I am a bit confused: are scientists supposed to be the folk heroes of environmental activists or not? When the subject is climate change they certainly fulfil this role: the likes of Naomi Klein are forever pushing the conceit that some vast global capitalist conspiracy is engaged in the denial of scientific reason. But when the subject is the herbicide glyphosate? The great majority of scientists whose work has found it safe are dismissed as nothing more than dupes of agribusiness firm Monsanto.
Last week, Monsanto lost a court case against a school groundsman from California who claims his non-Hodgkins lymphona was caused by glyphosate in the Roundup herbicide he used as part of his job. The company, who was ordered to pay the groundsman £226m ($289m) in damages, says it will appeal. With due respect to the jury, its decision sits at odds with the bulk of scientific evidence. It is true that in 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified glyphosate as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’ – a category in which it also includes red meat, hot beverages and working in shift patterns. But other bodies, reviewing the same evidence, have come to a different conclusion – including a joint declaration by the World Health Organisation and Federal Agriculture Organisation. Among those disagreeing with the IARC is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a body not known for rashness. Indeed, the precautionary principle used by the EFSA and other EU regulators has led to an effective ban on growing GM Foods in Europe.
Yet the EFSA’s scientists have decided that glyphosate does not cause cancer in humans. As to why it disagrees with the IARC, it published a paper last year, which you can read here. It is well-reasoned, as you would expect, pointing out that the evidence which had been claimed to link glyphosate with non-Hodgkins lymphona was too limited to make a positive association. Nevertheless, in the minds of environmental activists the EFSA’s scientists can’t possibly be independent, objective scientists coming to a reasoned conclusion – they must have been either bought or brainwashed by Monsanto. For example, writing in the Guardian, US activist Carey Gillam, writes of Monsanto: “The company has employed a range of tactics – some drawn from the same playbook used by the tobacco industry in defending the safety of cigarettes – to suppress and manipulate scientific literature, harass journalists and scientists who did not parrot the company’s propaganda, and arm-twist and collude with regulators”.
It would be nice to have some evidence of how Monsanto is supposed to have bullied and manipulated the EFSA’s scientists. We certainly haven’t had any yet. The evidence presented in court claiming that Monsanto suppressed damning evidence about the safety of glyphosate may have convinced a jury, but others might be less convinced. You can judge for yourself. One of the pieces of evidence was an internal memo from 2003, advising staff how to respond to charges laid by environmental activists against glyphosate.
It contained the words: “For example you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen”. Taken in isolation it could easily be imagined that they indicated the company had information it was a carcinogen and they were trying to suppress the information. Actually, the sentence was part of a longer passage pointing out that the marketing name ‘Roundup’ included a number of different formulations, some of which did and some of which didn’t contain glyphosate and that they should always use the term ‘glyphosate’ – that being the active ingredient that was being accused of causing cancer. The passage reads:
“The terms glyphosate and Roundup cannot be used interchangeably nor can you use "Roundup" for all glyphosate-based herbicides any more. For example you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen ... we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient. We can make that statement about glyphosate and can infer that there is no reason to believe that Roundup would cause cancer.”
It was, in other words, a request for scientific precision – something sorely lacking from the environmental activists who have been trying to tell us that glyphosate is giving us cancer. It is GM Foods all over again, where environmental activists found it very easy to frighten the public about ‘Frankenstein Foods’. Indeed, the two issues are related. Monsanto was the bogeyman in the anti-GM campaign – while Roundup-resistant crops were one of the GM foods which were attacked.