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Under the microscope: Roundup and fertilizer kill worms

(MANJU SHIVACHARAN / THE STATESMAN)
Pochron found that RoundUp’s claims of not harming worms were false—in her study, the earthworms either died or were significantly smaller in length and skinnier. (MANJU SHIVACHARAN / THE STATESMAN)

Every other week, Ruchi Shah, a sophomore biology major, will take a look at Stony Brook-related research and science news.

A recent study led by Dr. Sharon Pochron, a lecturer in the Sustainability Studies program at Stony Brook University, sheds light on the short- and long-term effects of using the RoundUp insecticide and fertilizers.

Monsanto, the company who produces Roundup, is under fire for claiming its products are harmless, while scientific studies have suggested otherwise.

One such study, conducted by Pochron and a team of students, found that the main ingredient in Roundup, called glyphosate, has a significant detrimental effect on earthworms in only eight days.

In an effort to mimic gardens, the area outside of the SBU greenhouse was rototilled and 48 shallow trays were placed in it.

The trays all had grass seeds, dirt and earthworms were split into four groups.

Half of the trays received fertilizer, and after about 4 inches of grass had grown, half of each group was treated by Roundup while the other half was weeded by hand.

Eight days after Roundup exposure, 20 percent of the earthworms in both the fertilized and non-fertilized environments died. Furthermore, the earthworms that survived were smaller in length, skinnier and had decreased body movement.

“There was a significant decrease in body weight,” Pochron said. “You don’t have to be a statistics geek to see the difference.”

When asked about the implications of these results, Pochron explained that they are more relevant for everyday gardeners than for large-scale farmers, who generally do not care as much about earthworms.

Despite the number of deaths and harm to the earthworms after exposure to RoundUp, a document on the Monsanto website claims, “Roundup ProBiactive 450 is of low toxicity to earthworms and will pose a negligible risk to earthworm populations in or around treated areas.”

While Roundup is banned in certain European countries, Pochron said its effects may still be less detrimental. This is because Roundup stays where it is sprayed; it does not travel in the water system and degrades quickly. Therefore, according to Pochron, the long-term effects of Roundup might not be as significant because a healthy earthworm population might be able to survive if the area was not continually sprayed.

Fertilizer use did not appear to play a role in the short term, but after 90 days, there were no earthworms left in the fertilized grass. For Pochron, it was, “more startling that fertilizer has such a strong effect in the long term.”

While the numbers are striking in that no earthworms were left in the fertilizer condition, Pochron cannot measure whether the earthworms are dying or leaving the fertilized tray.

This is because earthworms decompose quickly and it is difficult to get an actual count.

Whether the fertilizer causes death or causes the earthworms to leave, it is clear that there is a detrimental effect.

In the future, Pochron plans to investigate the levels of bioaccumulation of Roundup.

For example, if earthworms are exposed to Roundup multiple times, they might build up large levels of chemicals in their system.

Then, if higher-level organisms like birds eat the earthworms, they might suffer indirectly from the Roundup chemicals.

Further knowledge of the chain reaction effects of Roundup and fertilizers will create a better understanding of the detrimental effects of the insecticide and how to combat them.

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