I’m reluctant to raise concerns about flour when we’re only just now finding it again on grocery store shelves. But with the baking many of us are doing, it seems worth thinking about the fact that there are farmers in this country who spray conventionally-grown wheat crops with Roundup before harvest. This may be the first you’re hearing about the issue, or it could be a reminder about something you already knew.
Roundup is the brand name for glyphosate, an herbicide originally developed by Monsanto. It’s the most widely-used weed killer, not only in the world but in all of agricultural history. Farmers typically spray glyphosate over fields before planting crops in order to clear any weeds; they also spray it for weed control after planting as long as the crops were genetically engineered by Monsanto to resist, or live through, the spraying. But these typical practices are different from what’s happening with wheat.
Relevant to bakers everywhere, some farmers spray wheat with glyphosate shortly before harvesting it; this process is called desiccation. The idea is for glyphosate to actually kill the crop, drying it out so that farmers can harvest it sooner than if the plants were allowed to die naturally. But spraying any crop shortly before harvest will likely leave a residue of herbicide on the final product.
It pays to understand why any farmer would follow such a counterintuitive practice. In the case of wheat, it may be because crops have to ripen and dry on the stalk before harvest. For a wheat farmer, this is an inefficient and costly process and glyphosate offers a remedy. By spraying crops a week or two before harvest, farmers can speed up and synchronize the drying time of wheat. This practice is especially tempting in years with heavy rainfall or in places where growing conditions are wet enough that the wheat crop is slow to dry.
Using glyphosate before harvest is a practice we may want to pay attention to because it is thought to cause cancer. Bayer, which bought Monstanto in 2018 and took on Roundup’s legal troubles, just agreed to a $10 billion settlement of an estimated 95,000 U.S. claims arguing that Roundup causes cancer. There are still 25,000 more claims from plaintiffs who were not a part of this settlement, and there will be future claims from users of glyphosate who develop cancer down the road.
When I first learned about this issue several years back, I had a hard time believing it could be true. So I called a premier flour seller at the heart of U.S. baking, one that advertises its pride in the quality and sustainability of its products. The representative I spoke with confirmed that the conventionally-produced flour we use for baking, meaning any that is not certified organic, may carry a residue of glyphosate. Without mandatory federal labeling or transparency, it’s almost impossible for otherwise careful purveyors to know if wheat was sprayed prior to harvest.
There is some dispute about how many acres of U.S. wheat are treated with glyphosate because no one actually knows. On the one hand, there are farmers who say the practice is uncommon. On the other hand, the National Agricultural Statistics Service wrote that farmers sprayed about 12.4 million pounds of glyphosate on U.S. wheat crops in 2017. So how uncommon can it be?
Maybe we all need to decide for ourselves if this practice matters. If it does, we have two ways of knowing whether or not our flour may come with residues of glyphosate. The first is to have a trusting relationship with the farmer who grows the wheat. The second is to buy certified organic flour. This second option isn’t a perfect solution; due to pesticide drift, trace amounts of herbicide have been detected in some organic crops. But it is probably the more realistic choice if we want to be reasonably sure that all those baked goods we’re making are Roundup-free.
(Health-supportive chef & food educator, Ellen Arian teaches Online Sourdough Bread Baking and Butter Making Classes.)