EFSA’s and ECHA’s opinions claiming that glyphosate is not carcinogenic are “highly questionable”, according to the MEP Miriam Dalli
On 13 June an important debate took place in the European Parliament on the health risks of glyphosate. During the debate, many Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) strongly criticized the reports of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which claimed that glyphosate was not carcinogenic. And one of the biggest parliamentary groupings, the Socialists and Democrats (S&Ds) have pledged to hold a more in-depth Parliamentary hearing that could lead on to the establishment of a committee of inquiry to fully investigate the issue.
The debate follows the recent revelation that EFSA dismissed a study linking glyphosate to cancer following counsel with Jess Rowland, a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official at the time. Rowland is currently at the centre of a number of US lawsuits brought against Monsanto by sufferers of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, who claim they contracted the illness from exposure to Roundup. Internal company communications (the so-called “Monsanto Papers”) that Monsanto has had to release in the course of those lawsuits show Rowland boasting to Monsanto that he would deserve a “medal” if he could “kill” another agency’s proposed investigation into the risks posed by glyphosate.
In a related development, NGOs have accused the EU agencies of over-reliance on industry-sponsored review articles concluding that glyphosate was not carcinogenic in order to form their conclusions. In addition, the “Monsanto Papers” suggest that Monsanto employees ghost-wrote two scientific reviews that a US EPA committee relied on in part to reach its conclusion that glyphosate was not carcinogenic. That committee was headed by Jess Rowland, who left the EPA shortly after the EPA’s report, with its industry-friendly conclusion, was leaked prematurely on the agency’s website.
In spite of the scandalous revelations around glyphosate’s approval, and amid suspicions that the EU renewal process may have been influenced by Rowland and Monsanto, the EU Commission has chosen to accept uncritically the clean bill of health given to glyphosate by EFSA and ECHA. And it has upset MEPs by ignoring the Parliament’s resolution of 2016, which proposed that glyphosate be re-approved for seven years, eight years less than the usual 15-year period and three years less than the Commission’s proposed 10-year period. The Commission also ignored Parliament’s request that glyphosate to be restricted to professional uses only.
EFSA and ECHA verdicts “highly questionable”
It was against this background that the debate in the EU Parliament took place. The debate kicked off with a question to the Commission from the Maltese MEP Miriam Dalli, of the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group. Ms Dalli challenged the credibility of EFSA and ECHA, saying their conclusions on glyphosate were "highly questionable". She said that there were “serious doubts as to the substance’s safety”.
While the Commission insists that it relies on scientific evidence and the rule of law to form its conclusions on pesticides, Ms Dalli said the issue of glyphosate goes further – it is about “lack of transparency, questionable scientific reliability, scientific independence. It is about losing public trust and about corporate giants overstepping their authority.”
Ms Dalli added, “The glyphosate hazard classification process of the Commission and its two agencies EFSA and ECHA is good example of how the scientific evidence that underlies public health decisions can end up eroding public trust and raise serious concerns. Independent analysis indicates serious flaws in the EFSA and ECHA safety assessments – namely eight instances where increases in tumours as a response following glyphosate exposure were not included in the assessment by either agency.”
Ms Dalli said that the S&D Group, the leading centre-left political group in the European Parliament, wants the Commission to recommend ECHA and EFSA to critically revise the validity of the current glyphosate assessments and not to propose renewed authorisation as long as the scientific uncertainties have not been clarified. Specifically, they want independent clarification of the scientific uncertainties related to hormone-disruption, genotoxicity and carcinogenity. The S&Ds are also demanding that the precautionary principle be strictly applied.
In the longer term, the S&Ds are asking the Commission to “promote and support the agriculture sector so that our farmers can move towards glyphosate-free agriculture and towards alternative sustainable and cost-efficient solutions for pest management.”
Andriukaitis defends EU assessments
The Health and Food Safety Commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, replied in a speech defending the EU assessments of glyphosate and the transparency of the process. He said that EFSA and ECHA had stated that even if the information disclosed in the US cancer litigation proved to be true, there would be no change in the agencies’ conclusions on the safety of glyphosate. This was because the agencies had been given access to the original study reports and had based their conclusions on them, rather than on reviews. The agencies’ experts fully understood the industry origins of the reviews summarizing the industry position on glyphosate’s safety because these were stated in the declarations of interest on the publications. The reviews therefore had a limited role in EU assessments of glyphosate. Mr Andriukaitis said, “We should proceed with the renewal of the approval of glyphosate as there is no reason to doubt the assessments of the substance” by EFSA and ECHA.
Mr Andriukaitis said that the EU pesticide approvals process (including which information should be shared with the public, when, and how) would be examined as part of the REFIT evaluation of the EU pesticide legislation. He added that the Commission is asking for an external study to look into these issues.
“Plenty of evidence” of mutagenic properties of glyphosate
The Belgian Liberal MEP Frederique Ries was one of many MEPs who appeared to find Mr Andriukaitis’s reply inadequate. She said that “we still don’t have clarity” on the health effects of glyphosate, but added that there is “plenty of evidence” that glyphosate is a mutagen (damages DNA). Drawing attention to a fundamental weakness in pesticide authorizations worldwide, she said the EU decision should be based on independent studies and “not on biased papers from Monsanto”. Ms Ries added, “We have to move towards phasing out of the substance.”
“No one has seen” the studies underpinning glyphosate’s approval
The European Left (GUE) MEP Katerina Konecna said that the events around the glyphosate re-authorization in the Commission and EFSA add up to a “total farce”. She accused the Commission of not respecting the views of the Parliament.
Ms Konecna was concerned about the lack of transparency of the EU process, stating that “no one has ever seen” the studies used to justify the renewal of glyphosate’s licence – “not even the IARC, which has described glyphosate as potentially carcinogenic”. She understood that Monsanto had "drawn up its own studies signed by various different scientists”, adding that if the Commission does not look into the question of Monsanto’s possible influence on the EU approval of glyphosate, an independent committee of inquiry should be set up to do so.
The Dutch Green MEP Bas Eickhout criticised Andriukaitis for giving a speech arguing that “everything is fine, everything is done properly and we can just continue”. Broader than the issue of carcinogenicity, “The Monsanto papers show that Monsanto was unduly influencing studies that were being used also, later on, by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). That is a concern and the problem is that EFSA is saying that they used more studies, one that for example the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) did not use, but we do not have access to it. So we do not know exactly which studies have been used by EFSA to come to those conclusions. It is lack of transparency, it is lack of trust in these organisations, and we see in the United States that there is undue influence from Monsanto. We want a good investigation by the Commission on this issue, otherwise we will have to do it ourselves.”
Peter Liese, the German coordinator on environment, public health and food safety for the European People's Party (EPP), supported a temporary reauthorisation of glyphosate for up to seven years. But even Mr Liese argued that there were problems with glyphosate, particularly with pre-harvest applications, which are “not acceptable”, and that alternatives were needed.
The Czech Socialist, Pavel Poc, said, "These Monsanto papers are a scandal. The company has a financial interest in the results of these studies and these have undermined our European system of authorizations.” He pointed out that IARC used different data from EFSA – “They [IARC] used published academic data and EFSA uses data from industry, that’s why there is a difference, so no one can say with a clean conscience that glyphosate is safe. Neither can we say that all studies have been taken into consideration for its authorization. Following the Commission’s intervention today I am firmly convinced that we need a Parliamentary committee of inquiry on this, not only because of glyphosate but because of the whole authorization procedure.”
The Dutch Left (GUE) MEP Anja Hazekamp was unhappy that the studies on which the EU agencies based their conclusions came from Monsanto: “It seems not impossible that the results [of the studies] were dictated by Monsanto.” She added, “Glyphosate has become a symbol of what is not working correctly in Europe.”
Tobacco industry tactics
The French Green MEP Jose Bove said: “For months, Monsanto has been denigrating the UN agency, IARC – they are trying to stop these independent researchers from speaking out. This recalls Philip Morris’s illegal and scandalous efforts to get people to believe tobacco wasn’t dangerous. The same people who defended the tobacco industry are now defending Monsanto.” Mr Bove asked the Commission to put in place a moratorium on glyphosate products until clarity is gained and to take action against Monsanto if it is found that the company has deceived people.
The French Socialist MEP Eric Andrieu said, “It’s totally unacceptable that the Commission is going ahead with the authorization of glyphosate again on the basis of data from the company that actually produces the substance. It’s not possible to cross-check that data. Monsanto has said that this information is confidential. The data in the study should be public and needs to be checked because that’s important for human health and environment. We need independent laboratories to conduct research before the authorization is approved.”
Of the potential renewal of glyphosate’s licence, Mr Andrieu said, “I will not participate in what may or might potentially be a criminal offence, because if it were revealed that glyphosate was potentially carcinogenic, we should collectively assume great responsibility.”
Martin Hausling of the German Greens said, “The Commissioner is ignoring the fact that the industry studies haven’t been checked.” He told the Commissioner that given the revelations of the Monsanto Papers in the US, “You should doubt whether Monsanto has manipulated this whole procedure. You are saying it’s business as usual. But you’re ignoring the fact that almost 1 million people signed up to get a debate in the Parliament.”
The Italian Socialist MEP Massimo Paolucci said, “I trust science but I do not trust people who manipulate scientific research to draw benefit from it. That’s why we need clarity, that’s why we need a commission of inquiry, and that’s why in the absence of this clarity, this 10-year authorization would be a slap in the face for the precautionary principle.”
In answer to the MEPs’ criticisms, Mr Andriukaitis said that the Commission had “no grounds” to launch an inquiry but that he would be happy to cooperate with any inquiry organized by parliamentarians, who, he said, may “have a bit more space for manoeuvre”.
In a video interview separate from the debate, MEP Eric Andrieu said that the S&Ds plan to hold a hearing at the beginning of September. He said that he wants clarity about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate; but if the evidence is not convincing enough either way, the S&Ds will launch a full inquiry.
Video of MEP Miriam Dalli and other MEPs voicing strong criticism of the EFSA and ECHA reports in a debate in the European Parliament on the health risks of glyphosate: