The issue isn’t clear-cut, however

By Tim Nelson
October 25, 2018
Christoph Hetzmannseder/Getty Images

Is cereal a soup? Who knows—and frankly, who cares! There’s an even more pertinent question these days: “Is cereal laced with the active ingredient in weed killers like Roundup?”

According to yet another study into the subject, the answer is yes. New data published by the Environmental Working Group found that 26 out of 28 Quaker products and Cheerio varieties contained glyphosate in levels above “what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health.” In this case, any cereal or oat product tested with more than 160 parts per billion of the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide and crop desiccant meets EWG’s criteria for a positive test.

While such conclusions certainly seem alarming, it’s worth noting that the EWG report uses a lower threshold to declare a positive pesticide test than other health organizations. In 2015, the WHO and UN released a joint report which concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.” These findings contradicted an earlier WHO cancer agency declaration that the chemical was “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

The EPA considers 30 parts per million to be an acceptable threshold for glyphosate in human food. The organization has declared at least as far back as 1993 that “chronic dietary risk posed by glyphosate food uses is minimal.” A draft risk assessment published by the environmental agency in late 2017 reiterated “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans”, though it’s worth noting that the EPA was headed by ethically dubious environmental deregulator Scott Pruitt at the time of its publication.

The discrepancies between the exacting standards of EWG, a lobbying organization funded by “private foundations, individuals, online donors and socially responsible companies,” and more ‘official’ organizations has given the accused food companies ammo to counter what they see as a set of alarmist conclusions.

“[The] EWG report artificially creates a 'safe level' for glyphosate that is detached from those that have been established by responsible regulatory bodies in an effort to grab headlines," Quaker said in a statement quoted by PR Daily.

Similarly, General Mills opted to absolve themselves by somewhat cynically reminding us that glyphosate is pretty much everywhere. “Most crops grown in fields use some form of pesticides and trace amounts are found in the majority of food we all eat," the Cheerios maker said in a statement. "We continue to work closely with farmers, our suppliers and conservation organizations to minimize the use of pesticides on the ingredients we use in our foods."

Still, recent lawsuits strongly suggest the possibility that exposure to the ingredient in Monsanto’s weed exacts a real human toll. Reuters reports that the agricultural chemical company purchased by Bayer in 2017 is currently facing an astounding 8,000 lawsuits in the US related to glyphosate’s health risks, though these do not specifically blame dietary exposure. The first such verdict initially awarded the defendant $250 million in damages, though a judge slashed the payout to $39 million this week.

In the presence of contradicting conclusions, it’s hard to know for sure how much (if any) glyphosate we should tolerate in our food. The injection of lobbying money by everyone from Monsanto to organic food companies further clouds the issue. And given that any regulations or an outright glyphosate ban would force a significant overhaul of agricultural production, there’s a strong pull towards the maintenance of the status quo.

Still, there’s a good chance your major-brand breakfast cereal has at least some traces of weed killer in it. Do with that information what you will.