Dispute over possible carcinogenic effects of the widely used weedkiller comes ahead of an EU decision on its continued use
After the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency IARC decided that glyphosate was a probable carcinogen, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) decided it was not. EFSA’s decision was criticised by 96 prominent scientists – including most of the IARC team. But EFSA director Bernard Url defended EFSA’s verdict by saying the scientists had not seen important evidence.
We should bear in mind that this “evidence” consists of secret industry toxicity studies, which you and I – and independent scientists – are not allowed to see. But we do know that the studies were sponsored by the very same companies that profit from sales of glyphosate herbicides.
EU scientists in row over safety of glyphosate weedkiller
The Guardian, 13 Jan 2016
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* Dispute over possible carcinogenic effects of the widely used weedkiller comes ahead of an EU decision on its continued use
A bitter row has broken out over the allegedly carcinogenic qualities of a widely-used weedkiller, ahead of an EU decision on whether to continue to allow its use.
At issue is a call by the European Food and Safety Authority (EFSA) to disregard an opinion by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) on the health effects of Glyphosate.
Glyphosate is sold and promoted by Monsanto for use with its GM crops. The herbicide makes the company $5bn (£3.5bn) a year, and is used so widely that its residues are commonly found in British bread.
But while an analysis by the IARC last year found it is probably carcinogenic to humans, Efsa decided last month that it probably was not. That paves the way for the herbicide to be relicensed by an EU working group later this year, potentially in the next few weeks.
Within days of EFSA’s announcement, 96 prominent scientists – including most of the IARC team – had fired off a letter to the EU health commissioner, Vytenis Andriukaitis, warning that the basis of Efsa’s research was “not credible because it is not supported by the evidence”.
“Accordingly, we urge you and the European commission to disregard the flawed EFSA finding,” the scientists said.
In a reply last month, which the Guardian has seen, Andriukaitis told the scientists that he found their diverging opinions on glyphosate “disconcerting”. But the European Parliament and EU ministers had agreed to give EFSA a pivotal role in assessing pesticide substances, he noted.
“These are legal obligations,” the commissioner said. “I am not able to accommodate your request to simply disregard the EFSA conclusion.”
A few days later, EFSA’s executive director Bernard Url hit back, complaining to the European parliament’s environment committee that the scientists had not seen the evidence, and were leaving the domain of science by making their criticisms public.
“This is the first sign of the Facebook age of science,” he said. “You have a scientific assessment, you put it in Facebook and you count how many people like it. For us, this is no way forward. We produce a scientific opinion, we stand for it but we cannot take into account whether it will be liked or not.”
However, unease within Url’s group was growing and at the next Efsa executive meeting, board members talked candidly of a “crisis” over the issue.
As well as finding the IARC’s analysis “far more credible”, the critique by the 96 scientists had appeared to snipe at Efsa’s vulnerability to influence from interest groups.
The IARC paper had relied “on open and transparent procedures by independent scientists who completed thorough conflict of interest statements and were not affiliated or financially supported in any way by the chemical manufacturing industry,” the scientists’ letter said.
Five of EFSA’s 80 or so mammalian toxicology experts failed to file a declaration of interests, while some of those that were submitted were several years old. More than a third of the experts were also employed by national regulators and one had a 5% stake in a risk assessment consultancy.
Given the highly charged nature of the debate, EU officials privately say that the issue is most likely to be resolved in a classic Brussels-style fudge.
“The way out may be to put more limitations on certain products [containing glyphosate], or allowing member states to do that,” one EU source said. “There is a problem of the combination of glyphosate and some other substances. That is part of the reason for the difference between IARC and Efsa. But if you have additional restrictions for certain products, you give member states some leeway.”
In a letter sent today, Url defended EFSA’s study as a “more comprehensive hazard assessment” than the IARC paper which, he said, had not tried to differentiate between the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate and other ingredients in pesticide packages, or their combined effects.
EFSA and IARC had agreed to meet early in 2016 “in an effort to clarify scientific divergences,” Url added.
This article was corrected on 13 January 2016 to say that glyphosate is sold and promoted by Monsanto for use with its GM crops. It was not developed by the firm for such use.