Ever since the Dutch scientist and pioneering microbiologist Anton van Leeuwenhoek [1632-1723] scraped scum from his teeth and observed tiny ‘animalcules,’ or germs, in the plaque samples beneath the first-ever microscope he invented, it bid fair to the ‘presence’ of the microbial world in and around us. Leeuwenhoek’s understanding was far too simplistic — the actual fact being, that, since the beginning of time, and also right from the moment we are born, we have been enveloped by microbes.
It is, therefore, no surprise that we are riddled with the overriding premise that microbes, or microorganisms, are our ecological foes and that they are meant only to be destroyed. This is how the origin of the word, 'bug,' first came into vogue for bacteria — illustrating a creepy sense of apprehension for tiny, eerie insects too, or the ‘hateful bugle’ in the mind and ear, crawling all over everything.
Glyphosate was not too long ago hailed as the ‘safest’ herbicide in history. New research suggests that it may be harming us in ways we’ve just begun to understand. In addition, a new body of growing estimation has pulled the questioning bell with the ringtone as to how long ‘traces’ of glyphosate, a powerful ‘weed killer,’ can linger in the food we eat, or the crops that livestock feed on. The irony, of course, is not many people are willing to distinguish the recent ‘rule’ change — from the ‘safest’ herbicide ever invented to being just ‘not safe,’ like many other of its ilk, past and present.
The big alarm signal, as ongoing research also suggests, is glyphosate harms our ‘internal ecology,’ or microbiome. This is one side of the story, because many of us have just begun to floppily understand the inner recesses of our body — more importantly, how our own microbiomes affect our health.
When intrepid researchers sequence DNA from microorganisms gathered from our armpits, belly buttons and other locations, they find minuscule versions of ecosystems a la the Sahyadri Ranges, composed of trillions of microbes. In their totality, this ‘invisible’ mass of organisms is our microbiome. Researchers estimate that they make up as much as five kilogram of our body weight. A vast majority of human microbiomes, comprising of 10 trillion to 100 trillion cells and thousands of species, include over eight million unique ‘gene’ types, no less.
As many of us would know, bacteria produce essential vitamins, natural body chemicals, such as anti-inflammatories and other compounds that ‘power’ our metabolism by breaking down food. Though they encompass most of our microbiome framework, it is only lately that we’ve been able to study them in-depth and understand — if not fully — as to what exactly they are doing, albeit the barely perceptible mass has most likely evolved since the beginning of time. Research also suggests that it is probable that our microbiomes protect us from certain illnesses. When their equilibrium is disturbed, they may also possibly trigger them.
Proponents of glyphosate would certainly not acquiesce. This is because most would argue that it is not as toxic as the ‘wonder drug’ aspirin, for instance, even if one has a strong case against the latter. From the research point-of-view glyphosate is not well absorbed by our digestive tract — more than 98 per cent of it passes right through us. In addition, its mode of action involves a biochemical process that is specific to microorganisms and plants. This is known as the ‘shikimate’ pathway — which we human beings lack. Be that as it may, glyphosate is evidenced to get into water and affect aquatic life, leading to dreadful loss of amphibians, guardians of our ecosystem, too. We are not looking at the damage to soil that it can cause yet, not to speak of its ‘impact’ on beneficial soil microbes and encumbrance on the natural growth of plants, including those that are genetically-modified [GM] to resist the herbicide. Wait a minute. When you add a contentious body of independent, new research conducted in the US, you are witness to an alarming prospect — that glyphosate may trigger abortion and sterility in farm animals. What next? We are not sure yet.
Other research studies, likewise, implicate that glyphosate may be just as toxic to human placental cells, especially in farm workers exposed to high concentrations. This is not all. A study in Europe found that glyphosate levels in human urine exceeded ‘safe drinking water’ limits. All the same, advocates of the herbicide insist that farmers do not use ‘pure’ glyphosate anyway — they also suggest that there are far more toxic ingredients than glyphosate used in the world today.
The ‘counter-punch’ is there are some indubitable reasons why more and more people are being exposed to the dangers of glyphosate. It is a different thing that researchers cannot disrupt, or tweak, our metabolic process. What actually wobbles such a process are microbes — in addition, we may be harming our inner biological canvas, no less, with other powerful gut, or intestinal, herbicides whose deleterious effects have not been fully understood, or established. As researchers grapple with newer pesticides and herbicides and explore the idea, the jury is out that glyphosate may also exterminate several species of beneficial or ‘good’ gut bacteria, while not affecting harmful, or ‘bad,’ gut bacteria like E coli — an epidemic in cattle. One shudders to think of the likely impact the same bacteria, which have colonised the human species, may possibly have.
Our gut bacteria play a key role in maintaining our health and wellness. On the contrary, an unhealthy microbiome, as new studies reveal, may ‘trigger’ obesity and inflammatory diseases of the gut, such as inflammatory bowel disease [IBD]. Newer research also points out to a potential long-list of health disorders that glyphosate, in combination with other environmental toxins, could contribute to — depression, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], autism, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS] — also referred to as motor neurone disease — multiple sclerosis, cancer, infertility and developmental defects. Now, you will understand where this could all lead to.
It is imperative, in the whole context, that we warily took a dekko at the origin of our food. Here is how it goes. Conventionally-produced vegetarian produce and animal products are often grown or fed from farming practices that make use of factory-farmed manure and raw human sewage. The fact today is animal and human excreta are extraordinarily toxic. They apparently include a vast array of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, hormones and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, not to speak of pathogens that ‘taint’ our food and also our bodies — if we opt to eat them, which we do because of certain compulsions. We are not talking of another perilous dimension yet — the use of nuclear waste-based food irradiation and ‘bacteriophage’ sprays, to disinfect inherently toxic food, which produce different and far more hazardous compounds as a consequence.
Yet, the paradox lingers — non-organic lobbies are increasing the amounts of anti-microbial pesticides and herbicides in our food. What is worse is — we do not have adequate data as to how much we’re exposed to such chemicals, in the first instance, on the periphery, within us, or elsewhere. Yet another downside is glyphosate, to cull a classical example, is a difficult customer to ‘test’ for. The fact also remains that many farmers have embraced glyphosate’s genetically-modified [GM] seeds with alacrity. In the US alone, it is estimated that over 300 million kg of glyphosate are spread on fields and farms each year. And, the usage is expanding just as rapidly. If this does not echo the distress call, or be a formula for disaster, what is?
Is there a way out? Yes, there is. It isn’t easy though. Nevertheless, it is time we stalled that archaic, ‘rationally’ unrefined exemplar that disease or illness is, for the most part, caused by germs in the environment, rather than viewing our risk of infection as being principally determined by immune vulnerabilities within us.
We need to go for a paradigm change, if not shift, and drastically alter our understanding of health and illness, if we are to endure the indiscriminate demolition of our biosphere, while refraining from supporting, endorsing, buying, or consuming food produced through ‘dubious’ non-organic, or chemical, farming practices. We also need to respect and revere our body — which is encased grandeur, derived from the molecular framework of the cosmos. If we don’t, we will have to only blame ourselves for genetically-modifying [GM] not only nature and the environment, but also vilifying ourselves — in mind, body, spirit and soul.