Is glyphosate damaging essential microbes in soil? A multi-year study sought to answer the question using real-world conditions.

Glyphosate (e.g Roundup) is the most popular weedkiller in the world, and that has made it a target for some disreputable competitors, primarily those in the organic food segment, who promote their own chemicals as alternatives. Their chemicals, they claim, don't harm soil but glyphosate does.

Their concerns proceed from a kernel of scientific truth but what they do with it is just plain deceptive. Glyphosate kills weeds by targeting the shikimate pathway, the biosynthesis sequence that creates energy in plants and also some algae, fungi, and bacteria.  No energy for plants means no growth. Since bacteria, in the form of soil microbes, may benefit soil health(1), opponents of glyphosate say that targeting the shikimate pathway to kill weeds must also be killing bacteria and therefore ruining the soil(2) and should be replaced - conveniently by the more toxic alternative chemicals they sell. 

Forget what you may choose to believe about weedkillers, their claims fail a simple logic test; it is established fact that glyphosate increases food yields which could not happen if it was killing soil, because dead soil would reduce yields.(3)

Either soil is important to plants or it isn't, but it can't be both irrelevant and necessary to protect from one particular pesticide - but not older ones like organic-endorsed copper sulfate that require more applications and are more toxic to the rest of the ecosystem.

A recent study also showed scientifically their concerns were as unfounded as their knowledge of plant biology. Which means they will have to go back to claims like that an increase in glyphosate is directly related to an increase in autism.

So why do opponents of agriculture argue this?

In a world where any hazard has equal risk to any other hazard, a world where dose does not matter (e.g. epidemiology from International Agency for Research on Cancer in France or the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) any presence of a chemical that kills microbes can be deemed bad, but in the real world dose does matter. And microbes are diverse. Some do have the shikimate pathway, some do not. 

Everyone has heard of GMOs - genetically modified organisms - by now, because Non-GMO Project sells 65,000 stickers so people can be comforted if they do not have GMOs in their toilet paper or rock salt or whatever business segment is buying a sticker this week.(4) GMOs were first created to make insulin but they took off for food when scientists used the gene from a bacteria that was not sensitive to the shikimate enzyme to make a plant that was not going to be killed by the glyphosate which blocked it, while weeds still would be eliminated. They used nature to optimize nature.(5)

To prior generation of biologists and chemists and farmers, this was the breakthrough of the century. With a GMO the same amount of food could be grown using fewer chemicals. That brought prices and environmental strain down. Everyone wins when basic necessities like food and energy are lower cost, progress and culture bloom, and the breakthrough for agriculture meant developing nations who simply have less agreeable soil could feed themselves.(6)

A few years later, the Clinton administration gave a tiny segment of farmers who had preached since the 1940s that modern agriculture was bad for their health a government helping hand. The United States Department of Agriculture gave these so-called "organic" farmers their own panel and permission to create a USDA Organic Seal of Approval.

USDA stated plainly that this was only a marketing distinction so the organic industry knew they would have to get creative to get people to pay more for the same food grown using old pesticides. So they began to suggest that their older pesticides were safer for both people and the environment. They couldn't come right out and claim that without FDA cracking down so they paid academics like Chuck Benbrook to say it. They created trade groups to groom politically allied journalists at outlets such as Mother Jones. Claims that an old pesticide was better than a modern one didn't work very well - why wouldn't farmers use old ones if they were better? - so then they focused on GMOs.

GMOs, a way to use biology to reduce pesticides, were something that Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring endorsed, but became the enemy of environmentalists.(7)

What the science actually shows

Instead of harming soil, numerous studies have shown under 1% of all microbes are impacted at all. Weedkillers cost money and conventional farmers don't have the lucrative profit margin that their organic counterparts selling to wealthy elites have. They think about data, they think about costs.

The 2022 study used real-world data, not mice with tubes of pesticides injected into their stomachs, and was done over a four-year period. If there was an effect, the paper would have found it. Instead, they found only one minor effect, and organic farmers aren't funding any studies to show the impact of their pesticides.

Only one state does not exempt organic farmers from having to disclose how much chemical stuff they use, California, and it revealed that organic farmers use up to to 600 percent more chemicals per calorie produced.

Glyphosate is in its 50th year, which means if the organic industry was getting a special seal from a president today, it is so old it would be included as organic. Just like pesticides from 1940 that lobbyists and farmers decided would be exempt from USDA oversight.

Thanks for nothing, President Clinton.


(1) Soil is even important to different kinds of plants. There is a reason that you can't take a Burgundy grape vine and stick it in North Dakota and get the same wine and that's because the terroir of the Burgundy region matters also.

(2) Trial lawyers wish their allies in the organic food industry would stop talking about soil because by focusing on the shikimate pathway and the fact that glyphosate only works on organisms with it, they undermine 'glyphosate is causing cancer' claims they have promoted to get settlements from juries. Humans do not have that pathway, nor do any mammals, which is why studies of farm workers who use the compound show no difference in cancer rates.

(3) Organic food trade groups circle the wagons around their clients pretty vigorously. Any plant will deplete soil, from weeds to corn, which is why farmers move their fields around and let areas rest. Some groups have taken to growing plants without any soil at all, which is obviously the best way to benefit soil, but those foods can't buy an organic sticker. Organic farmers and the 80 groups that make money selling them certifications prevent that, saying that without depleting soil they can't be organic food.

(4) Not a joke, Non-GMO Project sells stickers for toilet paper. if you don't think genes can hop off your toilet paper, invade your colon, and transmogrify into Frankenpoop, you will never get a Non-GMO Project certification.

(5) When demonizing biological science became lucrative, this became called Frankenfood. Frankenstein was the scientist in the Mary Shelley novel who created a monster, but he did so using grafts, not genetics. Grafts are certified organic, so the Frankenstein monster would receive a Non-GMO sticker today. Activists often don't know enough science or literature to recognize real scares versus fictional ones.

(6) Shortly after that the same Clinton administration that killed nuclear energy research and exempted alternative medicine from FDA approval for its constituents also created an organic marketing certification. It became no surprise that if you then sought to find an anti-energy, anti-vaccine, or organic food believer, you could simply draw a radius around wherever a Whole Foods popped up. They were all the same people - and overwhelmingly voted the same way.

(7) You have to pivot. Both Sierra Club and Planned Parenthood were created by eugenicists who wanted to use artificial selection to create more elites, but after Hitler took eugenics to the logical extreme that non-progressives had warned about, and America then had to stomp Nazis into oblivion, they wisely changed the framing of their goals to be protecting nature and promoting birth control. It is thus no shock food activists had to dismiss Rachel Carson's beliefs on everything except DDT to promote their revenue.