Monsanto's expert panels speak

December 2016
Photo: Creative Commons
The news that glyphosate herbicide, now pretty much ubiquitous in agriculture, public spaces and food, is not 'safe as salt' but a 'probable human carcinogen' was very unwelcome.

Amidst a rash of lawsuits by people claiming glyphosate gave them cancer, Monsanto and its agrichemical brethren face billions of dollars in lost revenue. Besides the collapse of their market for glyphosate-based formulations, such as Roundup, all their glyphosate-tolerant GM crops will go down the drain too.

Since GM crops now encompass maize, soya, cotton, oilseed rape, sugar beet and alfalfa grass, which together amount to most staple US agriculture, this is doubly-bad news for Americans.

For the regulators who allowed the whole situation in the first place, it's a political mess with legal and economic implications requiring urgent action.

Predictably, Monsanto and its friends at CropLife* America have launched a full-scale attack at every level they can think of.

*CropLife is a global federation "representing the plant science industry" and is led by all the major biotech and agrichemical companies. It has been especially active in assisting governments with biosafety regulations especially in developing countries, and in preventing GM labelling. 

Scientists of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) who evaluated glyphosate were stunned and, in some cases, intimidated by the biotech industry assault: they were just doing their job, "simply act(ing) as scientists, evaluating the body of evidence, according to IARC criteria" with no political agenda.

Yet, their measured conclusions on glyphosate were pronounced "junk science". IARC members have been described as part of an "unelected, undemocratic, foreign body", and "a France-based cancer research agency ... (which) ...influence(s) American policy-making, even though IARC avoids having to meet the strict scientific standards and government scrutiny afforded to science committees in America."

Why a group of elite scientists from top institutions would produce 'junk science' isn't clear. Why the IARC scientists should be elected democratically instead of selected on the basis of their expertise and independence isn't clear either. The 'France-based', 'foreign' bit is odd too: IARC scientists come from all over the world including several (and its chairman) from the USA. As an undemocratic body influencing American policy-making, the IARC seems to be seriously rivalled by Monsanto: not only has the company demanded that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fully repudiate the IARC reclassification of glyphosate, but has successfully derailed the public meetings planned to examine the scientific research on the herbicide as "unnecessary" and "inappropriate".

As for the science on glyphosate, apparently CropLife insists that "the registrant (Monsanto) would be the appropriate source of data", criticising the EPA for daring to proclaim a need for independent research on formulated glyphosate products and for neglecting to get industry permission for such research.

And, of course, Monsanto was quick to assemble its own panels of 'experts' to produce a counter-classification of its glyphosate money spinner. No less than four papers plus a summary were rushed into a special "Sponsored (paid for by Monsanto) Open Access Supplement Issue" of Critical Reviews in Toxicology, a well-established journal with a reputation for being cosy with industry and an editor well-known for being outspoken against regulation.

The 'new' evaluations didn't seem to say anything that hasn't been said before. Three of them point out that if you add in all the data not considered robust enough by the IARC (that is, industry, unpublished, and non-comparable evidence) the scientific water is so muddied that no clear conclusion is possible. One paper says the epidemiological data aren't strong enough to support a causal association between glyphosate and cancer, a point with which the IARC agreed and the reason it classified glyphosate as a 'probable' rather than definite carcinogen. One paper tells us that glyphosate exposure levels are less than the 'Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI)' proposed by several regulatory agencies, which somehow makes it OK rather than making a case for establishing a new, lower ADI.

Monsanto's panic was quick to infect the US government. Just as the special Sponsored Supplement was published, the US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform sent a letter to the US National Institutes of Health questioning its (obviously anti-American) funding of the IARC.

The letter said the IARC standards "appear inconsistent with other scientific research and have generated much controversy and alarm".

OUR COMMENT 


What the papers show is that, if you set the goal-posts first (as the IARC did) and the ball goes in, you can have some confidence you've scored a real goal. If you wait and see where the ball is headed (as the biotech industry does, habitually) you can move the goal-posts to any number of places to avoid the goal you don't want. 


The US House Committee doesn't seem to have noticed that those 'standards' of 'other scientific research' with which it wants everyone to harmonise may have caused cancers and deaths which a bit more attention to the controversy and alarm might have avoided. 


At the end of the day, all that the IARC scientists recommended was that 

"we should all minimize our use (of glyphosate) as much as possible" 
especially those most at risk such as farmers and gardeners. This seems a very tame suggestion considering the extreme reactions of biotech industry and the US government. Are they feeling guilty? 

SOURCES

  • Jie Jenny Zou, Brokers of junk science? www.publicintegrity.org, 18.02.16
  • Carey Gillam, IARC Scientists Defend Glyphosate cancer Link; Surprised by Industry Assault, www.huffingtonpost.com, 31.10.16
  • Surprise! Monsanto-funded papers conclude glyphosate not carcinogenic or genotoxic, GM Watch 3.10.16
  • David Brusick, et al., 2016, Genotoxicity Expert Panel review: weight of evidence evaluation of the genotoxicty of glyphosate, glyphosate-based formulations, and aminomethylphosphonic acid, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 46
  • Gary M. Williams, et al., 2016, Glyphosate rodent carcinogenicity bioassay expert panel review, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 46
  • John Acquavella, et al., 2016, Glyphosate epidemiology expert panel review: a weight of evidence systematic review of the relationship between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma or multiple myeloma, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 46
  • Keith R. Solomon, 2016, Glyphosate in the general population and in applicators: a critical review of studies on exposures, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 46
  • Gary M. Williams, et al., 2016, A review of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate by four independent expert panels and comparison to the IARC assessment, Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 46
  • CropLive International, www.lobbywatch.org

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