The glyphosate story is a scandal, of the kind that would be front-page news if it happened in industry, rather than a branch of WHO. But the BBC has not covered the Reuters story.
Bad news is always more newsworthy than good. The widely reported finding that insect abundance is down by 75 per cent in Germany over 27 years was big news, while, for example, the finding in May that ocean acidification is a lesser threat to corals than had been thought caused barely a ripple. The study, published in the leading journal Nature, found that corals’ ability to make skeletons is “largely independent of changes in seawater carbonate chemistry, and hence ocean acidification”. But good news is no news.
And bad news is big news. The German insect study, in a pay-to-publish journal, may indeed be a cause for concern, but its findings should be treated with caution, my professional biologist friends tell me. It did not actually compare the same sites over time. Indeed most locations were only sampled once, and the scientists used mathematical models to extract a tentative trend from the inconsistent sampling.
Greens were quick to use the insect study to argue for a ban on the widely used herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, despite no evidence for a connection. Glyphosate is made by Monsanto and sometimes used in conjunction with genetically modified crops.
Their campaign comes to a head this Wednesday in Brussels, where an expert committee of the European Commission will decide whether to ban glyphosate. The European parliament has already voted to do so, though its vote carries no weight. The committee will probably defer a decision until December, amid signs that the commission is getting fed up with the way French politicians in particular demand a ban in public then argue against it in private.
The entire case against glyphosate is one “monograph” from an obscure World Health Organisation body called the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which concluded that glyphosate might cause cancer at very high doses. It admitted that by the same criteria, sausages and sawdust should also be classified as carcinogens.
Indeed, pound for pound coffee is more carcinogenic than the herbicide, with the big difference that people pour coffee down their throats every day, which they don’t glyphosate. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was recently found to contain glyphosate at a concentration of up to 1.23 parts per billion. At that rate a child would have to eat more than three tonnes of ice cream every day to reach the level at which any health effect could be measured.
The IARC finding is contradicted by the European Food Safety Authority as well as the key state safety agencies in America, Australia and elsewhere. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment looked at more than 3,000 studies and found no evidence of any risk to human beings at realistic doses: carcinogenic, mutagenic, neurotoxic or reproductive. Since glyphosate is a molecule that interferes with a metabolic process found in all plants but no animals, this is hardly surprising.
Meanwhile, glyphosate has huge environmental benefits for gardeners and farmers. In particular, it is an alternative to the destructive practice of ploughing to control weeds. It allows no-till agriculture, a burgeoning practice that preserves soil structure, moisture and carbon content, enabling worms and insects to flourish, improving drainage and biodiversity while allowing the high-yield farming that is essential if we are to feed humanity without cultivating more land. Organic farmers rely on frequent tillage.
How did the IARC paper come to its alarmist conclusion? Well, we now know, thanks to Reuters, which reported that IARC prepared a draft which somebody altered in ten different places. “In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumors was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one.”
Last week, The Times reported how the scientist who advised the IARC to classify glyphosate as carcinogenic received $160,000 from law firms suing Monsanto on behalf of cancer victims. Christopher Portier began advising one of the firms about two months before IARC’s decision on glyphosate. He said that he had been hired to advise on an unrelated matter and his contract to advise on glyphosate was dated nine days after the IARC announcement in 2015.
Dr Portier has denied that his advice was influenced by financial interest. He told The Times that he “probably should have” declared his links with the law firms in an open letter sent to the European health commissioner urging him to disregard the European Food Safety Authority’s finding before he did so.
The Corporate European Observatory, which claims that it is in the business of “exposing the power of corporate lobbying in the EU”, rushed to the defence of Dr Portier. It argued that reports about the scientist should be seen as “outright attempts at character assassination”.
Europe banning glyphosate would open up a litigation bonanza in the US. Bounty-hunting law firms are in cahoots with environmental NGOs, to bring them business putting companies under pressure based on the theory that barely detectable doses of chemicals might do harm. Johnson & Johnson faces claims over the alleged carcinogenicity of talcum powder, for instance.
The technique, says David Zaruk of the Université Saint-Louis, Brussels, is to “manipulate public perception, create fear or outrage by co-operating with activists, gurus and NGOs, find a corporate scapegoat and litigate the hell out of them”. The glyphosate story is a scandal, of the kind that would be front-page news if it happened in industry, rather than a branch of WHO. But the BBC has not covered the Reuters story. WHO itself shows no sign of investigating, although the US Congress, a major funder of IARC, is starting to take an interest.