Gluten-free is all the buzz, and many people feel better when they cut out wheat. But what if it isn’t only gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye – that is causing the problem? Canada has been using the highly criticized herbicide glyphosate in the harvesting of wheat and scientists and medical professionals have proposed that maybe it’s the herbicides residue that our bodies are reacting to. Could it be that the demonizing of gluten has drawn attention away from the potential effects of this industrial agricultural practice?
What is Glyphosate and How Can It Affect Us?
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monstantos Ready Roundup. Since being off patent, glyphosate is being used in hundreds of herbicide products around the world. In 2015 the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer group classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. Research has documented health concerns that glyphosate could be an endocrine disruptor and that it could kill beneficial gut bacteria, damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells and be linked to birth defects and reproductive problems in laboratory animals.
What is Glyphosate Doing In Our Wheat?
Ready Roundup is sprayed in high amounts on crops that are genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide, meaning you can spray large amounts on the crops to kill the weeds while the crop remains resistant. Wheat in Canada is not genetically engineered, so is not resistant to glyphosate. Since 2000 or so, the USDA and Agriculture Canada has been advising farmers to spray their wheat (as well as oats, barley, edible beans and cane sugar) with glyphosate to kill and dry their crops one to two weeks before harvest. This practice, also known as desiccation, helps farmers get their crops to dry evenly, and can lead to an earlier harvest.
How Much Glyphosate Is In Our Wheat?
In Canada, it is estimated that 90 to 95 percent of non-organic wheat acres in Manitoba and Saskatchewan are sprayed pre-harvest with glyphosate. While the pre-harvest use of glyphosate may account for a small amount of overall use of the herbicide (~2%), it may account for up to half of our dietary exposure (~50%). Canada’s food regulator has found traces of glyphosate in nearly 30% of a sample of 3,200 products tested, with 1.3% of samples being above the acceptable limit with the majority coming from grain products.
Is Glyphosate in Wheat to Blame For the Increase In Gluten-Related Conditions?
With incidences of Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance on the rise, it is sensible to consider all the potential instigators. Along with the increase in glyphosate residue in our wheat products is our increased consumption of wheat products through processed foods – cookies, breads, muffins, granola bars and crackers. If glyphosate does indeed affect our gut microbiome, then there is a high possibility it can be at least partially related to our growing intolerance to gluten and other foods.
Environmental Considerations of Glyphosate Use
Glyphosate is not only a concern for human health but also holds the primary role in the abrupt decline of monarch butterfly populations. The use of this herbicide has virtually eradicated milkweed, the sole food source for monarch larvae, in corn- and soy-growing regions of North America. In 2014 Monarch butterfly were found in only 1.7 acres during hibernation in Mexico, compared to a high of 45 acres in 1996.
What’s Next for Glyphosate Use In Canada
This April 2017, Heath Canada dismissed evidence in its re-evaluation of glyphosate with the decision to continue its registration in Canada. Europe soon followed. Last year WHO stepped back its statement, saying glyphosate was “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.” For many, this decision is unfortunate and glyphosate continues to contaminate our food, waterways and environment. Many activist groups, organic farmers and passionate scientists are working to bring awareness to this growing issue in Canada.
If you suspect this herbicide could be contributing to any health problems, or if you would prefer to decrease your exposure to it, then try purchasing organic wheat, barley, oats and legumes products when able. If you would like to help the decreasing populations of monarch butterflies consider planting Milkweed. Seeds can be obtained for free or by donation at Save Our Monarchs website.
Rachel Dickens, The Conscious Dietitian, is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator. She graduated with her Masters in Nutrition and Dietetics in 2010 from Griffith University. She strives to provide evidence-based nutrition information with a focus on plant-based nutrition, and share some of her favourite seasonal recipes and sustainable eating tips.