Wheat intolerance is on the rise, but maybe it is not the gluten or fructans to blame. Maybe we need to consider the amount of glyphosate – the herbicide and crop desiccant that is used on Canadian wheat.
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? Or even fructans, the high FODMAP foods (Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides, and Polyols) that are often blamed for IBS symptoms (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
Canada has been using the highly criticized herbicide glyphosate in the harvesting of wheat products, 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?
A History of Glyphosate In Canada
What is Glyphosate and How Are We Exposed To It?
Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Ready Roundup. Since being off-patent in 2007, glyphosate is being used in hundreds of herbicide products around the world. Glyphosate residue has been identified in our food supply and water, as well as in our forests.
What Does Glyphosate Do?
Glyphosate is a very potent chemical that kills plants. We don’t want to kill most plants, so it has been called a “weed killer”. Many crops have been genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate products (see post Genetically Modified Food Pros and Cons – For Our Health & The Environment). This means that large amounts of glyphosate can be sprayed on genetically modified crops, killing the weeds around it but not the crop itself.
Glyphosate and Cancer
In 2015 the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer group International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) classified glyphosate as a probable carcinogen (1). Soon afterwards, the US EPA deemed that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” making it quickly evident that separating science from politics and economic interests would be difficult for glyphosate (2).
Other Glyphosate Health Risks
Some research has documented that glyphosate could be an endocrine disruptor. It may also disrupt our 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 (3).
Glyphosate in Wheat In Canada
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 it 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%).
Glyphosate Residue In Our Food
Canada’s food regulator has found traces of glyphosate in nearly 30% of a sample of 3,200 products tested. Around 1.3% of samples were above the acceptable limit with the majority coming from grain products.
Glyphosate Toxicity and Our Health
Is Glyphosate in Wheat and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity Linked?
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. Correlation does not equal causation, but something to consider as we still don’t have a solid evidence-based reasoning for the increase in non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
*celiac disease is an autoimmune condition and there is no link between high wheat intake and diagnosis of celiac disease.
Glyphosate and Our Microbiome
Glyphosate kills weeds by interfering with the shikimate pathway in a plant, a metabolic sequence that synthesizes vital aromatic amino acids which are the building blocks for proteins. Glyphosate disrupts the shikimate pathway and this enzyme, though not found in people or pets, is present in many beneficial bacteria that inhabit the human mucous membranes, skin and gut.
Therefore, despite the fact that glyphosate is not directly affecting our enzymes, it is disrupting the millions of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that inhabit us, that rely upon the shikimate pathway. This direct effect on our microbiome may at least partially related to our growing intolerance to gluten and other foods, amongst other health concerns.
Glyphosate and Cancer
In March 2015, IARC classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This was based on “limited” evidence of cancer in humans (from real-world exposures that actually occurred) and “sufficient” evidence of cancer in experimental animals (from studies using pure glyphosate) (4). California has become the first state to list Glyphosate to the state’s Proposition 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer (5).
Glyphosate Environmental Issues
Glyphosate and Soil Health
Glyphosate works by stressing the soil, which in turn stresses the plant so it starts to produce more ‘fruit’ in the short run. By stressing the plant we get it to make more seeds in a last-ditch effort at survival, so yes we will get a better yield but eventually, this will lead to a sick plant.
Glyphosate functions as an antibiotic, antifungal and antiparasitic (it interestingly has never been patented as a weed killer). Because it functions as an antibiotic, it kills the beneficial bacteria in the soil that are responsible for synthesizing nutrients in our food, just as it disrupts our beneficial gut microbiota (see above).
Glyphosate and Monarch Butterflies
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
Glyphosate Continues to Be Used 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.
Is Glyphosate Affecting Your Health?
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 possible. 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.
More Post on Genetically Modified Foods
- Are Genetically Modified Foods Bad For My Health And The Environment?
- What Is Flexitarian? The Environmental Sustainability of Eating Meat
- Canada GMO Salmon Eggs Approved
- Which Foods Are Genetically Modified?
1) World Health Organization
3) The Ramazzini Institute 13-week pilot study glyphosate-based herbicides administered at human-equivalent dose to Sprague Dawley rats: effects on development and endocrine system. Environmental Health. 2019.
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.