Review: Glyphosate and the Swirl

Vincanne Adams. Glyphosate and the Swirl: An Agroindustrial Chemical on the Move. Duke University Press. 2023. Pp. 174. ISBN 9781478016755.

Pablo Lapegna (University of Georgia)

Welcome to the swirl.

In this insightful and riveting book, Vincanne Adams walks the reader through the different arenas in which the agrochemical glyphosate is at the center of epistemological, political, environmental, and legal controversies and conflicts. Once praised as “virtually ideal” and a “once-in-a-century” herbicide (Duke and Powles 2008), glyphosate has been increasingly embroiled in disputes over its toxicity, particularly as a carcinogenic substance.

Glyphosate is the active principle in Roundup, the commercial brand of an herbicide that is widely sprayed in the United States and around the world in lawns and genetically modified crops–grown from seeds that have been genetically engineered by modifying the plant’s DNA, so they are not damaged by the herbicide that kills weeds. Glyphosate has been particularly scrutinized after 2015 when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) from the World Health Organization recategorized it as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (IARC 2015). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) contested this re-assessment, arguing that there is no convincing evidence that glyphosate is carcinogenic to humans when properly used, yet using different criteria than the IARC (Benbrook 2019). Adding to this controversy, several different juries in the United States, in lawsuits brought by consumers against Monsanto, concluded that this company (owned by Bayer since 2018) did not investigate potential health risks of glyphosate exposure nor properly warned consumers about these risks. Several government agencies in the USA and Europe have reached a series of contrasting conclusions about the health risks posed by glyphosate (the nonprofit U.S. Right to Know, which has a critical stance towards glyphosate, provides a useful list of links to news stories, government reports, and studies on its webpage).

Adams uses the image of “the swirl” to convey the dynamic and unstable trajectory of glyphosate, and its elusiveness when trying to determine its health impacts or even pin down what this chemical actually is. Adams warns the reader that “No matter how much anyone might want to hold fast to the facts and materialities of glyphosate, they will be left with a dizzying sense of its ephemerality in terms of what exactly it is, despite its ubiquity” (9). The swirl evokes the maelstrom of evidence and claims mobilized by people who engage in battles attacking the negative health and environmental impacts of glyphosate or, conversely, who mobilize to dismiss these claims, assuaging the public and regulators about these dangers.

Eight sharp chapters (around 20 pages each) tackle the several dimensions of glyphosate and its involvement in a variety of scenarios. In Chapter 1, “From Blossoms”, Adams reveals her positionality by sharing where she comes from, that is, the co-author of a previous book entitled What’s Making our Children Sick? which offered a critical stance on the health impacts of food and agriculture. Yet Adams adroitly eludes elemental indictments (in this chapter and throughout the book), explaining that “I do have a position about glyphosate…I think we should be concerned about glyphosate. (…) At the same time, I am not trying to offer a simplistic tribunal against the scientists or companies of agrochemical industrialism.” (12-13).

In Adams’ invitation to “shift our focus from abject suffering to wider questions about how we live with the chemicals that have become ubiquitous in our times” (6), I read echoes of Sherry Ortner’s coming to terms with what she calls “dark anthropology,” namely, the perspective that “asks us to see the world almost entirely in terms of power, exploitation, and pervasive inequality,” which also tends to focus on “suffering subjects” (Ortner 2016, 50). In this pithy article, Ortner contrasts “dark anthropology” with the “anthropology of the good,” which focuses “on such topics as value, morality, well-being, imagination, empathy, care, the gift, hope, time, and change” (Robbins 2013, 448). I read Adams’ book as a potential alternative to these two approaches, as Glyphosate and the Swirl keep dark anthropology at bay without squarely falling into an “anthropology of the good” –a precarious balance that hinges on seeing non-human actors (in this case, glyphosate) as having agency, and being able to become allies or foes in conflicts but without having a moral stake on them. Adams’ struggle on how to take a stance on the omnipresent glyphosate also reminded me of Alexis Shotwell’s call to take on “Charting the space between complicity and pollution, between righteousness and compromise,” and her challenge to “perceive complexity and complicity as the constitutive situation of our lives, rather than as things we should avoid” (Shotwell 2016, 7, 8). Taking a page from the seminal works of George Marcus, Arjun Appadurai, and Anna Tsing, in this chapter Adams also outlines her “Follow the Chemical” approach that unfolds in the rest of the book.

Chapter 2, “Building the Food Chemosphere,” indeed follows the peripatetic life of glyphosate, born in the 1950s, patented as a chelator in 1964 to work as a pipe cleaner, and repurposed by Monsanto company in the 1970s as a weed killer. This chapter also reconstructs the intertwined lives of Monsanto Company and infamous synthetic chemicals like DDT and “Agent Orange.” Scientists at Monsanto repackaged glyphosate as the active principle in Roundup, a broad-spectrum herbicide. Glyphosate, in combination with other chemical partners in crime (like the surfactant POEA, which helps glyphosate penetrate the waxy surfaces of plants) became weed’s hitman. By the mid-1990s, scientists at Monsanto had also developed soybean seeds that were genetically engineered to resist the killing properties of glyphosate-turned-Roundup (building from the experience of creating other GM crops introducing the naturally occurring insecticide Bacillus thuringiensis into the DNA of plants). “Roundup Ready” soybeans were commercially released in 1996, but the main focus of the book is not how the GM crop-herbicide assemblage transformed agriculture.

Chapter 3, “Ontological Multiplicity & Glyphosate’s Safety,” traces the multiple forms that glyphosate takes, as “It is a chelator here, an herbicide there, a microbe killer here, a carcinogen there” (38). Adams addresses here one of the key dualities of glyphosate’s partner, that is, genetically modified (GM), herbicide-tolerant crops. What is called the “principle of substantial equivalence” allows the companies selling GM crops to eschew additional regulations, as they successfully argued that GM crops are not different from their conventional counterparts and thus don’t deserve ad-hoc regulations. These same companies, however, argue that the genetically engineered seeds from which GM crops grow are a novelty, and then subject to intellectual property rights. This duality is one of the many substantiations of the “ontological multiplicity” of glyphosate and GM crops.

When Adams ventures into how these crops have been adopted by farmers, however, her point is less nuanced. She endorses the view that thanks to GM crops and glyphosate, farmers have become a “zombie-like servile class for chemicals companies” (42). This assertion flies in the face of the assumption that most, if not all, actors have some level of agency. The claim is also problematic as this conclusion is not based on interviews with farmers or ethnographic data collected in farming communities, but on secondhand analyses that, in this reviewer’s perspective, do not seriously engage with the reasons why farmers wholeheartedly adopted GM crops and glyphosate-based herbicides. We may disagree with those reasons, but I would argue that, nonetheless, they should be taken seriously. Adopting GM crops and glyphosate-based herbicides, for instance, can be a strategy for farmers to stay in business in fiercely competitive global markets, thus affording the possibility of keeping their land and retain their identity as farmers.

Adams is at her best in this chapter when scrutinizing the logic underlying the regulations and agencies in charge of deciding what can be considered toxic. The multiplicity of glyphosate makes it a slippery substance, that can potentially be regulated by the FDA because it may be toxic if found in food, but since the FDA only regulates chemicals that are used as such (not as residues), it falls outside the agency’s purview. It can alternatively be overseen by the EPA because of its effects on the environment, but it is a “non-issue” for this agency “because the studies they rely on focus mostly on its travels as a chemical and not as a living thing or part of an ecosystem that takes it up” (49). Because the science of either of these fields is inconclusive, glyphosate can thus fall between the cracks and extend into the fields, and move from there to plants, bodies, and soils. Adams aptly concludes here that “The multiplicity of glyphosate has been one of its most ardent advocates, creating swirls of contradiction and concern in its wake but seldom creating singular affirmations of its potential harm or need for stricter management” (50).

Chapter 4, “Chemical Life, Clinical Encounters,” takes the reader into the swirl of how to consider the effects of glyphosate on people’s bodies. Assessing how this chemical affects what we eat is particularly hard to swallow when considering Adams’ insightful point that “One of the most urgent commitments in a post-Enlightenment approach to chemical harm is perhaps the effort to move past the problematic adherence to the idea that even if science got us into this mess, it can still get us out of it” (53). This chapter makes a foray into the pediatric clinic where Michelle, Adams’ co-author in What’s Making our Children Sick?, diagnoses children “whom she believed were injured by chemicals like glyphosate” (57). The chapter presents heart-wrenching stories of kids and their mothers suffering from a series of ailments, to whom “Michelle almost always prescribed some key interventions: remove inflammatory foods like sugar, gluten, and dairy, and shift to an all-organic diet to avoid extra chemicals in food” (60). We learn that in one of these cases, “Michelle went around and around with the family, trying to convince them that they would all be better off eliminating these foods, but she got little traction” (66). In my reading, there is another ethnographic opportunity lost here, as I believe it would have been interesting to learn more about the boy’s father, “who confessed to enjoy a jar of peanut butter with Mike,” his son (peanut butter being one of the foods Michelle forbade). I would have liked to see at this point an exploration of the tensions between the father/son bonding through eating peanut butter, and what one can argue is a privileged perspective (i.e., the mandate to eat healthier but more expensive organic food and avoid the cheaper and arguably unhealthy yet satisfying processed food).

Chapter 5, “The Scientific Consensus and the Counterfactual” cuts to the center of the swirl by taking a deep dive into the competing claims and the contrasting evidence over glyphosate’s toxicity, observing that “In the scientific archive, glyphosate has provoked a veritable war over the truth, wreaking havoc with something called the scientific consensus” (74). The chapter scrutinizes the regulatory systems that assess toxicity and how they used reductionist models of evaluation as they “moved from assessment to the development of reasonable policies about managing toxicity without eliminating the chemicals themselves” (74).

This chapter pries open the “scientific consensus” that deems glyphosate and GE crops safe. Adams swerves between the studies that endorse glyphosate and GE crops as generally safe and those that indicate negative effects on the health of humans and other animals. She shows how reports like Genetically Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects, published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM 2016) tend to highlight how genetic engineering foods may offer enhancements that have not been commercialized. This ultimately “serves to efface the reality that roughly 99 percent of GE foods are not designed with enhancements but are just Roundup Ready and Bt commodity crops” (84). Adams unpacks the mechanism of “shingling” by which the image of the scientific consensus is built, by a “layering of original studies, the metastudies that cite them, and the metastudies that cite the metastudies [which] gives one the impression that a preponderance of studies all point to the same conclusions, even though some are simply repetitions of the same studies” (85). She contrasts this with the “counterfactual archive,” which disputes the claims of the alleged safety of GE foods and glyphosate relying on other studies. People who have been following controversies over GM crops for some time would be familiar with the cases analyzed here (and the controversies they elicited) on the potential negative health impacts of GM crops: the work of Arpad Pusztai on genetically modified potatoes, of Gille-Eric Séralini on pesticide-resistant (Bt) and glyphosate-tolerant crops, and Andrés Carrasco (misspelled as “Andreas”) on the negative effects of glyphosate on frog and chick embryos. A valuable takeaway of this chapter about these contrasting studies is that “The argument taken up by scientists on both sides of the debate is that only one set of facts can be right. Few approach the subject with the possibility that researchers producing opposing results about the safety and harms of GE [genetically engineered] foods and pesticides could both be right in their own ways. (…) [C]ompeting claims are often a result of noncomparable research designs, like comparing apples to oranges” (95).

The chapter also offers analyses of the 2018 documentary/propaganda film “Food Evolution,” and the opposing initiatives of the “Gene Literacy Project” (a PR/divulgation website on genetic engineering, with the telling slogan “Science Not Ideology”) and “U.S. Right to Know” (which is critical of the GM crop/pesticide industry, under the motto “Pursuing truth and transparency for public health”).

Chapter 6, “Consensuses, Academic Capitalism & the Swirl” elaborates on the themes of the previous chapter and unpacks the complex meaning of “the swirl.” The argument here is that truth claims about glyphosate do not (or even cannot) settle because we live in an era “where it is no longer possible to claim either that industry investment in science leads to untrustworthy facts in relation to chemical harm or that the dissent to consensus views is a product of scientific ignorance and conspiracy thinking” (98). Building on the ideas of anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone (2015, 2017) on how and why takes on GM crops cluster into polarized views, Adams argues that glyphosate’s multiplicity makes it a focal point in debates over farming, toxicology, food, and the environment, working “at the boundaries between different kinds of science and evidence” (103), thus rendering conversations unintelligible and non-commensurate. Whatever claims people make about glyphosate, “you are likely to be able to find other studies that point to the opposite” (105). She seeks to capture this constitutive instability of glyphosate as an object of consensus with the idea of the swirl, offering it as “an alternative to the idea of a singular consensus, an ephemeral formation of certainty consisting of data, technology, publications, chemicals, and facts” (108). This is what makes not just consensus but debate over glyphosate so unattainable, because “there is no resting point, no black box that permanently stabilizes and closes off the facts upon which scientific work progresses, no sense of progression arising from the assemblage of things and social networks that allow us to move toward closure” (109), obfuscating defenders and detractors of glyphosate alike. Adams clarifies here that the swirl “is more than a metaphor,” because in her view, “the swirl produced by glyphosate is both in the knowledge systems about it and in the worlds it travels” (p. 112). The swirl, in short, is both semantic and material.

Chapter 7, “Glyphosate Becomes an Activist” provides tentative respite for the anxieties that may arise among readers about what is to be done about glyphosate. The chapter delves into the ripple effects of the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer, affiliated with the World Health Organization) reclassification of glyphosate and its reactions, mentioned above. As Charles Benbrook (2019) clearly explains, the contrasting conclusions of different agencies are due to a different understanding of the data, a perfect example of the dynamics that Adams unpacks in Chapter 6. These controversies also reverberated in local agencies and activist groups. Adams reconstructs the mobilization of activists in California, protesting the risk levels accepted by Californian authorities and lobbying the state’s legislators. “In many ways,” Adams quips, “the mere proliferation of debates about glyphosate—even the competing claims about its possible carcinogenicity—have made it a useful ally to activists, indeed one might say an activist in and of itself” (124). The chapter also reconstructs the case of Dwayne Johnson, one of the first court cases brought against Monsanto alleging that Roundup exposure was linked to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The chapter’s closing section captures the uncertainty and despair associated with glyphosate’s swirl, based on the harrowing experience of Marion Copley, an EPA employee who raised serious concerns about glyphosate and subsequently died of cancer.

Chapter 8, “Chemicals as Agents of Care,” closes the book with a reflection on the multiplicity of glyphosate, “swirling this way and that through tissues, soils, scientific laboratories, and courts of law” (130), and on the ethical questions prompt by “glyphosate as a chemical with agency”, that also prefigures the future endeavors of the agrochemical industry. Glyphosate is analyzed here as “an ambivalent agent of care” (132), as it is enlisted as an object that opens possibilities “for legal adjudication over accountability for chemical harm” (133). At the same time, glyphosate allows the agrochemical industry “double-dipping on profits.” Like other chemicals and components of foodstuffs, “the company whose chemicals flow through our food into bodies that, in one iteration of the swirl, are causing an epidemic of chronic disorders and cancers, in another turn would then also provide an arsenal of pharmaceutical drugs to treat them” (135). Glyphosate, in short, “has wreaked a kind of havoc with the utopian dream of a scientific consensus” and “offers a particularly clear lens on the predicament we have gotten into in relation to the scientific archives on chemical harm and that efforts to trace things like certainty and consensus instead lead to endless formations of swirl” (137).

Glyphosate and the Swirl is an extremely timely book. It should be particularly read by social scientists (or anyone, for that matter) interested in the intersection of health risks, environmental issues, and science and technology studies. Adams offers food for thought about the uncertainty surrounding toxic exposures and sheds light on why the pursuit of definite scientific proof on how to assess this elusive chemical is likely a fool’s errand. Some readers may object to the lack of engagement with the panoply of work on toxicity and agrochemicals beyond anthropology and STS studies, a missing dialogue with studies investigating the effects of this chemical in a variety of geographical and social locations (glyphosate is, after all, widely used outside the United States), or a closer analysis of the meanings of glyphosate in farming worlds. But, of course, it is always shortsighted to criticize a book for what it leaves out. As the controversies over glyphosate show no signs of being settled any time soon, this book provides a very useful roadmap to researchers on how to navigate the swirling waters stirred by this ubiquitous chemical, its affordances and risks, and what the futures of our chemical age have in store for us.


Benbrook, Charles M. 2019. “How did the US EPA and IARC Reach Diametrically Opposed Conclusions on the Genotoxicity of Glyphosate-based Herbicides?” Environmental Sciences Europe 31(1): 2-16.

Duke, Stephen O. and Stephen B. Powles. 2008. “Glyphosate: A Once-in-a-century Herbicide.” Pest Management Science 64(4): 319-325.

IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer). 2015. “Glyphosate.” In Some Organophosphate Insecticides and Herbicides: Diazinon, Glyphosate, Malathion, Parathion, Tetrachlorvinphos. IARC Working Group on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Lyon (France): WHO (World Health Organization). Available from:

NASEM (National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine). 2016. Genetically

Engineered Crops: Experiences and Prospects. Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Available from

Ortner, Sherry B. 2016. “Dark Anthropology and its Others: Theory Since the Eighties.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 6(1): 47-73.

Robbins, Joel. 2013. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19(3): 447-462.

Shotwell, Alexis. 2016. Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Stone, Glenn Davis. 2015. “Biotechnology, Schizmogenesis and the Demise of Uncertainty.” Washington University Journal of Law and Policy 47: 29-49.

Stone, Glenn Davis. 2017. “Dreading CRISPR: GMOs, Honest Brokers, and Mertonian

Transgressions.” Geographical Review 107(4): 584–591.

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