Going Glyphosate-Free

Transitioning away from glyphosate use in chickpeas and other dry legumes is possible but involves extra labor and creativity. Sara Mader, who operates the Palouse Brand, made the decision to start phasing out glyphosate on her Washington farm several years ago. She says that in her first year without glyphosate, they tried spot harvesting, which involved making multiple passes to collect dry crops as different areas of the field matured. This year, she’s trying out an innovative technique: swathing, or cutting the plants down once they’re mature and letting them dry in the field. It’s a technique that she hasn’t heard of other chickpea growers using, and it may require the farm to bring in specialized equipment from Canada to ensure they can harvest the crop.

It’s uncharted territory, but “if we time it right with the weather patterns,” Mader says, “we should be able to get a really good result,” adding that she thinks combining the swathing technique with the new equipment should give them even less crop loss than they see with spot harvesting.

Ultimately, Mader feels this kind of experimentation is necessary to maintain Palouse Brand’s quality. It’s also valuable to other farmers trying to provide residue-free products: “We’re trying to find the best method,” she says. “It doesn’t mean that it’s going to go great, but then we’re having those conversations with others around us.”

Labels, Pledges, and Laws: How to Avoid Glyphosate Residues

So far, there’s not a surefire way to completely avoid glyphosate residues. At least one organization, the Detox Project, is currently offering a third party “Glyphosate Residue Free” certification for food products, which requires companies to submit product samples for glyphosate residue testing at least three times a year. Relatively few products have been registered to date, though several major oat milk products are already participating. Interest in the label is growing, however; the Detox Project says it’s received thousands of inquiries to register new products, and Thrive Market, an online health food retailer, announced last year that it would require its suppliers to be certified. The Glyphosate Residue Free label joins an older Certified Pesticide Residue Free label from Scientific Certification Systems in registering products that don’t contain any glyphosate residues.

Certifying a residue-free product may not be that straightforward, however. “There’s a couple of challenges” says Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a sustainable food systems expert and the chief science advisor for FoodPrint, “The first being ‘What is residue-free?’ ” Lab tests for pesticide residues have different detection thresholds, and standards like the Glyphosate Residue Free certification  — which stipulates that samples must have no glyphosate residues beyond the laboratory detection limit of .01 parts per million (ppm) — may simply be too strict. Given that glyphosate is so ubiquitous in food processing, even tiny amounts of “background” glyphosate (possibly from pesticide drift or shared processing equipment) could cause a product coming from a farm not using glyphosate to fail.

The second major issue may seem at odds with the first: residue-free certifications can’t actually guarantee that glyphosate wasn’t used, only that it doesn’t appear in the final product.  As Rangan explains, “I don’t think it meets consumer expectations entirely since it’s just an end-of-the-pipeline test. They could have used glyphosate early on, but you wouldn’t find it.”

USDA organic certification may help solve this problem, since it focuses on the production process rather than the residues in the final product. Still, this is where detection thresholds become problematic: while organic products are technically never sprayed with glyphosate or other pesticides, the EWG analysis showed that residues can end up even in organic products through drifting spray or shared equipment. It’s important to note that aside from one high-residue, organic chickpea sample, the organic brands sampled had low overall levels of residue. Even with small amounts of detectable residue, choosing organic is still a good way to minimize your exposure to glyphosate, with recent research showing that an organic diet can reduce urinary glyphosate levels (which reflects glyphosate levels in the bloodstream) by as much as 75 percent.

Outside of third-party labels, individual farms and food companies are responding to demand for glyphosate residue-free products. Palouse Brand has transitioned throughout the years and does not spray glyphosate on any growing crops, a shift which Mader says comes as a result of growing concern she was hearing from consumers.

Larger companies are also responding: After being targeted in a 2018 lawsuit over glyphosate residues, Kellogg announced in January 2020 that it would be working with its suppliers to phase out pre-harvest glyphosate usage. While the move doesn’t guarantee residue-free products, a major buyer like Kellogg signaling it won’t buy glyphosate-treated grain incentivizes farmers to avoid spraying. Ben and Jerry’s also committed to phasing out products dried with glyphosate by 2020, though concerns persist about high glyphosate use on the GMO corn and soy within their dairy supply chain.

Outside of these voluntary measures to reduce glyphosate exposure through food, at least one bill, the Keep Food Safe from Glyphosate Act of 2019, aims to set more stringent limits on glyphosate residues. The bill, which is currently in committee, would limit glyphosate residues in oats to .1 ppm, well below the current standard of 30 ppm that was set by the EPA after lobbying from Monsanto and conventional grain farmers.  While it faces significant opposition from conventional farm lobby groups and may never be signed into law, the bill represents another avenue for environmental and public health groups to push for lower chemical residues in food.

Top photo by mescioglu/ Adobe Stock.

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