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#France’s Ear For Shoddy Science

| September 12, 2017 | 0 Comments

An official from France’s environment ministry indicated on August 30th that Paris intends to vote against extending the European license for popular herbicide glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup. Back in July, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis insisted that a broad consensus on the safety of the substance would be required among member states to move forward. Now, glyphosate’s future hangs in the balance once again, as France’s move is threatening the qualified majority in the European Parliament required to pass the chemical’s licence renewal.

The French government’s decision to vote against the extension of glyphosate’s license “due to the doubts that remain about its dangerousness” would be all well and good if such doubts were based on solid science. However, Paris most likely paid heed to one highly controversial report by the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) that notoriously concluded glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic.” Since its publication in 2015, the report has been widely discredited.

Indeed, studies mounted by European and American regulatory agencies on the subject have proven time and time again that the substance is safe. In fact, the consensus opinion of internationally highly respected organizations is that that glyphosate poses no threat to human health when applied to crops in the recommended amounts. Most recently, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) reiterated their opinions in response to a letter addressed to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The author, IARC-affiliated Christopher Portier, alleged that the European regulatory agencies in questions had overlooked scientific data, which caused them to reach conclusions contrary to those of IARC, an accusation that ECHA and EFSA roundly rejected. In a follow-up published on September 7th, EFSA reiterated its conclusions, saying that “the weight of evidence indicates that glyphosate does not have endocrine disrupting properties through oestrogen, androgen, thyroid or steroidogenesis mode of action based on a comprehensive database available in the toxicology area. The available ecotox studies did not contradict this conclusion.”

But Portier, a scientist affiliated with several activist NGOs known for their anti-pesticide stance, has been rebuffed not just by regulatory agencies, but by fellow scientists as well. Charles William Jameson, a former member of the IARC panel that penned the glyphosate report, admitted in an on-going court case in California that he had not received all the necessary data to make an adequate call on the substance’s carcinogenicity. According to the testimony, IARC did not include the findings of a study from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment that showed no “carcinogenic or mutagenic properties of glyphosate”. This information, however, was withheld despite IARC receiving the study a whole month before the organization was supposed to rule on the glyphosate matter.
The suspicion that IARC has been unfairly disregarding available information was confirmed when it emerged that another German study had been withheld, this time from an independent, peer-reviewed study authored by German scientist Helmut Greim. Two of Jameson’s colleagues at IARC had received the full set of data from the study but had not sent it to him for further consideration.

It is highly worrying that French policy-makers continue to be swayed by an internationally rebuked report. This is by no means an accident, but a continuation of a policy of appeasing the eco-activists with deep roots. Last year, the French government was the only major European state to vote against glyphosate, much to the shock of French farmers themselves.

Now, the French accommodation of environmentalist lobbyists by promoting policies with little grounding in science, looks set to continue after Emmanuel Macron appointed an anti-nuclear and anti-pesticide activist, Nicolas Hulot, to head the country’s environment ministry. While many commentators suspected Hulot was appointed for largely political reasons, his presence in government has raised worries over increased environmental regulation, including the banning of glyphosate. Considering this track record, France’s sudden intent to block the licence renewal is surely not coincidental.

This doesn’t bode well for future policy debates, especially if the way the glyphosate one unfolded offers any indication. A recent study showed that removing glyphosate from the market would cause over €2 billion in damages to French farmers alone. UK farmers would lose upwards of £1bn per year. While substances proven to pose a threat to human health must be restricted as soon as is possible, shoddy science should not be allowed to skew the debate and influence member states. In allowing it to do so, the French government has not only put the EU’s agricultural sector in grave danger, but also called into question the authority of Europe’s regulators

Commenting on the decision to veto glyphosate’s renewal, Commissioner Andriukaitis stated that “political opinions cannot outweigh broadly agreed scientific opinions”. One can only hope that other European capitals will listen, if Paris proves unwilling to do so.

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Category: A Frontpage, Environment, featured, Featured Article, France

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