#Glyphosate: Hysteria wins out yet again over science and rationality

| January 30, 2018 | 0 Comments

Germany’s decisive vote late last year ended the deadlock over whether to renew the license for the world’s most commonly used weed killer, glyphosate – though heavy pressure from certain EU member states and green groups meant that the European Commission had to settle for a five-year renewal rather than the 15-year extension initially sought. The decision, which came after months of bitter debate and frustration, helped stave off fears of potential food shortages and other farming industry crises.

Angela Merkel’s inability to form a government since last September’s elections, however, has once again put the European agricultural industry in jeopardy. Caretaker Agricultural Minister Christian Schmidt’s (CSU) unilateral decision to swing the EU vote in favour of glyphosate’s re-approval surprised and infuriated the Social Democrats (SPD), with whom Merkel is trying to form a ‘grand coalition’. This “massive breach of trust” damaged the foundations of the current caretaker government and weighed heavily on coalition talks.

It’s not just in Europe that glyphosate divides governments: the very same molecule is responsible for a string lawsuits and counter-lawsuits in California that have attracted national attention and have prompted 11 American states to go toe-to-toe with Sacramento.

It’s hard to believe that the panic and vitriol exhibited over the last few years could derive from a single organization’s study. Yet glyphosate’s most vehement opponents on both sides of the Atlantic point to a sole document to justify their strong opinions: a 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classifying the herbicidal agent as “probably carcinogenic to humans”. This determination made the IARC an outsider in the international scientific community, as every other major organisation, from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has concluded that there is no evidence that glyphosate is linked to cancer in humans.

Senior EU officials, including Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, were perplexed by the public’s rejection of international consensus and single-minded focus on the IARC findings. This fixation became more troubling as multiple reports called into question the IARC’s objectivity and adherence to standard scientific protocol. In June 2017, Reuters revealed that influential scientist Aaron Blair had known about unpublished data indicating no link between glyphosate and cancer when he chaired a weeklong IARC meeting on the issue, but did not disclose this research. Blair himself admits that knowledge of this research might have altered IARC’s classification of glyphosate as probably carcinogenic.

A second Reuters report further illuminated how IARC handpicked research and significantly edited the chapter alleging that “sufficient evidence” existed that glyphosate caused cancer in animals. This determination was a critical finding, without which the IARC would not have classed glyphosate as a Group 2a substance, “probably carcinogenic to humans”. IARC systematically and obscurely removed data which showed no link between glyphosate and cancer in animals. In contrast to other agencies such as EFSA, which makes working documents available online, the IARC reveals little about its drafting process and advised its glyphosate panel to avoid discussing their work and not to keep drafts following the report’s publication.

The IARC’s dubious report not only threatened glyphosate’s relicensing in the EU but provoked serious repercussions in the U.S. as well. The IARC’s Group 2a classification required California to include glyphosate on the list of chemicals “known to the state to cause cancer”, triggering swift and severe consequences. California’s Proposition 65 means that starting in July 2018, any product containing glyphosate will have to carry a “clear and reasonable” warning of its alleged carcinogenicity. Since California’s economy would rank sixth in the world, it is more cost-effective for businesses to include these warnings on all products, not just those intended for California.

Because subjecting glyphosate to Proposition 65 restrictions will significantly hinder the agriculture and industry of any state or country trading with California, eleven states have declared their support for an ongoing legal battle to stop the warnings requirement from taking effect. The lawsuit’s broad array of plaintiffs— the U.S Chamber of Commerce, 11 Attorneys General, the national wheat and corn growers’ associations, several state agriculture and business associations, herbicide manufacturers, and others —underscores the widespread concern provoked by glyphosate’s listing as a carcinogen.

Proposition 65’s shortcomings affect far more than just glyphosate. Its warnings are anything but clear and reasonable; the wording “known to cause cancer” implies certainty, while this judgment is often based on sweeping assumptions. This phrasing alarms customers and causes them to overestimate the risks involved. The warning’s vehemence may even raise First Amendment issues, as businesses are forced to make subjective, misleading statements. Worst of all, the vague warnings do serious harm to industries, yet fail to give consumers any useful information, such as an idea of the actual levels of risk to which the consumer might be exposed. In one absurd example, French fries, targeted under Proposition 65 for a chemical produced when they are cooked, only pose a potential danger to people eating an impossible 182 pounds of fries a day.

Frightened by intimidating warnings and unable to accurately gauge their level of risk, consumers may actually select more dangerous products as substitutes. For instance, consumers panicking over trace amounts of mercury in fish or lead in root vegetables may choose less healthy foods. Low-income people alarmed by warning labels on canned food may be discouraged from one of the few sources of fruits and vegetables they can afford. Banning glyphosate would force farmers to use other, less environmentally-friendly forms of weeding.

Provoking these kinds of consequences with few discernible benefits, or for short-term political gain as in Germany and California, is irresponsible policymaking. Protecting consumers is a laudable goal, but, as Commissioner Andriukaitis noted, must follow a common-sense approach rooted in science, not an emotional one intended to spawn fear.


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Category: A Frontpage, Agriculture, Environment, EU, EU, EU-wide safety authorization, European Commission, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Food, Genetic resources, Opinion, Pesticides, Trade

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