For years, an underground movement has claimed that the very food we eat—by virtue of the pesticides and herbicides we so commonly use—is poisoning us.

Until now, they’ve been (at best) ignored and (more often than not) mocked. Suddenly though, it looks like the joke has been on us all along.

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Can you trust the food you eat? | Photo: Chafer Machinery/Flickr

There’s a scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind where the Air Force subjects Richard Dreyfus and his fellow Third Encounterers to the media. The press conference is actually going pretty well, the media seem to be on the verge of believing these people—until one of them, a bearded old hermit type (Roberts Blossom) launches into a speech about how he once saw Bigfoot. Credibility: shot.

Such is the case, too, with people who’ve been trying to link celiac disease (and other ills) with the use of the herbicide glyphosate. Despite having long been treated like Bigfoot believers by their opponents, their research is now gaining widespread attention. More importantly, there’s a growing sense that the science has reached a tipping point: Glyphosate cannot be recognized as harmless.

“I’m always suspicious of these consensuses on [the safety of] agriculture chemicals—they almost always fall apart over time, and that may be happening with glyphosate,” says author and food activist Michael Pollan.

Introduced by Monsanto in the early 1970s under the trade name Roundup (and used primarily back then as a weed killer), glyphosate is now used throughout the world on wheat and soy crops and since 2007 it has been the most widely used herbicide in the U.S.—and the growing target of research linking it to a variety of illnesses.

“Since Monsanto first introduced Roundup into crops in 1974, there’s been a rise in autism and other diseases,” says Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-author, with Anthony Samsel, a retired environmental scientist, of the recent review claiming that Roundup leads to celiac disease .

“I’m certain at this point that glyphosate is the most important factor in an alarming number of epidemic diseases.”

Diseases ranging from autism, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes to pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Parkinson’s disease and—wait for it—the ongoing collapse of bee colonies.

But where then, beyond the work of Seneff and Samsel, is the proof? Well, there isn’t much hard evidence (only two long-term studies on the health effects of the chemical have been conducted). And for a complicated set of reasons. For one, historically, people who’ve challenged the biotech industry have been systematically discredited, says Pollan, “as we learned recently about Tyrone Hayes, the UC Berkeley herpetologist who ran afoul of Syngenta.” Also, there’s the just-as-hard-to-prove theory that no one wants to bite the hand that feeds them.

“Some of our scientists are the ones who are the most difficult—and the biggest impediment to better research—because they’re funding is dependent on the very same agrichemical companies like Monsanto that are producing Roundup,” says Dr. Don Huber, professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue University (who for years consulted with Monsanto scientists). “They’re not about to go in a different direction from the people who’ve been funding them.”

There are “absolutely potential adverse health effects from glyphosate,” says Hansen. But the strongest data is in cases of birth defects and non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Others agree. Many of them levelheaded, despite coming off like Oliver Stone.

“Monsanto and these other companies are doing an exceptionally good job at blocking all information and data on the subject from public discourse,” stresses Dave Schubert, professor and head of the Salk Institute’s Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory.

“There is indeed an enormous amount of published data showing that Roundup is very nasty stuff, particularly at the levels currently being used (ten times more than before genetically modified, herbicide-resistant crops) and the extent of human exposure in food—a greatly allowed increase by the EPA to reflect increased use.”

Not everyone, however, is so convinced—though many are still intrigued by a possible link. “Samsel and Seneff have produced a series of plausible hypotheses,” says Sheldon Krimsky, chairman of the Council for Responsible Genetics and Professor of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. “But that is all they are: hypotheses.”

Indeed, Krimsky himself, as sober as he remains in his reception to Samsel and Seneff’s study, cites a chapter from Earth Open Source’s 2012 paper, “GMO Myths and Truths,” in which, among many other things, glyphosate is called “toxic,” Roundup’s marketing campaign as a “safe” herbicide is “based on outdated and largely unpublished studies by manufacturers,” glyphosate’s acceptable daily intake level in the U.S. and Europe is “inaccurate and potentially dangerously high,” and “the added ingredients (adjuvants) in Roundup are themselves toxic and increase the toxicity of glyphosate by enabling it to penetrate human and animal cells more easily.”