Is South Africa ‘feeding its people toxins’, as the IFP alleges?

Comments 6

Claim

South Africa is feeding its people toxins [glyphosate], thus feeding the cancer pandemic

Source: Inkatha Freedom Party (November 2016)

unproven

Verdict

Explainer: Cancer risk due to weedkiller glyphosate in food deemed low, but testing is irregular

  • The Inkatha Freedom Party claimed that South Africans are at risk of cancer because they eat food containing glyphosate residue.
  • The weedkiller was classified as “probably carcinogenic” by an international agency, mainly because of environmental exposure studies.
  • The evidence relating to glyphosate in food is less clear and tests to detect levels in South African staple crops are dated.


“Why is South Africa poisoning its people?” asked Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in a statement released late last year.

This was after the party lodged a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission, a constitutional office set up to investigate the abuse of human rights.

In the letter written to the commission, the IFP included a number of claims about genetic modifications to maize and soya and their effect on human health. But they specifically zeroed in on a chemical called glyphosate.

Glyphosate is sprayed on commercially grown food crops that are genetically engineered to resist its effects. So while spraying it with glyphosate kills weeds, it does not kill the crops. (Note: RoundUp is the most common brand name under which glyphosate is sold in South Africa.)

The IFP wrote that because the World Health Organisation classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” (cancer-causing), “South Africa is feeding its people toxins, thus feeding the cancer pandemic”.

Does glyphosate contribute to cancer in humans? And if so, does glyphosate occur at high enough levels in South Africa’s food crops to likely cause cancer?

4 categories of cancer-causing agents

Central to the IFP’s complaint is the 2015 classification by the WHO’s International Agency for Cancer Research of glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic”.

Cancer-causing agents are classified into four broad categories:

  • Group 1. Things that cause cancer in humans, for example, tobacco smoke.
  • Group 2:
    • 2A. Things that “probably” cause cancer, for example, the former pesticide DDT,
    • 2B. Things that are “possibly” cancer-causing, mainly lab chemicals.
  • Group 3. Things that cannot be classified as whether they can cause cancer or not, for example, caffeine,
  • Group 4. Things that “probably do not” cause cancer in humans.

So according to this classification scheme, glyphosate’s potential to cause cancer in humans is quite high.

The evidence in humans was from studies of exposure, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada and Sweden. It showed some evidence of a link between glyphosate and a cancer of the immune system called non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Bear in mind, this evaluation is based mainly on environmental exposures, meaning farmers who have been exposed to glyphosate through their jobs,” Vernique Terrase, a press officer at the International Agency for Research on cancer, explained to Africa Check. “Therefore, we cannot comment on the exposure due to food residue.”

‘Glyphosate unlikely to pose cancer risk’

Activists dressed as crop-sprayers protest EU plans to relicense glyphosate, the controversial weed-killer, in May 2016. Photo: AFP/John Thys
Activists dressed as crop-sprayers protest EU plans to relicense glyphosate, the controversial weed-killer, in May 2016. Photo: AFP/John Thys

But the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), working with scientists from the WHO, reached a different conclusion.

They looked at all the available studies on glyphosate and cancer. While there was some evidence in isolated studies of a link between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and exposure to glyphosate, this disappeared in studies of large groups of people.

The joint meeting also evaluated studies where animals were fed the equivalent of glyphosate humans would typically eat. Even at levels 2,000 times higher than that there was no cancer-causing effect in the “overwhelming majority” of animal studies conducted.

The joint meeting concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk to humans when they are exposed to it either through food or farming.

Why the different conclusions?

While the two conclusions may seem to contradict each other, they looked at different issues, Gu Baogen from the pest and pesticide management team at the FAO explained.

The difference is that the first finding was based on a “hazard evaluation”, which looked at how likely the pure form of a substance is to cause harm to individual people, whereas the second finding rested on a “risk assessment”, which measured the effects of the day-to-day exposure to the substance.

Baogen said that as long as there is less than 5 mg of glyphosate per kilogramme of maize and less than 20 mg/kg of soya – the maximum residual limits set by the FAO – humans would be fine when eating glyphosate-containing crops.

Are South Africans exposed to glyphosate in food?

South Africa’s department of health has set a maximum glyphosate limit of 2 mg/kg in maize and 10 mg/kg in soya, below the international limits. The deputy director in the department’s directorate of food control, Maryke Herbst, told Africa Check this.

When the department’s forensic chemistry laboratory tested 40 samples of maize meal in 2012/13, “no glyphosate was detected”, the director of forensic pathology services at the department of health, Alida Grove, told Africa Check. We requested the results but the department did not provide them.

Given glyphosate’s “lower risk profile” and that “in general” the maximum limits have not been exceeded, the health department “has not prioritised glyphosate as a high risk active that needs to be frequently monitored”, director of communications, Ria Grobler, told us. She also told us that the department would, from time to time, reassess this situation.

The department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries’ Thilivali Nepfumbada told us the department does not check for glyphosate in maize or soya sold to consumers “because that is beyond our mandate and is a food safety issue”.

Nepfumbada said the department’s role is mainly in ensuring that pesticides are used properly – looking at how they are chemically made, what labels are on them, whether farmers are using them as recommended and how they are stored.

Conclusion: Claim unlikely to be true

While the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency stated that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic” based on studies of individual people exposed to the chemical, a comprehensive review of studies looking at its effect on animals and humans later found that glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer.

South Africa’s department of health limits the amount of glyphosate to less than 2 mg/kg in maize and 10 mg/kg in soya, roughly half of what the internationally accepted maximum limits are. However, the health department generally does not see the potential harm from glyphosate as a “high priority” risk and therefore only conducts tests from time to time.

In 2012/13, the health department’s forensic chemistry laboratory detected no glyphosate in food samples tested.

Still, without regular testing and publicly available information about glyphosate levels in food, the claim that South Africa may be “feeding its people cancer-causing toxins” is difficult to reject completely.  

Edited by Anim van Wyk

This piece was produced under a grant for global heath and development fact-checks from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Donors have no influence on the conclusions we reach. See how we are funded here.

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Comment on this report

Comments 6
  1. By Chris Erasmus

    This is a miserably inadequate report which has failed to take in latest (non-industry) research and is simply lazy, or worse, deliberately misleading when it comes to a full and complete assessment of any health risks attached to the widespread use of glyphosate and/or GMOs in growing SA’s staple food crops. In a single step, Africa Watch has utterly blown its credibility on this issue.

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  2. By Toren Wing

    Please re check your facts as you are either misinformed or mislead in this regard and it appears your only recourse to prevent further embarrassment is to admit and concede.

    Although it is decent of you to have changed your conclusion and include your conflict of interest, please check the following facts that unquestionably prove you wrong.

    According to report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food to the United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council you are now required to change the rating of the claim to “PROVEN”.

    A new report, being presented to the UN human rights council today is severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides, accusing them of the “systematic denial of harms”, “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions.

    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/07/un-experts-denounce-myth-pesticides-are-necessary-to-feed-the-world

    The full independent report is available here:

    https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/017/85/PDF/G1701785.pdf?OpenElement

    Finally the fact that the South African Human Rights Commission agreed to run a full review of the use of GMOs and Glyphosate in our country also means you can only have come to an incorrect conclusion.

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    • By Africa Check

      As a fact-checking organisation we research specific claims, relying on the best data available publicly and interpreted with the help of experts

      The claim in question specifically focussed on whether South Africans are “fed” glyphosate. The World Health Organisation, which classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic”, later helped reach the conclusion that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a cancer risk to humans when they are exposed to it through food.

      Given the lack of publicly available data on whether glyphosate does occur in South African food, we ultimately judged the IFP’s claim as “unproven”, a rating which we define as “evidence publicly available at this time neither proves nor disproves the statement”.

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      • By Toren Wing

        I would imagine that Africa Check being a fact checking organization, would by definition find itself compelled to revise its findings when new facts come to light.

        As such, for the sake of your reputation, i urge you to study carefully the findings of the Judges of the Monsanto Tribunal in the Hague delivered today, April 18th 2017.

        For ease of reference please click the following link: http://en.monsantotribunal.org/Conclusions. Within the link you will find the full text along with the summary of the advisory legal opinion interpreted and delivered by the Monsanto Tribunal judges in the Hague.

        The only fact that requires checking thereafter is the actual quantity of glyphosate and other related herbicides utilized in food production in South Africa annually. From this it can easily be deduced to what degree South Africa is poisoning its people and at the same time committing ‘ecocide’ as also described in the findings.

        Again, I ask you to concede and thereafter revise your articles judgement to ‘proven’.

        Perhaps a letter of apology to His Royal Highness, the Honorable Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, President of the Inkatha Freedom Party of South Africa could also be delivered by your good selves.

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        • By Africa Check

          As a fact-checking organisation we do and will update reports when new information becomes available. The Monsanto Tribunal’s finding again does not relate to the risk of contracting cancer from eating food containing glyphosate residue. We stand by our verdict.

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