Agricultural worker spraying his crops (Getty Images)

Why Dr. Zach Bush believes herbicides could end life on Earth

Dr. Zach Bush went from developing chemotherapy to fighting pesticide-makers


Nicole Karlis
October 14, 2019 10:00PM (UTC)
This article was co-produced with Original Thinkers, an annual ideas festival in Telluride, Colorado that brings speakers, art and filmmakers together to create new paradigms. Original Thinkers logo

Dr. Zach Bush will tell you he is “very much” trained as a traditional, patient-facing MD, yet you wouldn’t necessarily expect that given his present-day work. After studying internal medicine, which included a training on hormone medicine, Bush became interested in cancer research and started developing chemotherapy treatments. Yet he soon felt frustrated that his work was doing nothing to prevent the things that caused cancer in the first place.

“I went from that world of chemotherapy and drug concepts and drug development to the sudden realization that there had never been a cancer caused by a lack of chemotherapy,” Bush told me. “And so, no matter how good I got at making chemotherapy, I was always going to be missing the point, missing the root cause of the situation.”

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This realization redirected his focus to nutrition. Eventually he opened a nutrition center in rural Virginia. “And out of that experience, we realized that the nutrition of today on the grocery store shelves was not really working as it had in the 1960s,” he said. “And that took us down into this new era of chemical farming and the discoveries of the chemicals that were in the soils.”

That took Bush on a path towards studying glyphosate, the herbicide introduced by Monsanto in 1974 for agricultural weed control, and which is the primary ingredient in common consumer pesticides like RoundUp. In the late 1990s, Monsanto began creating genetically modified crops that were resistant to glyphosate, called "RoundUp Ready" seeds — meaning farmers could spray glyphosate heavily on their crops and expect that only the weeds, and not their crops, would be affected. The US Department of Agriculture notes that 90 percent of domestic corn crops are genetically modified seeds that are resistant to glyphosate or other herbicides.

The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen" in 2015. That would be fine and good if it was something that we rarely came into contact with, but, as a result of its ubiquity in crops like corn and soy, glyphosate has infiltrated much of our food system, and creeps into our diets unbidden.  As Salon's Matt Rozsa reported earlier this year, an Environmental Working Group study tested 21 oat-based cereal and snack products for glyphosate. 17 of then contained glyphosate at levels considered unsafe for children, including multiple brands of Cheerios.

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I spoke to Dr. Bush at the Original Thinkers festival in Telluride, Colorado; this interview has been condensed and edited for print.

Nicole Karlis: Can you share more about how you came to believe that glyphosate could be at the root of so many different health issues? 

Dr. Zach Bush: Yeah, it was totally by accident on my side. So, I was studying soil, found some carbon molecules made by bacteria and fungi in soil, and therefore, in our gut, as well, that had medicinal qualities similar to the chemotherapy [drugs] I used to make. And that was the sudden "Aha!" moment that closed the question of, "How come, when we're missing some bacteria, we get cancer?"

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And so, we had found these correlations, but we hadn't figured out causation. And when we found these molecules, I felt like I was starting to put the dots together between changes in the microbiome and cancer — we were suddenly missing this family of molecules that were capable of giving this "medicine" from the soil.

We started studying these carbon molecules in human cell cultures and [doing] experiments in cancer cells. And one of my chief scientists [had] the realization that this was causing cell repair to happen at a very rapid rate in gut cells, and the repair that it was doing was actually repairing the same injury that was caused by glyphosate, which is the active ingredient in Roundup.

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And so, in a roundabout way, we found the solution to it before I found the problem. I didn't know about the glyphosate issue, really. As I started researching glyphosate and Roundup in the context of the human health collapse, suddenly I found all of these correlations in the medical literature and soil literature, public health statistics, to show that this Roundup chemical was added to our food chain in 1996. And every year, more [is put] into the global environment ... [it] has really undermined, not just human biology, but biology in our water systems, soil systems, oceans, and now [is] destroying the ecosystem at large.

Some people might say "Well, I haven't used Roundup, so maybe I'm untouched by it." Is that true?

Unfortunately, it's a water-soluble molecule. As it evaporates, we start breathing it in our air, which has a high-water content, and then it ends up in our clouds, and it rains down. [W]e're at about almost four and a half billion pounds of glyphosate used in soils worldwide every year.

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What do you know that this chemical does to the human body?

The first thing it does is act as an antibiotic in the soil and in our gut, and so this molecule is taken up into our food. So, it's not something you can wash off. It's actually in the flesh of the tomato, corn, soybean, whatever it hits. And so, it's integrated in that water structure, and as it hits your gut microbiome [it] acts as an antibiotic to kill the microbial diversity in your intestines. We now know [this] is the beginning of chronic disease, many chronic diseases are now being mapped back to injuries in the microbiome. And so, as we wipe out the bacteria and fungi with this broad spectrum antibiotic in our food, we are killing the health of our animals, the livestock we consume, beef, poultry, pork, and everything else. So, we're making those animals sick.

As humans, we're seeing the same pattern. This epidemic of chronic disease has emerged from this collapse of the microbiome. The  glyphosate antibiotic holds our whole gut and vascular lining together. Those are called tight junctions, and the tight junction Velcros are responsible for creating intelligent barriers. Your gut membrane is the largest barrier to the outside world: it covers two tennis courts in surface area and is the thickness of half of the width of a human hair. So, it's this tiny microscopic cellophane-like covering that separates the outside world from your human biology. What glyphosate and Roundup does is perforate that membrane by destroying those tight junctions and creating something — that's now been called "leaky gut" in the public — in the medical literature it's called gut permeability — it increases gut permeability.

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And so, that injury starts to activate the immune system, and we become reactive to our foods. So, we develop allergies of all sorts, pollen allergies and environmental allergies, but also all the food allergies that have become so prevalent in our children today. And so, we lose the barrier system, and so at that point, not only have you become chronically inflamed, you're also literally losing self-identity.

How do we get rid of this chemical in our food system?

Step one: stop spraying it, so it dissipates in the environment over time. The way it does dissipate is through microbial digestion, so fortunately, there are microbes on the earth that can digest any toxin we can think of — because ultimately, the toxins we develop are just rearrangements of molecules that are already existed on Earth. If we stopped spraying today, over the next 50 years, we could see the toxicity levels drop to levels that we could probably tolerate better. We started a nonprofit called Farmer's Footprint that's working and training chemical farmers to learn how to farm without these chemicals. Our nonprofit is working to regenerate 5 million acres under this model over the next six years.

So, what gives you hope with all of this?

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The rate of repair is hopeful, so my hope is really steeped in the speed at which biology responds to just a little break. So, if we can just stop the injury for a moment, Mother Earth and biology itself has such a resilient nature. Life itself is resilient, and will repair.

It is possible that we're beyond the recovery of the human species where we've got maybe 60 or 70 years left as a species at our current trajectory of collapse.

Because of chemicals like glyphosate?

More than that, because of everything we're doing. I'd say Roundup is our public enemy number one probably, but that's one of 260 chemicals that are now prevalent in our food system. So, we have completely chemicalized the human experience and the planet itself, and so the level of toxicity has superseded the planet's capacity for life. We've lost [biodiversity] on the planet in the last 40 or 50 years, and so we're almost halfway done with this great extinction. And we're not paying attention to it very well. 

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If farmers stop using Roundup, how will that impact food costs?

[Not using Roundup can] save tons of money. It turns out, when we go into regenerative agriculture, the farmers make five times to 10 times their bottom line income in three to five years. And so, they can get themselves out of the bankruptcy that they're all facing right now by just stopping all the inputs — the amount of money that the banks are forcing them to borrow against our chemical fertilizers, chemical herbicides, chemical pesticides, and that bankrupts 6,000, 8,000 farms a year. And so, if we just stop those inputs and we go back to nature's natural cycles, we get healthy soil within three to five years, and the productivity of that farm explodes because not only is the crop yield starting to improve, [they're] also getting diversification of their income streams. And we've completely eliminated 90% of their costs. The income potential for these farmers is radical, and so because of that — because of those economic markers — I have real hope.


Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a news writer at Salon. She covers health, science, tech and gender politics. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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