CO-Horts Blog

Monday, June 1, 2015

Is Academia in Bed with Monsanto?

Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist

Source: Discover Magazine
Those of us who work at universities (especially if we work in agriculture or horticulture) are sometimes accused of being bought and owned by the big chemical and fertilizer companies - the Monsantos and Scotts of the world. Those who look unfavorably upon the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers suggest that those of us in academia are unable to conduct independent research, teach in the classroom in an unbiased fashion, or present public education without somehow endorsing the slathering of landscapes with pesticides. Heck, if you believe some people, you would think we run in the same circles as politicians or FIFA officials? Anyway..........

The reason I bring this up is because of a question I answered today that was submitted to the national eXtension Ask an Expert (AaE) system. In AaE, you can ask a question about pretty much anything - and some expert (associated with Land Grant universities across the U.S.) will provide an objective, research-based answer. Those of us who volunteer (yep, no extra pay...) to answer these questions receive an email notice that a question is awaiting our attention. We log in to the system, read the question, provide an answer - and the client receives our response to their question. Clients can submit photos of sick plants, insects, weeds, etc. for identification and diagnosis. When necessary, we can engage in some back-and-forth dialogue with the client. Now that the kinks have been worked out, it's a pretty good way for citizens to get questions on just about any topic answered without someone trying to sell you something.

Here is the question, exactly as received (from an Anonymous person), along with my response...and quickly followed by their response. I have yet to respond...

Legitimate Glyphosate education

Hello, I recently ran into a 'master gardener' representing CSU at a local hardware store. This person was about 15 feet away from 2,000 pounds of RoundUp. Why is it that CSU still condones the use of glyphosate when all the research points to cancer in humans, and detrimental effects both directly and indirectly of our pollinators?

My response:

 A couple of comments regarding the presence of a CO Master Gardener (CMG) at a hardware store where glyphosate/Roundup was being sold.

First, the mere presence of a CMG at this store (in proximity to bottles of Roundup herbicide) doesn't imply that CSU "condones" glyphosate use any more than does their presence condone or endorse any of the 1000s of other products sold at that store (like Toro mowers or Makita power tools). The CMGs are present at Q & A booths to answer home gardener questions - not to sell any products. CMGs provide advice that is based on the best-available research. For example, weed management advice for a home garden or lawn might include (as appropriate) the use of pulling weeds, cultivating soil, mulching, mowing/fertilizing/watering adequately - and even the use of herbicides (including glyphosate, where appropriate). We realize that some people prefer NOT to use herbicides on their personal landscapes, so provide options for weed management that utilize cultural practices. When people are open to the use of herbicides as a weed management option, we provide information on how to use those products safely.

We recognize that people will disagree on whether or not pesticides are "safe" for the environment, for wildlife, for pets, and for humans. We base any suggested/recommended uses of pesticides on research-based information regarding environmental and health safety (EPA and other Federal guidelines).

The recent news story about the World Health Organization's WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determination that glyphosate is "probably" (their use of the word) a carcinogen has generated a great deal of conversation about potential health concerns of glyphosate. It is important to note that the IARC does not conduct their own research; rather, the IARC reviews published research. Numerous scientists and government agencies around the world have suggested that IARC's interpretation of some of the research (which lead to their declaration that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen) was flawed - or that some of the research they reviewed was perhaps flawed, biased, or even discredited by other scientists. For example, one of the studies that the IARC relied heavily upon has been so discredited (referred to as the Seralini study) by other scientists that the author was forced to retract it from the journal in which it was published.

For some other scientific opinions on the IARC's proclamation on the potential for glyphosate to be carcinogenic, I would suggest this website:

CSU Extension can not (and will not) use information from groups like Beyond Pesticides because they do not present information in an unbiased fashion. They are openly unapologetic in their opposition to the use of all pesticides - even if the preponderance of research suggests that there are safe ways to use those pesticides for agriculture or in your own backyard. We base our landscape management recommendations on research that has been conducted at universities and by independent agencies - the results of which are then peer-reviewed for publication. While the peer review process does not work perfectly - and some biased or poorly performed research occasionally makes its way to publication - the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed, published research can be viewed with confidence.

I would suggest that you read (and compare the wording and citation format) of this document to the one you read from Beyond Pesticides - and hope that you will see the difference.

In our CMG program we teach using research-based information. We teach the CMGs, in their interactions with the home gardener, to offer a range of options for managing landscapes and controlling pest problems in those landscapes. And we encourage the CMGs to be sensitive to the preferences of individuals when it comes to the use of pesticides in their home landscapes - whether those individuals prefer NOT to use pesticides, or prefer TO use them. Our goal in sharing knowledge on landscape and pest management options is simply to be as unbiased as possible.

Thank you. Let me know if you have further questions.

And they responded...quickly...

Thank you very much. You answered my question. It's obvious to anyone paying attention that glyphosate and other pesticides, neonics for instance, play a huge role in the fact that we have enormous amounts of these products in our water systems, all the way out through the North American terra firma (and then some). The EPA has been clear in it's cooperation with private research, sure, funded by those that produce the chemicals in the first place. Some believe that CSU is 'educating' the public, when in fact, they aren't. Endless research, both in and out of this country points to the fact these pesticides, which are allowable from the EPA, are killing any pollinator with an exoskeleton, which includes them all I believe, and giving humans cancer. I can appreciate Beyond Pesticides as being bias, but I challenge CSU as an institution to perform the necessary research regarding neonics and glyphosate--but it won't happen. Because just like the EPA, grant funding from agribusiness keeps 'the lights on' so to speak. I'm a beekeeper, and when anyone within 3 miles of my home uses pesticides, it affects the bees. I hope that universities and states get on board one day with true education about our food supply. People spray RoundUp like it's water. Here's some interesting data from the EPA, nowhere in the world are these numbers OK. ""RoundUp use: from 85-90 million pounds in 2001 to 180-185 million pounds in 2007. Pesticide use: from 948 million pounds in 2000 to 877 million pounds in 2007 . . . still close to a billion pounds of toxic chemicals intentionally introduced into the environment and our food supply each year."" I appreciate your time here, and the well thought-out response. I never assumed that CSU endorses anything, other than education.
The response wasn't surprising. And while there is so much that I COULD respond to here, would it be a productive use of my time?  I'll consider responding...after I ponder the writer's revelation that the "obvious" has somehow escaped my attention throughout all of my years in academia, and that perhaps all of these past 20+ years of teaching really can't be considered "true education"? I'm sure (?) that these words weren't directed at me personally? Were they? Nahhh...couldn't be....not me! :) And as I write this, I realize with some horror that I never addressed this person's question of glyphosate and pollinators... a much less controversial topic, right?


  1. Bravo, Tony, for addressing conversations such as these. As horticultural professionals, when asked a question, we honestly try to answer as best we can armed with the best information available. For true professionals (and I use that word MOST literally), we look to unbiased sources such as those you're listed in great detail.
    You did a wonderful job answering her question while addressing her personal concerns. You offered resources, advice and information - exactly what she asked for. Again, bravo.
    Her reply was not to seek out additional information but to share her personal beliefs by way of stating them in the form of questions. She is entitled to her beliefs and opinions, but your job is done - you have sincerely, professionally and politely responded.
    This type of exchange occurs for many of us on a regular basis. We are obviously NOT in this field for power or wealth, we are in horticulture because we believe we are helping people create living environments in the best ways we know how.
    Keep up the good, unbiased work, Tony!

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