Reprinted from The Ecologist, Vol 28, No 5, Sept/Oct 1998

Roundup: The World's Biggest-Selling Herbicide

by Joseph Mendelson
Though one of Monsanto's main arguments for biotechnology is that it reduces the
need for herbicides, its main emphasis has been on developing crops that are
resistant to Roundup, and which can only further increase the sales of this herbicide.

This past spring Monsanto launched a 1 million pound advertising campaign in the United Kingdom to tout the benefits of genetically engineered foods. Currently Monsanto and its subsidiaries hold the patents on half of the 36 genetically engineered whole foods being marketed in the United States. A centrepiece of the advertising campaign is the multinational's claim that genetically engineered foods will significantly reduce the use of pesticides and herbicides.(1) As the company proclaims, "We believe food should be grown with less pesticides and herbicides." Unmentioned in its advertising blitz is that Monsanto is a major producer of agricultural chemicals, and is using genetic engineering to dramatically increase, not decrease, the use of herbicides on crops.

Monsanto has built much of its corporate empire upon the back of one chemical - glyphosate. Introduced almost 25 years ago, glyphosate, marketed mainly as the herbicide Roundup, is Monsanto's key agri-chemical product. Glyphosate product sales are worth $1,200 million a year.(2) In the United States, glyphosate's estimated annual use ranges from between 19 and 26 million pounds.(3) In 1994, it was used on almost 800,000 acres in the UK.(4) Registered in the United States since 1974, glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide used to kill crop weeds. It is used on a wide variety of annual, biennial and perennial grasses, sedges, broad-leafed weeds, woody shrubs and commercial crops and is the eighth most commonly used herbicide in US agriculture and the second most commonly used herbicide in non-agricultural situations.(5) This Monsanto flagship product continues to generate a remarkable annual growth of about 20 per cent year after year. Its continued growth has led one industry analyst to state, "Roundup rules the world."(6)

There is, however, a natural barrier to continued significant increases in the use of Roundup. Obviously the use of too much of the herbicide on any crop will not only destroy unwanted weeds but also the crop itself. Monsanto's solution to this dilemma has been to create crops resistant to the herbicide. Farmers using the new resistant crops can now use far greater amounts of Roundup without fear of destroying the plants. It's a double financial win for Monsanto in that they can now sell the herbicide-resistant plants and ever more amounts of Roundup. While the increased sales of Roundup are a major boost for Monsanto, increased use of the chemical poses numerous health and ecological risks.

Despite advertising claims that Roundup is safe for humans, pets and wildlife, and is benign to the environment, it is known to cause a variety of often serious health problems (see Box). An extensive scientific review by the US-based National Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides (NCAP) found a variety of human health and environmental problems associated with the herbicide.(7) In particular, oral and skin testing on glyphosate placed the herbicide in Toxic Category Ill (Caution), and other testing suggested that glyphosate can cause toxic reactions on mammals (which include convulsions and even cessation of breathing).(8)

Severe toxicity problems associated with Roundup, however, are not thought to stem primarily from the active ingredient glyphosate, but rather from unlabelled "inert" ingredients designed to make Roundup easier to use and more efficient. Roundup consists of 99.04 per cent "inert" ingredients, many of which have been identified, including polyethoxylated tallowamine surfactant (known as POEA), related organic acids of glyphosate, isopropylamine, and water. Researchers have found that the acute lethal dose of POEA is less than one-third that of glyphosate alone.(9) Studies by Japanese researchers on poisoning victims discovered that this "inert" ingredient caused acute toxicity in patients. Symptoms of acute POEA poisoning included gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, excess fluid in the lungs, pneumonia, clouding of consciousness and destruction of red blood cells.(10) Another Roundup "inert", isopropylamine, is extremely destructive to mucous membrane tissue and the upper respiratory tract.(11) Ultimately, the Japanese researchers calculated that ingestion of slightly more than 200 ml (three quarters of a cup) of Roundup would be fatal.(12) Subsequent laboratory studies have also shown that glyphosate-containing products cause genetic damage and reproductive effects in a wide variety of organisms.(13)

NCAP's analysis also revealed that Roundup can cause a number of negative environmental impacts. For instance, while it is claimed that Roundup is inactivated rapidly in soil, it is more accurate to say it is usually absorbed into soil components. Thus, glyphosate remains active in soils, and residues of glyphosate have been found in lettuce, carrots and barley planted one year after glyphosate treatment.(14) The chemical has detrimental environmental effects. Glyphosate-containing products have been found to kill beneficial insects such as parasitoid wasps, lacewings and ladybugs.(15) Roundup has also been shown to affect earthworms and beneficial fungi, to inhibit nitrogen fixation, and to increase the susceptibility of crop plants to disease.(16)

Despite Roundup's myriad risks, Monsanto's ads for the product continue to represent the herbicide as environmentally benign or even beneficial. Some government officials have begun to address this gross misrepresentation. In 1991, for example, the New York State Attorney General challenged Monsanto's use of language in its Roundup advertisements, in particular the terms "biodegradable" and "environmental friendly". The state recently got Monsanto to agree to stop using the language and to pay $50,000 towards pursuit of the legal effort.

Monsanto's Herbicide-Resistant Crops
Minor legal setbacks have not stopped Monsanto's campaign to market its herbicide-resistant plants. Monsanto has already produced and marketed Roundup-Ready soybeans, canola and corn, and has plans to introduce Roundup-Ready sugar beets, wheat and potatoes. These crops pose new and significant ecological and human health concerns beyond those reported by NCAP. The products also allow the multinational to exert further control over the world's farmers.

As noted, the Roundup-Ready crops will allow farmers to use Roundup on a much wider and less discriminatory manner. Whereas fields were once sprayed with Roundup in pre-plant weed emergence situations, crop producers will now be able to apply Roundup to the genetically engineered crops throughout the growing season. Not only does this create obvious water, air and food contamination problems, it also presents herbicide-resistance problems. Over the last several years herbicide-resistance in weeds has become more common. As noted by one researcher, "With Roundup-Ready crops, there is the possibility in the future that the farmer is going to be planting Roundup-Ready soybeans one year and Roundup-Ready corn the next. Spraying nothing but Roundup in a field for numerous years is a resistance prone pattern."(17) Weed resistance to Roundup is yet a further financial boon for Monsanto. It means that farmers will need to continue increasing their purchase and use of the chemical as prior doses become ineffective.

Yet another devastating impact of these herbicide-tolerant crops could be the genetic flow of the "Roundup-Ready" trait into weedy relative plants. The planned 2002 introduction of Roundup-Ready wheat has run into resistance from many farmers who feel that the wheat will cross with grassy weeds like goat grass and render them herbicide-tolerant. Farmers are also concerned that they will not be able to control volunteer wheat that grows from herbicide-resistant seed.(18) It is also unclear how the widespread introduction of these crops will impact beneficial species. For example, French researchers have discovered that some varieties of transgenic canola can harm bees, a farm's most effective pollinator, by destroying their natural ability to recognize flower smells.(19)

Finally, the introduction. of these products has allowed Monsanto to exert more direct control over farmers. When a farmer buys a bag of Roundup-Ready seed he pays a special "technology fee" and signs a contract he will not use any of the harvested crop as seed for the next year. The licensing fees for Roundup-Ready cotton varieties popular in Texas were $5 an acre, $8 per acre for varieties prevalent in the Cotton belt, and $40 per acre for "stacked" varieties (Roundup-Ready-resistant and containing transgenic Bacillus thuringiensis).(20)

Roundup-Resistant Cotton
Even Monsanto's aggressive public relations campaign has not been enough to hide the numerous failures surrounding genetically engineered crops. The most glaring example was Monsanto's first year of Roundup-Ready cotton which ran into disastrous performance problems. In July of 1997 farmers in the Mississippi Delta began to report that Roundup-Ready cotton was not growing properly and that the bolls on the cotton were dropping prematurely or were malformed.(21) By October 1997 at least 19 farmers in Coahoma County, Mississippi had filed complaints with the state Department of Agriculture.(22) "The bottom line is that virtually everybody who planted this stuff has had a problem," said Steve Cox, an attorney representing some of the affected farmers. "The problems that we are seeing range from hawkbilled bolls to total fruit loss."(23) Complaints were also heard from farmers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee and Texas.(24)

Monsanto has tried to rationalize the crop's failure by blaming the year's cold, wet spring and dry, hot summer as well as potential farmer error in applying Roundup.(25) As one farmer declared, "They blamed us and they blamed God for the weather. But they don't blame themselves. Monsanto has 10,000 employees, but not one of them ever called me to discuss my plight."(26) Some US government experts claim that Monsanto hurried the new seed varieties to market without the customary three-year testing period. One research manager for the US Department of Agriculture attempting to test the product sought one pound of seed (enough for a tenth of an acre) but was told by the companies they could not spare it.(27)

The failure of Monsanto's genetically engineered cotton embroiled the company in legal difficulties. Initially, Monsanto privately settled a dispute with a group of 55 farmers for $5 million.(28) But on June 12, 1998, the Mississippi Seed Arbitration Council of the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, ruled that Monsanto's Roundup-Ready cotton "failed to produce or perform as represented by the labels attached to the seeds."(29) Instead they recommended a payment to farmers (not involved in the first settlement) of more than $1.9 million by Monsanto and its two subsidiaries, Delta and Pine Land Co. and Paymaster Technology Co.(30) The decision was non-binding and Monsanto has refused to pay the damages.(31) The company plans to file a motion asking the Council to reconsider.(32) Similar claims were filed by farmers in Arkansas with the Arkansas Seed Arbitration Council.(33)

Subsequent to the first year failure, Monsanto had to announce in February that it was withdrawing five varieties of Roundup-Ready cotton from the market because of substandard seed quality.(34) However, the company is continuing to market its genetically altered cotton. In 1998 Monsanto licensees sold 800,000 acres worth of Roundup-Ready cotton.(35)

Roundup-Resistant Soybean
Monsanto's herbicide-resistant crops have met stiff opposition from NGOs. In the autumn of 1996 US grain producers began exporting Roundup-Ready soybeans to Europe and other nations. The imports into Europe were approved by the European Commission even though labelling provisions covering genetically engineered foods were not finalized at the EU level. This set off protests and blockades by Greenpeace. Friends of the Earth and a number of other NGOs in European ports and galvanized a consumer demand for the mandatory labelling of genetically engineered soy. To date the controversy continues with current EU labelling being required only in instances where the genetically engineered soy is detected in a product.(36) Despite such contentious battles, in the United States Roundup-Ready soybeans were available from 85 seed companies in the spring of 1998.(37) Worldwide it is expected that 30 million acres were planted with Roundup-Ready soybeans.(38) Market reports state that soybeans are being grown on 25 million acres, nearly triple last year's 9 million acres and totalling one-third of the historical soybean base of about 70 million acres.(39)

Roundup-Resistant Beet
NGOs have also been fighting the introduction of herbicide-resistant beets in Britain. In December 1997, Britain's National Institute of Agricultural Botany announced Roundup-Ready beets could be introduced as early as 2001. The next regulatory hurdle is the Ministry of Agriculture's approval for marketing. As the market approval hangs in the balance, current experiments in Ireland on Roundup-Ready beets have been steadfastly opposed by the organization Genetic Concern. The activists have challenged the Irish EPA permits, issued on May 1, 1997, allowing Monsanto to conduct field trials of the beets in Co. Carlow.(40) The legal challenge has highlighted the Irish government's failure to observe correct procedure when granting the field test permission and a failure to satisfy an "effectively zero" risk of adverse effect on human health and environment from the deliberate release. The lawsuit focusses on the application of a 1990 European Council Directive on deliberate release of GMOs, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency Act of 1993, and the 1994 Genetically Modified Regulation. Currently, a decision is pending before the Irish High Court.

Roundup-Resistant Canola
Herbicide-resistant crops have run foul of government regulations in Canada. Monsanto introduced Roundup-Ready Canola into one-fifth of the country's total crop in 1997.(41) Sown in New Zealand for Canadian seed company Zenica, the seed is expected to be planted on 2 million acres, up from the 600,000 acres last year.(42) However, in the spring of 1997, two varieties of Roundup-Ready canola seeds had to be recalled by Monsanto Canada (its licensee was the seed company Limagrain) after quality assurance tests revealed the seed contained genetic material that had not received full government clearance.(43) The recall amounted to 60,000 bags of seed sold in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. Two Alberta farmers who had planted the crop ploughed it under and received undisclosed compensation from Monsanto Canada.(44)

The incident should have served as a reminder to the Canadian government that precaution, as a minimum, should prevail in the regulation of genetically engineered crops. Yet, despite Monsanto's potentially devastating error, the Western Canada Canola/Rapeseed Recommending Committee approved the registration of ten new canola varieties this past February. Five of these are Roundup-Ready varieties, including two varieties grown in Argentina.(45)

Roundup-Resistant Corn?
1998 marks the first year of Roundup-Ready corn with the expectation of 750,000 US acres being planted.(46) Most of the seed was produced in South America, primarily in Argentina and Chile.(47) As with so many Roundup Ready crops, the corn introduction has initiated controversy within the EU and the industry itself. In October 1997 Pioneer Hy-Brid the United States' largest producer of seed corn said it would not add Roundup-Ready technology because Monsanto's proposed restrictions and charges outweigh the benefits for farmers.(48) That same month, French chemical-giant Rhone-Poulenc filed a lawsuit against DeKalb Genetics and Monsanto concerning the rights to Roundup-Ready corn genes.(49) According to Rhone Poulenc, when it sold its Roundup-tolerant corn genes to DeKalb in 1994 to incorporate into corn strains it did not allow DeKalb to transfer or sell the genes to any other company. Rhone Poulenc alleged that such an illegal transfer did take place during licensing agreements between DeKalb and Monsanto, and that Roundup-Ready corn violates two patents.(50) The alleged misuse of its patent technology was uncovered during an examination of two Monsanto petitions to the USDA seeking to register the corn. The situation was further muddied on May 11, 1998 when Monsanto announced an agreement to acquire DeKalb, a top hybrid seed corn company in the United States. The acquisition is under anti-trust scrutiny from the US Department of Justice.(51)

If those legal battles were not enough, farmers using Roundup-Ready corn are faced with an export dilemma. Roundup-Ready corn has not been fully approved for importation in the EU.(52) This consumer-driven resistance has caused US Vice President Gore and USDA officials to stump for Monsanto, warning that about $250 million in exports could be imperilled if genetically engineered maize is not approved by the EU.(53) France has moved to avoid the threat of a possible trade battle at the WTO by announcing it would clear the way for the corn's importation into Europe.(54)

Even though faced with the outright failure of crops, virulent public opposition, health and environmental impacts and numerous unanswered scientific questions Monsanto is charging ahead with its profitable new crops. It will take the combined will of activists, the public and international policy makers to halt the spread of this dangerous new technology.

Joseph Mendelson, III, is the legal director for the International Center for Technology Assessment (CTA) (Washington, DC). He is serving as a lead attorney in a legal challenge to the US Food and Drug Administration's failure to require the labelling of genetically engineered foods.


1. AGROW World Crop Protection News, "Monsanto Campaigns for GM Food in UK" (June 12, 1998) p. 11.
2. Greenpeace "Glyphosate Fact Sheet", (July 27, 1998).
3. Aspelin, A.L Pesticides industry sales and usage: 1992 and 1993 Market estimates. U.S. EPA, Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. Office of Pesticides Programs. Biological and Economic Analysis Division, Washington DC (June 1994), p. 15.
4. Greenpeace "Glyphosate Fact Sheet".
5. Cox, Carolyn, "Glyphosate, Part 1: Toxicology," Jrnl. of pesticides Reform, 15:3 (Fall 1995) p. 15.
6. Hamilton, Martha A., "Monsanto's Green Thumb; From Agricultural Roots, Firm Has Blossomed - and So Has A Spinoff," Washington Post (December 7, 1997) p. H2
7. Cox, Carolyn. "Glyphosate, Part 1: Toxicology," Jrnl. Pesticide Reform, 15:4 (Winter 1995) pp. 14-20.
8. Ibid. p.l6
9. Martinez, T.T., and Brown, K., Oral and pulmonary toxicology of the surfurcant used in Roundup herbicide. Proc. West. Pharmacol. Soc. 34: pp. 43-46 (1991).
10. Sawada, Y.Y., Nagai, M.,/Ueyama, and Yamarnoto, I. Probable toxicity of surfaceactive agent in commercial herbicide containing glyphosate. Lancet 1 (8580):229 (1988).
11. Sigma Chemical Go., Aldrich Chemical Co. and Fluka Chemical Corp. Material safety data sheet: isopropylamine. St. Louis, MO, Milwaukee, WI, and Ronkonkona, NY (1994).
12. Ibid.
13. Cox, Op. Cit. 7, pp. 18 - 19.
14. US EPA. Office of Pesticide Programs. Special Review and Reregistration Division. Reregistration eligibility decision (RED) Glyphosate. Washington, DC (September 1993).
15. Hassan, S.A., et al. Results of the fourth joint pesticide testing programme carried out by the IOBC/WPRS working group "Pesticides and Beneficial Organisms". J. Appl. Ent. 105: pp. 321-329 (1988).
16. Cox, Op. cit. 7, pps. 18 - 19.
17. Stroud, Jerri. "Chemical-Resistant Weeds Are Multiplying In State," St. Louis Post Dispatch, February 15, 1998 at E8.
18. "Biotech takes aim at wheat; innovative wheat," Successful Farming, (April 1998) p. 40.
19. Nikiforuk, Andrew. "The Bad Seed", Canadian Business (October 1997).
20. Steyer, Robert. "New Monsanto Cotton Going On Sale; Genetically Engineered Seed Sold By Licensees," (December 17, 1996) p. 9C.
21. Myerson, Alien R., "Breeding Seeds of Discontent; Cotton Growers Say Strain Cuts Yield," New York Times (November 19, 1997) p.Dl.
22. "Mississippi Farmers File Complaints Over Genetically Altered Cotton Seed," Chattanooga Free Press (October 6, 1997) p. B2.
23. Ibid.
24. Ibid.
25. Song, Kyung M., "Monsanto Looks Into Cotton Crop; Some Plants Distressed On Mississippi Delta Farms," St. Louis Post-Dispatch (August 7, 1997) p. 1C.
26. Lambrecht, Bill., "Many Farmers Finding Altered Cotton Lacking," St. Louis Post Dispatch (April 12, 1998) p. E1.
27. New York Times (November 19, 1997).
28. "Monsanto Cited in Crop Losses," New York Times (June 16, 1998) p. D4.
29. Steyer, Robert. "Monsanto Refuses To Pay $1.94 Million To Farmers," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (June 20, 1988) p. 3.
30. New York Times, (June 16, 1998)
31. St. Louis Dispatch (June 20, 1998)
32. Ibid.
33. Ibid.
34. "Monsanto Withdraws 5 Types of Cotton Seed," Bloomberg News (February 21,1998) p. 3.
35. Op. cit. 31.
36. Council Regulation EC 1139/98, Official Journal 1159 (June 1998) p. 4.
37. Successful Farming, (April 1998).
38. PR Newswire (May 11, 1998).
39. Chemical Market Reporter, (June 8, 1998).
40. Mary Carolan, "Judgment Reserved in Challenge to EPA's Consent to Beet Trials," Irish Times, (July 16, 1998).
41. "Europe Falling Behind in GMO Race," Arable Farming, (March 24, 1998) p. 19.
42. Steyer, Robert, "Farmers Are Warming to Altered Seed," St.Louis Post-Dispatch (March 29,1998) p. G1.
43. "Monsanto Recalls GM Seeds in Regulation Scare," Farming News, (May 2, 1997).
44. Canadian Business, October 1997.
45. "Proven Seed Breaks Into Round Up Ready Market," Canadian Corporate Newswire, (February 25, 1998).
46. PR Newswire (May 11, 1998).
47. "DEKALB Earns Its Wings as South American Seed Flies into the US." PR Newswire (March 31, 1998).
48. New York Times (November 19, 1997).
49. "Get Ready for Roundup Ready," Food Ingredient News, (December 1997).
50. "Rhone-Poulenc Taking Corn to Court," Chemical Business Newsbase (January 30, 1998).
51. "Monsanto/DeKalb Deal Under Review," AGROW World Crop Protection News, (June 12, 1998) p. 5.
52. Fuhrig, Frank, "Transgenic Revolution/Genetically Engineered Crops Have Become Commonplace," State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL) (July 12, 1998).
53. O'Sullivan, Kevin, "Battle-lines Are Drawn Over GM Foods," Irish Times (May 19, 1998) p. 4.
54. "France Backs Two Varieties of Gene Corn: Delays Rapeseed," Reuters (July 31, 1998).

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