Protecting us from poisons like glyphosate is one of the things government is good for. Or should be.

In ancient or primitive societies, an individual had to master a variety of skills to survive. A single person might build a home, find or raise food, and create or secure clothing.

In a modern industrialized society, individuals rely on a complex web of specialists to survive. Few of us raise our own food, for example, so we rely largely on people or systems we don’t know, to do it for us.

In the United States today, we count on our federal government to ensure the food we consume is safe. The U.S. President’s Cancer Panel produced a report in 2008-09 that concluded, “The prevailing regulatory approach in the United States is reactionary rather than precautionary. That is, instead of taking preventive action when uncertainty exists about the potential harm a chemical or other environmental contaminant may cause, a hazard must be incontrovertibly demonstrated before action to ameliorate it is initiated.

“Moreover, instead of requiring industry or other proponents of specific chemicals, devices, or activities to prove their safety, the public bears the burden of proving that a given environmental exposure is harmful. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety.”

Mind you, this report was produced well before the current administration began blithely rolling back life-saving and planet-saving environmental regulations.

In these United States currently, we need to take notice and perhaps return to that more basic notion of looking out for ourselves if the government can’t be trusted to do it for us.

Knowledge is power. We’d like to share some knowledge with you that came from a scientific paper sent to us by Gary Kleppel, a Knox sheep farmer who directed the Biodiversity, Conservation, and Policy Program at the University at Albany.

We had printed a front-page story last month on two Berne farmers testifying before the State Assembly’s agriculture committee on the harm invasive species are causing. Kleppel had then written a letter to us, describing natural means he had used — grazing, mowing, and biodiversity — to control wild parsnip and spotted knapweed on his farm.

We admire the Berne farmers who spoke out, Kevin Crosier and Emily Vincent, because a problem can’t be solved unless it is known. Some of the legislators on the agricultural committee said they were unaware of the problem; they shouldn’t be. They should be working to solve it.

As we talked to Dr. Kleppel to confirm his letter, we learned that he bakes the bread he sells at farmers’ markets with King Arthur flour. Why? Because that company doesn’t buy wheat, like most flour companies do, from farmers that dry their wheat by using glyphosate, he said.

He told us then of the paper, by Nancy L. Swanson, Andre Leu, Jon Abrahamson, and Bradley Wallet, published in the Journal of Organic Systems, linking genetically-engineered crops and glyphosate with the deterioration of health in the United States.

While noting that correlation is not the same as causation, Dr. Kleppel said he had not, in his 50 years of research, seen such high correlations. The authors used data from the United States Department of Agriculture and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track the use of the herbicide glyphosate, introduced in 1974, and its increased use with the advent of genetically-engineered crops against the rise of a large number of diseases in the United states.

The correlations were near or above 90 percent for hypertension; stroke; diabetes; obesity; Alzheimer’s; senile dementia; Parkinson’s; multiple sclerosis; autism; inflammatory bowel disease; intestinal infections; acute kidney failure; and cancers of the thyroid, liver, bladder, pancreas, kidney, and myeloid leukemia.

Not only has there been an alarming increase in serious illnesses in the United States in the last 20 years, there has also been a marked decrease in life expectancy. We’re killing ourselves.

The costs are high. The CDC estimates the cost of diabetes and its treatment was $116 billion in 2007. Costs related to obesity were $147 billion in 2008. Costs for stroke and cardiovascular disease in 2009 were $476 billion.

If we were healthier, we’d be a wealthier nation.

The Journal of Organic Systems paper looks at just the effects of the exponential increase in the amount of glyphosate applied to food crops and in the percentage of genetically-engineered food crops planted.

Plants are modified so that they can withstand the direct application of the herbicide. The herbicide-tolerant plants then absorb the poisons, and humans and domestic animals eat them.

The genetically-modified-organism industry claims that genetic engineering is the same as plant hybridisation, which has been practiced for centuries — an argument that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration accepted for not having to submit genetically-engineered food to rigorous safety testing for FDA approval.

The Organic Systems study corrects those distorted facts by explaining, unlike with natural breeding methods, genetically-engineered food transfers multiple genes across taxonomic kingdoms. All living things are classified in a seven-step ranking system that starts with species, and goes to genus, to family, to order, to class, to division, and finally to kingdom.

Species that belong to different families do not naturally inter-breed, and neither do species from different kingdoms. Plants, for example, to not interbreed with animals, bacteria, or viruses. Genetic engineering allows for the transfer of genes between kingdoms in a way that does not occur naturally.

The purveyors of herbicides and genetically-engineered foods claim the genetically-engineered food is “substantially equivalent” to natural products yet researchers have found differences in vitamin, fat, and protein content and could also distinguish the genetically-engineered food by its glyphosate and AMPA (aminomethylphosphonic acid, glyphosate degradation product) residues.

Since glyphosate was introduced in 1974 as the active ingredient in Roundup, it has become the most widely used herbicide for urban, industrial, forest, and farm use, according to the company that makes it, Monsanto. “Since its discovery in the early 1970’s the unique herbicidal active ingredient glyphosate has become the world’s most widely used herbicide because it is efficacious, economical and environmentally benign. These properties have enabled a plethora of uses which continue to expand to this day providing excellent weed control both in agricultural and non-crop uses to benefit mankind and the environment…,” Monsanto wrote in 2010 despite a successful 1996 suit from the New York Attorney General for false advertising by Monsanto regarding the safety of glyphosate.

Glyphosate is now used routinely as a drying or ripening ages on grain crops, rice, seeds, dried beans, and peas, sugar cane, and sweet potatoes, again according to Monsanto. In 2012, in the United States, 98 percent of spring wheat and 99 percent of durum wheat were treated with glyphosate or glyphosate salts.

Glyphosate and its degradation product have been found in air, rain, groundater, surface water, soil, and sea water — and the amounts detected are increasing over time with increasing use. Humans are likely accumulating it over time. Researchers have found chronically ill humans have significantly higher glyphosate residues in urine than healthy humans. But it doesn’t entirely pass through the body as urine; it has been found in tissues. In the United States, the glyphosate residues allowed in food are some of the highest in the world.

Researchers have documented the connection between glyphosate and chronic disease as it disrupts the metabolic process. “Negative impact on the body is insidious and manifests slowly over time as inflammation damages cellular systems throughout the body,” write the authors of the Organic Systems paper.

They explain in detail how glyphosate-based herbicides are endocrine disruptors in human cells and can thereby alter the body’s normal functions. Because glyphosate disrupts gut bacteria balance, the metabolic process, the uptake of nutrients, and the endocrine system, and damages DNA, the authors looked for — and found — correlations between the increase of many diseases and the increase in the use of glyphosate, particularly with the advent of glyphosate-resistant food crops.

So what can we do about it?

We could, like Dr. Kleppel, each bake our own bread for starters. But then, as he said, we might inadvertently eat a wheat thin or pop tart.

The best solution would be the one we started with, proposed by the President’s Cancer Panel: Have a federal government that takes a precautionary rather than a reactionary approach to regulation. To our own peril, we have no hope of that with the current administration.

Businesses push for profit. It is the job of government to ensure that people, and the planet, are not harmed by that push. Although individual states may be more enlightened than the current federal administration, the nature of our commerce, which is nationwide, means the effects will be limited.

Until our government takes a precautionary stance, individuals will have to look out for themselves the way people in primitive societies do — buying locally from farmers we trust, raising and making our own food.

But still, tens of thousands of untested chemicals will surround us. So we’ll watch the people we love suffer from and die of illnesses that could well be ameliorated by sound government policy.

More Editorials