Jessica Parry offers Roundup, a glyphosate-based herbicide that reflects the intimate ways chemicals flow between ecologies and our bodies in the age of the Anthropocene and how the dominance of a small number of corporations on our global food supply promotes a standardised package of GM herbicide-resistant seeds, herbicides, and fertilisers.
Museum of the Anthropocene: Roundup – Glyphosate-based Herbicide
Biting the land that feeds you.
Despite countless warnings on the adverse environmental impacts of extensive herbicide use, such as those presented in Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring1, profligate use of synthetic chemicals underpins the functioning of our global food system. It also reflects the intimate ways chemicals flow between ecologies and our bodies in the age of the Anthropocene.
How likely is it that glyphosate exists in your body right now? Unfortunately, more likely than you may think. A study on glyphosate presence in European bodies concluded that an average 44% of urine samples were positive for Roundup’s active ingredient.
Roundup was originally produced by the American agrochemical and biotechnology corporation Monsanto. However, in 2018 the corporation was acquired by German pharmaceutical company Bayer. The sale coincided with a landmark court verdict; a jury concluded Roundup contributed to the development of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Dewayne Johnson2. Since the trial, thousands of lawsuits have been filed linking Roundup exposure to various cancers and degenerative diseases. But what enabled the institutionalisation and domestication of a carcinogenic chemical?
Monsanto routinely negated the risks associated with glyphosate exposure by manipulating scientific research, discrediting independent studies, falsifying reports, bribing and coercing scientists, government officials and communities. This negation is evidenced in the historic neglect of the supply-side ecological costs associated with the extraction of elemental phosphorus. Extraction sites experience concentrated environmental and health risks, and residents are said to have sacrificed biological rights for consumer rights without full knowledge of the risks.
The Malthusian framing of modern issues by Monsanto contributed to an emotive image of futurity, defined by overpopulation and the inability of non-chemical agriculture to sustain a growing population. By drawing on language from the humanitarian lexical field they position themselves as a benevolent Western corporation holding the answers (in chemical farming and biotechnology) to modern problems. These political methods legitimised Monsanto’s presence in the global economy.
The global food supply is dominated by a small number of corporations who promote a standardised package of GM herbicide-resistant seeds, herbicides, and fertilisers. The monopoly they hold over food supply highlights a lack of international governance and accountability, a marker of our current political system.
The financial viability of Roundup is threatened by a trend favouring organic, or ‘eco-agriculture’ based produce, due to increasing health and environmental concerns of consumers. A leaked report from Monsanto reveals that if the American food chain became 16% organic, chemical farming would lose financial stability.
Herbicide use on local and individual scales, to tidy and neaten nature, reveals a flawed ideology concerning the value of nature. Rather than holding intrinsic value, nature that is out of human control is imagined as wild, unruly, and unproductive; therefore, requiring control and eradication. In the context of the Earth’s ongoing sixth mass extinction, defined by biodiversity loss and human activity as a geological agent, how long can humanity continue to bite the land that feeds it?
Roundup was contributed by Jessica Parry: “I chose the chemical herbicide as it draws upon the paradox of separating humanity from nature. The analysis of the object explores the Anthropocene’s chemical signature, elucidating the ways in which our bodies are chemically transformed and ultimately damaged. Since completing my Geography and International Development undergraduate degree at UEA, I have been working as the digital engagement officer for the community enabling team at Norwich City Council. This role involves working alongside incredible community groups, grassroots organisations, and local residents to improve access to local decision-making power, shared resources, and funding opportunities.”
1. Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (1962, Houghton Miffin). You can read about this landmark book and the work of Rachel Carson at rachelcarson.org.
2. Johnson v. Monsanto Co. Jury Awards Groundskeeper $289.2 Million in Landmark Monsanto Roundup Verdict from Baumhedlund Law presents the trial transcripts, exhibits and judgement against Monsanto. The website of the International Monsanto Tribunal documents the 2016-2017 hearings in The Hague.