Following engagement with shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, cereal-maker The Kellogg Company announced Jan. 27 a commitment to phase out the use of glyphosate as a pre-harvest drying agent in its major wheat and oat supply chains by 2025.
Glyphosate is the most widely used pesticide in modern agriculture, known by its brand name of Roundup. It’s best known as a herbicide used on “Roundup-ready” crops genetically bred to resist glyphosate, including corn, soybeans and cotton.
The practice of applying glyphosate just before harvest as a drying agent is apparently common for non-Roundup-ready grains. According to Matt Liebman, holder of the Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and a fellow of the American Society of Agronomy, there are no statistics on how widespread this practice is, but a variety of weed-killers have been used as dessicants.
As You Sow’s website says, “Pre-harvest glyphosate use (also known as ‘desiccation’ or ‘harvest-aid’) is a lesser known use of glyphosate that has begun receiving greater scrutiny, since it may be greatly increasing glyphosate residues on a wide range of crops.”
The label for Roundup Power Max specifically envisions use of the pesticide on non-Roundup-ready crops. In Section 9.1, covering cereal and grain crops, the label cautions against treating more than 10% of the total field area to be harvested. It recommends allowing at least seven days between application and harvesting or grazing.
In a statement on its website, Kellogg’s said only that the practice “is not widespread in our wheat and oat supply chains.”
In recent years, glyphosate has become the subject of multiple court cases alleging it causes cancer. In March, California resident Edwin Hardeman won a more than $80 million jury verdict in a case linking his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to Roundup use on his residential properties. A judge later reduced the award by $55 million but didn’t throw the case out. Bayer, the German company that owns Roundup’s producer, Monsanto, is appealing the verdict. Thousands of similar cases are pending at the federal and state level. The pending lawsuits have driven down Bayer’s stock by 30%. (At press time, several media stories suggested that talks were underway that could lead to a comprehensive settlement of the Roundup suits.)
As You Sow said, “Scientists have connected glyphosate exposure to many public health and environmental harms, including cancer, kidney damage, endocrine disruption, and increased mortality of critical pollinators.”
The question of whether or not glyphosate is safe when used according to label directions is still being debated, however. The Environmental Protection Agency reaffirmed again in January 2020 that it found no link between glyphosate and cancer. In fact, one of the defenses Monsanto/Bayer has used in court is that it would have violated existing law to label Roundup as a carcinogen when the EPA has ruled otherwise.
The only health agency to have found such a link is the International Association for Research on Cancer, a semi-autonomous part of the World Health Organization. Its findings prompted WHO to class glyphosate as a Group 2A carcinogen in 2015, a ruling that helped spark the hundreds of current lawsuits against Monsanto/Bayer. Those findings have also prompted several governments around the world to restrict the use of glyphosate in gardens and croplands. The European Union is considering a total ban.
In November 2017, the news agency Reuters, working from documents in court cases, claimed that IARC suppressed evidence of findings by its own scientists that there was no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals.
As You Sow said it first filed a shareholder resolution with Kellogg on the subject of glyphosate in 2017. This led to “ongoing dialogue” between investors and the company, during which investors asked the company to reduce the use of glyphosate by producer farms. In particular, investors asked the company to eliminate the practice of applying glyphosate just before harvesting grains.
In June, the Environmental Working Group said it had found evidence of glyphosate residues in popular breakfast foods.
As You Sow filed another resolution for an upcoming 2020 shareholder meeting that urged the company to collect and report information on supply chain pesticide use; the proposal was withdrawn after the company demonstrated significant new commitments.
Christy Spees, As You Sow’s Environmental Health Program manager, said, “We are happy to see Kellogg’s leading the industry with this substantial commitment to reduce the use of a toxic chemical that is often left behind on the food we eat. We are hopeful that its action will lead other food producers to do the same. At the same time, we are also keeping our eyes focused on the ultimate goal of reducing agricultural use of all toxic pesticides in food supply chains and getting farmers off the pesticide treadmill for good.”
Liebman, the agronomy professor, said, “I don’t want it in my food, and I think it’s probably something most people wouldn’t want to directly consume.”