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Glyphosate Factsheet 

Part 2 of 2
[ Part 1 | Part 2 ]

Caroline Cox / Journal of Pesticide Reform v.108, n.3 Fall98 rev.Oct00

[More on Monsanto and its products]

Effects on Nontarget Animals 

Beneficial insects: Beneficial insects kill other species that are agricultural pests. The International Organization for Biological Control found that exposure to freshly dried Roundup killed over 50   percent of three species of beneficial insects: a parasitic wasp, a lacewing, and a ladybug. Over 80 percent of a fourth species, a predatory beetle, was killed.138 Impacts on beneficial insects have also been shown in field studies, probably due to destruction of their habitat by the herbicide. In North Carolina wheat fields, populations of large carabid beetles declined after treatment with a glyphosate product and did not recover for 28 days.139 A study of Roundup treatment of hedgerows in the United Kingdom also showed a decline in carabid beetles.140 

Other insects: Roundup treatment of a Maine clear-cut caused an 89 percent decline in the number of herbivorous (plant-eating insects because of the destruction of the vegetation on which they live and feed. (See Figure 7.) These insects serve as food resources for birds and insect-eating small mammals.141 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified one endangered insect, a longhorn beetle, that would be jeopardized by use of glyphosate herbicides.142 

Other arthropods: Glyphosate and glyphosate-containing products kill a variety of other arthropods. For example, over 50 percent of test populations of a beneficial predatory mite were killed by exposure to Roundup.138 In another laboratory study, Roundup exposure caused a decrease in survival and a decrease in body weight of woodlice. These arthropods are important in humus production and soil aeration.143 Roundup treatment of hedgerows reduced the number of spiders, probably by killing the plants they preferred for web-spinning.140 The water flea Daphnia pulex is killed by concentrations of Roundup between 3 and 25 ppm.144 -141 Young Daphnia are more susceptible than mature individuals.145 The red swamp crawfish, a commercial species, was killed by 47 ppm of Roundup.147 

Earthworms: A study of the most common earthworm found in agricultural soils in New Zealand showed that repeated applications of glyphosate significantly affect growth and survival of earthworms. Biweekly applications of low rates of glyphosate (1/20 of typical rates caused a reduction in growth (see Figure 8), an increase in the time to maturity, and an increase in mortality.148

Figure 9
Toxicity or Roundup to Rainbow Trout or Different Ages

Folmar, L.C., H.O. Sanders, and A.M. John. 1979. Toxicity of the herbicide glyphosate and several of its formulations to fish and aquatic invertebrates. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol. 8269-278.

Young rainbow trout (swim-up fry and small fingerlings) are more susceptible to Roundup than adult rainbow trout.

Fish: Both glyphosate and the commercial products that contain glyphosate are acutely toxic to fish. In general, glyphosate alone is less toxic than the common glyphosate product, Roundup, and other glyphosate products have intermediate toxicity. Part of these differences can be explained by the toxicity of the surfactant (detergent-like ingredient) in Roundup. It is 20 to 70 times more toxic to fish than glyphosate itself.144 

Acute toxicities of glyphosate vary widely: median lethal concentrations (LC50s; the concentrations killing 50 percent of a population of test animals from 10 ppm to over 200 ppm have been reported depending on the species of fish and test conditions.2 

Acute toxicities (LC50) of Roundup to fish range from 2 ppm to 55 ppm.2 Part of this variability is due to age: young fish are more sensitive to Roundup than are older fish.144 (See Figure 9.) Acute toxicities of Rodeo (used with the surfactant X-77 per label recommendations) vary from 120 to 290 ppm.149 

In soft water there is little difference between the toxicities of glyphosate and Roundup.150 Also, if fish have not recently eaten, the toxicity of glyphosate (LC50 = 2.9 ppm) is similar to that of Roundup.151 

Roundup toxicity increases with increased water temperature. In both rainbow trout and bluegills, toxicity about doubled between 7 and 17âC (45 and 63âF).144 Treatment of riparian areas with glyphosate causes water temperatures to increase for several years following treatment l52 because the herbicide kills shading vegetation. This means that use of glyphosate could cause increased toxicity to fish. In addition, the temperature increase could be critical for fish, like juvenile salmon, that thrive in cold water. 

Sublethal effects of glyphosate occur at low concentrations. In rainbow trout and Tilapia concentrations of about 1/2 and 1/3 of the LC50 (respectively) caused erratic swimming.153, 154  The trout also exhibited labored breathing.153 These effects can increase the risk that the fish will be eaten, as well as affecting feeding, migration, and reproduction.154 Less than 1 percent of the LC50 caused gill damage in carp and less than 2 percent caused changes in liver structure.155 

Figure 10
Effect or Glyphosate on a Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria

Santos, A. and M. Flores. 1995. Effects of glyphosate on nitrogen fixation of free-living heterotrophic bacteria. Lett. Appl. Microbiol. 20:349-352.

Birds: Glyphosate has indirect impacts on birds. Because glyphosate kills plants, its use can create a dramatic change in the structure of the plant community. This affects bird populations, since the birds depend on the plants for food, shelter, and nest support. 

For example, a study of four glyphosate -treated clear-cuts (and an unsprayed control plot) in Nova Scotia found that the densities of the two most common species of birds (whitethroated sparrow and common yellowthroat) decreased for two years after treatment. By the fourth year post-spray, densities had returned to normal for these two species. By then the unsprayed plot had been colonized by new species of birds (warblers, vireos, and a hummingbird) which were not found on the sprayed plots.156 

An earlier three year study of songbird abundance following glyphosate treatment of clear-cuts in Maine forests showed similar results. Abundances of the total number of birds and three common species decreased. The decrease in bird abundance was correlated with decrease in the diversity of the habitat.157 

Black grouse avoided glyphosate-treated clearcuts in Norway for several years after treatment.158 Researchers recommended that the herbicide not be used near grouse courtship areas. 

Small mammals: In field studies, small mammals have been indirectly affected when glyphosate kills the vegetation they (or their prey) use for food or shelter. On clear-cuts in Maine,141 insect-eating shrews declined for three years post-treatment; plant-eating voles declined for two. (See Figure 7.) A second study in Maine after a Roundup treatment 159 found similar results for voles. In British Columbia, deer mice populations were 83 percent lower following glyphosate treatment.160 Another study from British Columbia found declines in chipmunk populations after Roundup treatment.161 In Norway, there was a "strong reduction" in use of sprayed clear-cuts by mountain hare.162 Other studies have not found impacts on small mammals,163 suggesting that the particular characteristics of the site and the herbicide application are significant. 

Wildlife: Canadian research has documented that plants serving as important food sources for wildlife are significantly damaged by glyphosate. "Severe" or "very severe damage" was recorded for 46 percent of the important food species eaten by moose, between 34 and 40 percent of the species eaten by elk, and 36 percent of the species eaten by mule deer.164

Effects on Nontarget Plants

As a broad-spectrum herbicide, glyphosate has potent acutely toxic effects on most plant species. There are also other kinds of serious effects. These include effects on endangered species, reduced seed quality, reduction in the ability to fix nitrogen, increased susceptibility to plant diseases, and reduction in the activity of mycorrhizal fungi. 

Endangered species: Because many plants are susceptible to glyphosate, it can seriously impact endangered plant species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 74 endangered plant species that it believes could be jeopardized by glyphosate. This list is based on the use of glyphosate on 9 crops, and does not include over 50 other uses.142 

Seed Quality: Sublethal treatment of cotton with Roundup "severely affects seed germination, vigor and stand establishment under field conditions." At the lowest glyphosate rate tested, seed germination was reduced between 24 and 85 percent and seedling weight was reduced between 19 and 83 percent.165

Nitrogen fixation: Most living things cannot use nitrogen in its common form and instead use ammonia and nitrates, much rarer compounds. Ammonia and nitrates are created by processes called nitrogen fixation and nitrification. They are carried out by bacteria which can be found in soil and in nodules on roots of legumes and certain other plants.166 

Studies showing effects of glyphosate on nitrogen fixation include the following: At a concentration corresponding to typical application rates, glyphosate reduced by 70 percent the number of nitrogen-fixing nodules on clover planted 120 days after treatment167; a similar concentration of a glyphosate herbicide reduced by 27 percent the number of nodules on hydroponically grown clover168; a similar concentration of glyphosate reduced by 20 percent nitrogen-fixation by a soil bacteria169 (see Figure 10); a concentration of glyphosate approximately that expected in soybean roots following treatment inhibited the growth of soybean's nitrogen-fixing bacteria between 10 and 40 percent 170; and treatment with a glyphosate herbicide at the lowest concentration tested (10 times typical application rates) reduced the number of nodules on clover between 68 and 95 percent.171 

All of the studies summarized above were done in the laboratory. In the field, such effects have been difficult to observe. However, use of genetically-engineered   glyphosate-tolerant crop plants means that nitrogen-fixing bacteria in field situations "could be affected by repeated applications of glyphosate." 170 

Glyphosate also impacts other parts of the nitrogen cycle. A Canadian study found that treatment of a grass field with Roundup increased nitrate loss up to 7 weeks after treatment. The increase was probably caused by the nutrients released into the soil by dying vegetation.172 

Mycorrhizal fungi: Mycorrhizal fungi are beneficial fungi that live in and around plant roots. They help plants absorb nutrients and water and can protect them from cold and drought.173 Roundup is toxic to mycorrhizal fungi in laboratory studies. Effects on some species associated with conifers have been observed at concentrations of 1 part per million (ppm), lower than those found in soil following typical applications.174, 175 In orchids, treatment with glyphosate changed the mutually beneficial interaction between the orchid and its mycorrhizae into a parasitic interaction (one that does not benefit the plant).176 

Plant diseases: Glyphosate treatment increases the susceptibility of crop plants to a number of diseases. For example, glyphosate increased the susceptibility of tomatoes to crown and root disease177; reduced the ability of bean plants to defend themselves against the disease anthracnose178; increased the growth of take-all disease in soil from a wheat field and decreased the proportion of soil fungi which was antagonistic to the take-all fungus179; and increased soil populations of two important root pathogens of peas.180 In addition, Roundup injection of lodgepole pine inhibited the defensive response of the tree to blue stain fungus.181

Both the inhibition of mycorrhizae and the increased susceptibility to disease have been observed in laboratory, not field, studies. Given the serious consequences these kinds of effects could have, more research is crucial.

Plant Resistance

Plants that are resistant to glyphosate are able to tolerate treatment without showing signs of toxicity. Although many weed scientists argue that "it is nearly impossible for glyphosate resistance to evolve in weeds,"182 others argue that "there are few constraints to weeds evolving resistance." The second group of scientists appears to be correct. In 1996 an Australian researcher reported that a population of annual ryegrass had developed resistance and tolerated five times the recommended field application rate.183

References note: hyperlinks within references have not been checked for accuracy. 

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