates the theoretical maximum, which is considered the worst case scenario exposure to pesticides from all foods and compares it to the level of daily exposure to a pesticide residue, which over a 70-year human life span is believed to have no negative effect. The highest dose or exposure level that produces no noticeable adverse effect on test animals is then divided by safety factors – typically a value of 100.

As the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states,

“Just because we can detect levels of an environmental chemical in a person’s blood or urine does not necessarily mean that the chemical will cause effects or disease.”

The EPA sets tolerance levels in parts per million (ppm; equivalent to mg/kg) and has defined the tolerance levels for glyphosate residue on numerous food commodities.

Of course, sometimes trace amounts find their way into our food system – which is the crux of alarm spreading throughout the media. But let’s look at this rationally. Recently reports have been made of residues in the parts-per-billion on many of our favorite foods. Cheerios, for example, was tested to have 1,125.3 parts per billion (translate to 1.1253 parts per million) residues of glyphosate. Parts per billion? As we have hopefully illustrated below, you would have to eat a lot of Cheerios to experience any adverse effects!

What does one-part-per-million look like?

  • 1 inch in 16 miles
  • one penny in $10,000
  • 1 gram needle in a ton of hay
  • 32 seconds out of a year

What does one-part-per-billion look like?

  • 1 inch in 16,000 miles
    (64% of the circumference of the earth)
  • one penny in $10,000,000.
  • one drop of water in 250 chemical drums
  • 3 seconds out of a century

Unfortunately, companies are getting a bad reputation from anti-GMO groups that are spreading misinformation about the use of glyphosate.

The world science community has weighed in on the safety of glyphosate:

The US EPA, Health Canada, European Food Safety Authority, the German BfR, the World Health Organization all deem glyphosate to be safe for use.

Quaker Oats discusses glyphosate residue in their FAQ:

“Any minimal levels of glyphosate that may remain in finished products where oats are an ingredient are significantly below regulatory limits and well within compliance of the safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Health Canada and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as safe for human consumption.”

In another example, Media outlets have reported that glyphosate is now in one of our favorite sweeteners, honey! An FDA researcher tested 19 samples of honey, and in nine of those samples, found residue levels as low as 17ng/g in Brazilian honey and as high as 121 ng/g in honey from Louisiana. Now, translating that into actual consumption rates, a 125 lb person would have to consume 2,061 lbs of honey every day over the course of their lifetime to experience a poisonous reaction to glyphosate. REALLY? Is this actually cause for alarm?

Or does it help sell a story when certain household staples are vilified for their “potentially dangerous herbicide content.” Unfortunately, in today’s media whoever yells the loudest often is the most trusted.

In October 2016, Andrew Kniss, weed expert, author of Weed Control Freaks, and his colleagues published a study concluding  “even as herbicide use has increased, the chronic toxicity hazard associated with herbicide use decreased in 3 out of 6 crops, while acute toxicity hazard decreased in 5 out of 6 crops. Due to it’s relatively low chronic toxicity, glyphosate contributed only 0.1%, 0.3%, and 3.5% of the chronic toxicity hazard in these same crops, respectively.”

Lastly, we leave you with the most recent statement from the EPA:

“In September 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency issued what is considered one of the most comprehensive reviews of the pertinent studies on glyphosate ever undertaken, authored by 13 prominent independent scientists, concluding: There is not strong support for the ‘suggestive evidence of carcinogenic potential’ cancer classification descriptor based on the weight-of-evidence, which includes the fact that even small, non-statistically significant changes observed in animal carcinogenicity and epidemiological studies were contradicted by studies of equal or higher quality. The strongest support is for ‘not likely to be carcinogenic to humans’ at the doses relevant to human health risk assessment for glyphosate.”