Earlier this summer, it seemed that a scoop by Reuters had finally put to rest uncertainty still swirling in Europe around the question of whether glyphosate causes cancer. Yet even with more and more evidence debunking the alleged dangers of the world’s most commonly used herbicide coming to light over the past few months, activists have been doubling down – raising doubts over whether the EU will reapprove the chemical’s license before it expires in December.
On August 24th, French NGO Générations Futures accused the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) of having carried out “biased” evaluations of glyphosate. Citing a report completed by another activist group, Global 2000, they claimed that out of 12 available studies on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, seven showed heightened risk of cancer for rodents exposed to the substance. They asserted that neither agency had taken into account those studies when they concluded that exposure to glyphosate does not raise the risk of cancer. Yet EFSA and ECHA had done so largely because these studies failed to show convincing evidence of a cause-effect relationship.
Ahead of key votes later this year, European Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis has made it clear that he doesn’t intend to allow others to ride on French coattails or abstain from approving glyphosate while secretly hoping there are enough ‘yes’ votes to retain the license – which is exactly what happened during the EU’s last vote on the continued use of glyphosate in 2016. Now, even states that abstained during the last round of voting, like Germany, have been taking heed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her agriculture minister recently rallied behind the EU’s campaign to reauthorize glyphosate, greatly increasing the chances that the substance will receive a 10-year license renewal.
Not surprisingly, this rising wave of political support for glyphosate is based on a rapidly growing stack of scientific evidence. Some of the latest data stems from a high-profile lawsuit brought against Monsanto in California, which has been the source of several sets of new documents and depositions that raise serious questions about the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) decision in 2015 to label glyphosate “probably carcinogenic.” Most recently, sworn deposition from Charles William Jameson, an IARC specialist, revealed that the institute disregarded two key pieces of research from Germany that suggested that glyphosate was safe – data that Jameson said he never saw in time to bring to the attention of his colleagues, and which he said would have changed their decision if they had seen it earlier.
Jameson’s testimony is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to doubts around the herbicide’s supposed carcinogenicity – as well as, more broadly, IARC’s assessment methods. His statements come on top of earlier reports showing that IARC failed to review even more important data from the most significant study to date on the effects of pesticides on humans: the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), run by scientists from the National Institutes of Health and other U.S. government agencies. AHS data – made available to IARC but not publically – also showed no evidence of a link between glyphosate and cancer, yet IARC did not take their findings into account due to a self-imposed rule on excluding evidence that hasn’t appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Meanwhile, IARC has a history of playing loose with other rules, notably around conflict of interest. The agency’s dispute with EFSA over glyphosate, for instance, involved an advisor to IARC who had close ties with the Environmental Defense Fund, an American advocacy group opposed to the use of pesticides.
IARC’s internal ban against considering non-published evidence, which left the bulk of the research on the subject out of consideration, was a main reason why the agency determined that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic” – a decision that put it at odds with not only the European health agencies but also those in the U.S., Canada, and other countries. While it’s certainly not out of the question for various regulatory bodies to arrive at differing conclusions, the fact that IARC left so much data out in the cold – and the fact that out of 989 substances evaluated in past decades, they have found only one to be not carcinogenic – raises even more eyebrows about their evaluation.
Following the revelation about the AHS data, US Representative Trey Gowdy, chair of the House Oversight Committee, launched an investigation to find out why the NIH failed to publish key AHS evidence. The probe was triggered in part by a sworn deposition given earlier this year by Aaron Blair, who led the review of a number of pesticides, including glyphosate, by IARC. He said that if IARC had reviewed the AHS data, it would have altered their analysis, making it less likely that glyphosate would have met their criteria for being classified as “probably carcinogenic.”
In spite of scrutiny from other US congressional committees over their revolving door of activist scientists, IARC just announced the working group members for their next evaluation, which include three members from the Ramazzini Institute – the other main bastion of anti-pesticide scientists in Europe. Meanwhile, worst of all, if France ends up bending to the force of its own activist forces like Générations Futures, then come December, growers might well be stuck with the unenviable choice of either ineffective weed control strategies or substances with a far murkier safety record.