Is your orange juice full of weed killer? No. Who is making that claim, and should you be concerned?
Five years ago we all were treated to data claiming that corn was not corn. More precisely, genetically engineered corn was actually a concoction of chemistry that it could not be remotely biological. According to the source, it was lacking carbon, but was packed full of glyphosate and formaldehyde (which are carbon based). It also had a substantially lower “cation exchange capacity” than its non-GMO equivalent, which is odd, because that’s a soil test, and not one done on corn. But it sure had it. Whatever it was.
The data seemed weird because they were. They were fake. Manufactured. Pure bullshit.
The table was a soil test template festooned with made-up values by Moms Across America, a twisted group of food fearmongers that used the falsified data to stoke alarm among consumers. I debunked it here.
The bogus data come from the quaint era of manufactured fear when formaldehyde was the key chemical culprit, and about two years before glyphosate would hang as food activists’ favorite pinata.
Glyphosate ‘detected’ in everything
Since 2013 the science communication community and wacky food activists learned something important — you can fill a table with creepy numbers, ignite a great media scare, and the facts simply don’t matter.
Over the next few years we’d be treated to reports of glyphosate showing up everywhere, from beer to pretzels to organic wine to breakfast cereal. According to these results, the stuff is everywhere, including in places it could not possibly be. The reports receive wide media visibility, tainting public perception and convincing the average consumer that their food is killing them.
It is brilliantly devious. Most of these claims have been made by Moms Across America, an organization that knows that people will pay attention to numbers in a chart, and don’t really care where they came from. Charts look quite official and sciencey.
Now the Moms Across America claims that orange juice is full of high levels of glyphosate, which is odd, because oranges are not genetically engineered to withstand it. Glyphosate is used in some citrus operations to control weeds, but it is not applied to trees. If it was, it would kill them. The glyphosate applied to row middles degrades in the soil and is not taken up well by roots.
So where did the probably not a probable carcinogen come from?
The lab that did the detection is not an independent operation. It is run by John Fagan, a guy connected with the Maharishi cult and a staunch opponent of biotechnology. He apparently runs a lab in Fairfield, Iowa, the buckle in the corn belt, surrounded by fields sprayed with glyphosate. If there’s a guy that would want to find it, it would be Fagan. And guess what? He reports to find it.
Shortcomings in analysis
First, let’s start with the positives. The measurement was performed using LC-MS/MS, a technique that very well could detect glyphosate and accurately quantify it. The tested for glyphosate and its breakdown product AMPA .
What’s not to like?
No negative control. The compound is detected in everything, so there’s no way to discriminate between a signal caused from glyphosate and a signal caused by some other compound that behaves in the same way during the chemical separation.
No specific extraction method for orange juice. Detecting these compounds using these techniques first means developing a “method” to extract the compound. Every starting material behaves differently and chemistries break down depending on the solvents used and timing. The data provided were obtained from treating orange juice with a protocol developed for breast milk (where legitimate expert scientists failed to detect the compound when Moms Across America claimed to find it). This is important because the detection method looks for a signal with certain chemical properties, those of glyphosate. It is possible that orange juice contains something else that could mimic that signal. There is no way to know that without a negative control.
Single replicates. While the numbers are well within the range of quantitation for LC-MS/MS, there is no way to tell if these were double blinded and randomized, or if there were multiple tests for each sample. There’s no way to know what kind of variation there is within the test or between samples.
Work not published. All of these factors explain why the work appeared on a website and not in a peer-reviewed journal. It is not reliable, rigorous work.
Claimed levels are low — really low! Even if the detection was real, which it likely isn’t, the alleged amounts are remarkably irrelevant to human physiology. The claim is parts per billion. That’s seconds in 32 years. These levels would have zero effect on human physiology.
Enjoy OJ. Orange juice, not the ex-NFL great. The fact that glyphosate is not used on the trees, coupled to no evidence of reliable detection, coupled to the fact that the organization that commissioned it is known for promoting false information, makes this report destined for the dumpster like the rest of them.
It is curious that they did the same report last year at this time. It didn’t get much traction.
But 2018 is a great time to generate chemophobia around glyphosate. You don’t need sound methods, you don’t need good science, you just need a chart from a cronie’s lab that can be pumped through willing media networks.
It all is part of the elaborate plan where ideology trumps science, and a scary chart is more influential than the entire scientific consensus.
Kevin Folta is a land-grant scientist exploring ways to make better food with less input, and how to communicate science. This article was published with his permission. All of Dr. Folta’s funding can be found at kevinfolta.com/transparency.