UCSF Sustainability Stories


Ana Toepel, Green Impact, August 2019


UC and UCSF Say No to Harmful Herbicide Glyphosate

Photo Credit: Unsplash.com

Glyphosate—the most commonly used broad-spectrum herbicide and primary ingredient in Monsanto’s weed-killer Roundup—should probably be a household word since it exists in much of the food in our kitchens. Numerous studies by government agencies and public interest groups have found glyphosate in almost all grain products we consume. This widespread contamination and mounting evidence that links glyphosate exposure to cancer and various health issues have spurred 17 countries and many U.S. cities to ban its use. In May the University of California (UC) followed suit and suspended the use of glyphosate-based herbicides beginning June 1. UCSF had already eliminated glyphosate in 2008 and has been managing its landscapes without the herbicide ever since.

Glyphosate Is Prolific and Harmful to Health
Glyphosate is typically sprayed on “Roundup ready” corn and soybeans that are genetically engineered to resist it. Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains that glyphosate-based herbicides are also being increasingly used on a range of other crops that aren’t genetically engineered for “green burndown,” the practice of spraying crops just before harvest to kill them and dry them out so they can be harvested sooner than if the plant were allowed to die naturally. This means that crops are now likely to have higher residues of glyphosate.

EWG News and Analysis cites a range of studies—by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Friends of the Earth, US PIRG, the FDA, and EWG itself—that found glyphosate in a high percentage (ranging from 65-95%) of the foods they tested. In addition to corn and soybeans, these foods include cereals, pasta, pizza, crackers, tortillas, kidney and pinto beans, lentils, and chickpeas. It was found in some beers and wines as well. Maybe most alarming is the presence of glyphosate in products marketed to children such as oat-based cereals and granola bars; recent EWG tests found it in all 21 of these products that were sampled, most with levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective for children’s health.

These results are significant and concerning due to studies and determinations that claim glyphosate can cause cancer and other harmful health impacts. In 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified it as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and in 2017 glyphosate was classified as a known carcinogen by California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. In two large California trials during this past year, the juries’ verdicts pointed to Roundup and glyphosate as the cause of the plaintiff’s cancer. A recent study from the University of Washington showed that exposure to glyphosate increases the risk of some cancers by more than 40 percent. (Co-authors included Luoping Zhang and Iemaan Rana in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley.) Other studies have found links between glyphosate and potential health issues such as kidney disease, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, and reproductive problems.

UC and UCSF Join Global Voices against Glyphosate
Fortunately there seems to be a growing global movement to eliminate glyphosate. Besides thousands of pending lawsuits against Monsanto at the state and federal levels, bans or restrictions on glyphosate use have been implemented in many U.S. cities (Los Angeles and Miami being two of the most recent) and at least 17 countries across Europe and Asia (find list of countries here). Additionally, numerous non-profit advocacy groups, such as EWG, Greenpeace, and the Organic Consumers Association, have waged campaigns against glyphosate use.

In May UC gave a boost to the movement, with President Napolitano issuing a suspension (with some exceptions as necessary) on the use of glyphosate-based herbicides at all UC locations beginning June 1, 2019 due to concerns about possible human health and ecological hazards. Napolitano also noted they are conducting an expert review of the use of herbicides and potential long-term approaches, and she initiated the UC Herbicide Taskforce to provide guidance on next steps.

UCSF has been ahead of the game in this area, having eliminated glyphosate use in 2008 mostly in response to requests from the community. Since UCSF manages the Mount Sutro Open Space Reserve, it is responsible for protecting this important natural resource and collaborating with the community it serves. UCSF’s landscape manager, Morgan Vaisset-Fauvel, says his team manages both its open space areas and landscaping on all campuses without glyphosates or any other chemicals. Instead, it removes weeds and clears landscaped areas by hand, with goats, through burning, and, occasionally, using mechanization. When they are re-landscaping an area they design it in a way that discourages the introduction of weeds in the first place.

Vaisset-Fauvel admits there are challenges to chemical-free landscaping, such as the increased costs of using manual labor, the difficulty of preserving native plants, and managing for fire risk. Even still, he feels good about not using glyphosates and other chemicals and thinks there are additional benefits in terms of community relations. He shares, “This practice is beneficial in a city environment like this where we are in close contact with the community and for patients that come to UCSF to feel comfort in knowing they are not being exposed to toxins on our campuses. It is also important because everyone looks to UC to see what they’re doing, and chemical-free is likely the way landscaping is going—though there needs to be more education for gardeners and the public.”

Last year UCSF added two collections to the Chemical Industry Documents Archive in its Industry Documents Library that reveal actions undertaken by the agrichemical industry in defense of Round-up and other products: The Roundup Products Liability Litigation Documents (“The Monsanto Papers”) and U.S. Right to Know’s Agrichemical Collection.

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