Mom Guilt and the Glyphosate Saga

Kavin Senapathy

Nothing raises a parent’s hackles more than the thought of harm coming to their child. Manipulating that instinct is no new marketing trick and neither is the special flavor of fear mongering directed at moms—often rooted in the evidence-scarce, reductionist, and sexist notion that mothers should rely on emotion and mommy instinct rather than evidence, that dads are best relegated to the parenting sidelines, and that the views of non-parents don’t count when it comes to protecting our children.

This is perhaps no better represented than in the glyphosate saga. The active ingredient in Roundup, glyphosate is the ubiquitous herbicide (and crop desiccant) mired in a weighty controversy that raises questions about corporate control of our health and food system, our understanding of risk assessment, our environment, transparency in industry and science, and food justice. Glyphosate is often used with “Roundup Ready” (RR) crops genetically engineered to tolerate it. I often say that “GMO” is the bogeyman of the food world, representing all of the very real (and some perceived) ills of the food system. Indeed, it was an open letter from me and other science-minded moms asking celeb moms to “weigh GMO foods with facts, not fear” that led to the Science Moms movie and later the SciMoms project. And when it comes to “GMOs,” glyphosate is the ultimate hot button. Opponents of the herbicide, many of whom call for a ban, say that it’s responsible for the purported rise in cancer incidence, autism, damage to the gut microbiome, and more, and that it wreaks havoc on the environment and non-target organisms. Proponents say that, when it comes to herbicides, glyphosate is one of the safest and most effective, that there is no compelling evidence it affects the microbiome at environmentally relevant exposures, that its categorization as a probable carcinogen is fundamentally flawed, and that banning it would mean reverting to more caustic formulations.

(Author’s note: I put “GMO” in quotes because it’s a social construct. The polarization around “GMO” and the movement against it perpetuate harm, as I’ve discussed extensively. To be clear, none of this is to say that the “pro-GMO” movement isn’t also problematic, including the far too popular notion that “anti-GMO” means “anti-science,” and that science and safety should be our only inquiries. As the SciMoms and I have explained, “Questions about which crops to grow and for whose benefit, are rooted in values, not science.”)

Much has been written about glyphosate and Roundup, so I won’t delve into the science for the purposes of this article. For those who want more details, I highly recommend starting with Iida Ruishalme’s “17 Questions on Glyphosate” series, Dr. Alison Bernstein’s piece on acute and chronic toxicity assessments (is glyphosate really less toxic than caffeine, and is that even a sound comparison?), and Dr. Andrew Kniss’ several posts on the herbicide. The National Pesticide Information Center (a cooperation between Oregon State University and the U.S. EPA) provides a detailed fact sheet.

What I do want to talk about is the mom guilt woven through the glyphosate battle, which follows the pattern of sexism targeted at moms in the larger “anti-GMO” movement (and the natural parenting movement, among others) that I’ve covered extensively in my work.

Though it may come as a surprise, especially to women and moms who pride themselves on being savvy shoppers, it’s no secret that we’re among the most coveted demographics of the non-GMO marketing machine.

Jeffrey Smith, one of the stars of the anti-GMO movement and founder of the inappropriately-named Institute for Responsible Technology boils it down to the 5 “most receptive demographic groups to switch to non-GMO eating.” Along with pet owners, those suffering from chronic conditions, and religious folks who think GMO stands for “God Move Over,” Smith said in a 2015 video that moms, “especially moms with children suffering from chronic conditions, or those trying to prevent those chronic conditions,” are a lucrative target group.

Most recently, a slew of news outlets raised the alarm over a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) finding trace amounts of the herbicide in several “children’s” breakfast foods, including CBS News, Mic, CNN, The Hill, and more. Note that EWG receives a large portion of its funding and support from organic industry players such as Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farms.

Fortunately, as it often goes, the “[Scary Substance] in Children’s Food or Other Products” headlines were quickly followed by “Actually, You Don’t Need to Worry About [Scary Substance] in Kids’ Food” articles. In this case, Slate (where I sometimes contribute) set the record straight with “You Don’t Need to Worry About Roundup in Your Breakfast Cereal” and Mashable laid out a solid case to not worry about the Roundup in your morning oatmeal. For those who like a visual debunk, Know Ideas Media put out a video aiming to get to the bottom of EWG’s findings.

As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere between the “Oh my lord my kids are eating Roundup!” and “chill out, there isn’t any pesticide in your corn flakes” extremes. As widely used as the herbicide is and as sensitive as techniques for measuring its presence has become, EWG’s claims about the amounts of glyphosate their analysis detected in tested cereals weren’t particularly surprising to me. In a nutshell, the glyphosate levels detected in some of the cereal samples crossed EWG’s “child-protective health benchmark” threshold of 0.01 mg/entire human child/day, which is naturally alarming at first glance. But it turns out that your elementary schooler would have to scarf hundreds of bowls of Quaker Dinosaur Eggs Instant Oatmeal to consume the EPA’s reference dose (RfD, or estimate of daily exposure that would not cause adverse effects throughout a lifetime) of 2 mg/single kilogram of bodyweight/day. EWG’s much lower threshold isn’t based in evidence that EPA’s RfD is too high to be safe (the Slate piece linked above thoroughly explains the discrepancy between the two). Alas, as this column’s readers know, even the most thoroughly sourced and compelling refutations face an uphill battle in dousing the fear flames once they ignite and spread through mainstream news and take hold on social networks.

Not to say that alarm isn’t an appropriate initial response to learning that there’s a harmful pesticide in our Nature’s Path Organic Honey Almond Granola. It’s not foolish, it’s human. Frankly, exploiting consumer fear is a tried and true EWG tactic, and they’re quite good at it. Known best for its annual Dirty Dozen list of fruits and veggies to purchase organic to avoid “toxic” pesticide residues, EWG’s grip on Americans’ sense of well-being has held steady despite repeated censure from scientists for methodological flaws in evaluating produce items, cosmetics, sunscreen, and more. While eating more fruits and veggies is among known, science-based ways to reduce the risk of certain cancers, obesity, type 2 diabetes, a 2016 survey suggests that fear-based messaging about pesticides in produce may discourage low-income shoppers from purchasing the items on these lists altogether. (Disclosure: I attended a tour hosted by the Alliance for Food and Farming, during which I attended a presentation by an author of the referenced Nutrition Today study. I received a small honorarium for attending this tour and sharing social media updates.)

Glyphosate is among the most conductive lightning rods to manipulate parents’ fears about feeding our children food that, in the developed world, has never been more abundant, safe, or accessible (whether that food is “healthy,” or whether it’s equally accessible to ALL people in the developed world is an entirely separate and crucial discussion). But even though glyphosate levels in cereal don’t even come close to the EPA’s threshold—which was set in 1993, decades before the Trump presidency—that doesn’t matter in EWG’s quest for moms’ hearts and wallets. Not only has EWG been blasting its email list with its testing results, replete with stock photos of concerned women in cereal aisles and innocent chubby-cheeked toddlers eating Cheerios (the mailings are under copyright so I won’t screenshot them here) these organizations thrive on stoking distrust of government agencies. And that works really well because, well, “legal is not the same as safe” probably sounds a hell of a lot more convincing to the typical scared parent than, yeah there’s a teeny tiny bit of glyphosate in your cereal, but don’t forget the dose makes the poison from a food industry Goliath to EWG’s ostensible David. (I’m not basing this last sentence on data, but take it from me, a mom who believed not long ago that arsenic in apple juice is a scary thing because Dr. Oz said so.)

As I mentioned, scaring moms about “GMOs” and glyphosate is nothing new, nor is EWG the only culprit. Take Moms Across America (MAA), which aims to raise awareness about “GMOs and toxic exposures.” Sounds benign enough, before digging into the harmful claims powering the MAA machine. On the EWG report, MAA urged:

Every person who reads this to throw out not just Cheerios and Quaker Oats, but all non-organic foods, especially processed oat and wheat products because we now know that they likely contain high levels of glyphosate. We urge you to buy organic, whole foods, and as plant-based as possible. We know it costs more money to make this switch. The fact is that it costs far less to buy organic food than it does to pay for the doctor’s bills that accrue when you eat the Standard American Diet (SAD)[.]

MAA’s founder and director Zen Honeycutt is known in skeptic circles for suggesting that glyphosate causes infertility, cancer, mental illness, infectious diseases, and more—and for selling supplements that claim to mitigate the “everyday toxic burden we all bear.” She’s also known for asserting that non-parents shouldn’t have a place at the table because they “haven’t had a being come from” their bodies (the one time I addressed Honeycutt face-to-face, she brushed off the scientific opinion of my friend and fellow science activist Dr. Karl Haro von Mogel because he’s not a dad. The culmination of that confrontation appears in the Food Evolution documentary). CBS News quoted Honeycutt on the cereal scare saying, “[w]e want to trust that what is in the grocery store is safe and the shocking reality is that in many cases it’s not.” According to Honeycutt, a glyphosate ban is warranted for myriad reasons, including one described at Exposing Autism One:

1) Human wombs are full of salt water (amniotic fluid contains electrolytes, proteins, sugars, lipid and phospholipids and is not like seawater) and 2) fetuses look like shrimp (comparative embryology is a field of study, but it doesn’t mean what she thinks it means). In other words, because human fetuses are like womb shrimp, glyphosate is responsible for all modern medical problems. That is not how anything works. It’s so wrong, it’s “not even wrong” as people say.

There’s way more where “womb shrimp” came from but it could fill several more articles, so I’ll move on for now. 

As predatory as organizations and industries that prey on parents’ fears have proven, it’s important to stress again that several of these fear-driven movements in the food and health spheres are rooted in some very justified concerns. There are plenty of facts to show that we should worry about our kids’ breakfasts. Obesity rates have risen dramatically, children are bombarded with predatory marketing of added sugars and empty calories, and far too many kids don’t have access to nutritious breakfasts. As complex as tackling the challenges of the food system has proven, one thing’s clear—the EWGs of the world have done as good of a job of keeping consumers complacent as the Monsantos have. MAA’s motto is “Empowered Moms, Healthy Kids,” but being afraid of herbicide in our kids’ cereal isn’t empowering; it’s a distraction at best.

*Disclosure: I attended a tour hosted by the Alliance for Food and Farming, during which I attended a presentation by an author of the referenced Nutrition Today study. I received a small honorarium for attending this tour and sharing social media updates.

Kavin Senapathy

Kavin is an author and public speaker covering science, health, medicine, agriculture, food, parenting and their intersection. Her work appears regularly at Forbes, SELF Magazine, Slate, and more. Her chapter in the recent MIT Press book “Pseudoscience” is entitled “Swaying Pseudoscience - The Inoculation Effect.” When she’s not writing and tweeting, she’s busy being a “Science Mom”—also the name of a recent documentary film in which she’s featured—to a 7-year-old and 5-year-old.