In 2015 toxicologist Helmut Greim told the German Parliament that glyphosate herbicide doesn’t pose a cancer risk. But he has a history of defending toxic products that dates back to 1994 – and has been less than transparent about his industry links
In 2015 the German toxicologist Helmut Greim was invited before a German Parliamentary committee in the role of an independent expert to advise the committee members on the safety or otherwise of the herbicide glyphosate. Greim gave the herbicide the all-clear.
But an investigation by the German political TV programme Monitor (see transcript below), which is broadcast monthly on the German public TV channel ARD, has revealed that Greim is not independent but has close links to industry. And long before he took to defending glyphosate, Greim did the same for dioxin and PCBs, substances that are now accepted as highly toxic.
In the case of PCBs, Prof Erich Schöndorf, a former public prosecutor, said of Greim: “He was a phoney expert. He didn't deserve to be recognised as an 'expert' or 'subject specialist'. He clearly stood on the manufacturer's side and had nothing to do with impartial scientific methodology.”
Greim is a member of the expert panels convened and funded by Monsanto to defend the safety of its herbicide glyphosate against the verdict of the World Health Organization’s cancer agency IARC that the chemical is a probable human carcinogen.
As Monsanto notes, Greim “has previously served as a consultant to Monsanto Company and, as part of that consulting relationship, published peer-reviewed data regarding glyphosate”.
There are no prizes for guessing the conclusion drawn from those data. In early 2015, shortly before IARC dropped its bombshell of a glyphosate-cancer link, Greim co-published a paper with Monsanto employee David Saltmiras that concluded, “glyphosate does not present concern with respect to carcinogenic potential in humans”.
And in 2016, when five Monsanto-funded papers appeared specifically defending the safety of glyphosate against the IARC verdict, Greim popped up as an author on two of them. The first contradicted IARC’s view that there is “sufficient” evidence of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity in animals, stating that the chemical “is not a carcinogen in laboratory animals”, while the second stated the conclusion of Monsanto’s expert panels that “The data do not support IARC’s conclusion that glyphosate is a 'probable human carcinogen’ ” and that “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans”.
Monitor’s reporter Georg Restle interviewed Greim and challenged his decades-long record of defending the indefensible. Following is an English translation of the transcript of the report, which was broadcast in October this year.
Expertise for sale: How an expert with close links to industry has been influencing policy for decades
Report: Jochen Taßler, Kim Otto
Monitor, 20 October 2016
Georg Restle: “Whenever laws are passed in Germany, experts play a highly crucial role. Clearly, politicians cannot know everything, and therefore they will seek advice from outside. That this advice should be 'independent' goes without saying – especially when it concerns matters as important as our health. But in the case of the man we are now reporting on, it is difficult to see how this advice was independent. Whether the concern has been about diesel exhaust fumes, wood preservatives or glyphosate, he has consistently given the all-clear. This much-feted scientist, who has provided expert opinions for the German Federal Parliament for decades, was already tracked down by Monitor back in 1994. A former public prosecutor aptly called him a 'phoney expert' with surprisingly close connections to industry – which continue right up to the present time.”
In Germany, you would be hard-pressed to go one better than the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. This man was awarded it for his contribution to the protection of people and the environment: he is Professor Helmut Greim, aged 81, the scientist and toxicologist – someone who stands out amongst his peers. When it came to deciding whether such or such a substance was dangerous, Greim has been right at the heart of the matter, putting his own stamp on important debates, willing to stick to the maxim 'Not as bad as all that’ – whenever he sat on parliamentary committees or expert commissions, or when taking part in interviews or talk shows.
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “You can get along fine with the 40 microgram and 200 microgram doses – it's absurd to classify it as carcinogenic for people – all the things they are bringing up here are just a whole lot of speculation.”
Greim was always unequivocal: nitrogen oxides caused no problem. Glyphosate didn't lead to cancer. Dioxin was harmless. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) barely posed any risk.
Professor Erich Schöndorf, expert in environmental law: “It was always the same – whenever it was to do with poisonous substances, Greim would give them the green light. Everything was safe.”
Oliver Krischer, Member of the German Parliament (Alliance 90/The Green Party), deputy leader of the parliamentary group: “He has tended to pop up whenever the interests of industry have been in the spotlight, whenever there's been discussion about whether specific substances should be banned or whether their use should be restricted. Greim always makes an appearance when it's about putting a gloss on the effect of certain substances, particularly when it goes against the interests of industry or when it's about the legal aspect.”
It is sometime in 2015. An Agriculture Committee is meeting in the German Federal Parliament. Greim has been invited along as an independent expert. They are discussing glyphosate, the active substance in many plant pesticides, which is found all over the world and whose use has been highly contentious for years. The International Agency for Research on Cancer at the World Health Organization has recently classified glyphosate as 'probably carcinogenic'. Greim gives it the 'all-clear'.
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “I must say, I really don't understand at all what all the fuss is about. It does not cause cancer.”
In one of his own studies relating to glyphosate and the risks of cancer he worked with an unusual co-author: David Saltmiras, an employee of Monsanto, the largest manufacturer of glyphosate-based plant pesticides. The conclusion of the study tallied completely with the company's view, i.e. glyphosate was essentially harmless. Greim was remunerated by Monsanto for providing his expertise. This fact did not influence the results, he maintains.
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “It is what it is. It's a fact. And not just because Monsanto wanted it that way. [The toxicity data] just happened to be negative.”*
Reporter: “But you did get paid.”
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “Yes, I already told you that: so you'd do work without being paid, would you? Only for the sake of friendship.”
Oliver Krischer, Member of the German Parliament (Alliance 90/The Green Party), deputy leader of the parliamentary group: “Anyone who writes paid reports for the agricultural corporation Monsanto cannot, to my mind, be considered an independent expert in the field of glyphosate and plant pesticides.”
So how does someone like this come to be invited to a parliamentary committee as an independent expert? On this occasion Greim was summoned by the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. Evidently no one had quite managed to scrutinise his CV, however.
Hermann Färber, Member of the German Parliament (CDU), Committee for Nutrition and Agriculture: “The scientists we invite from the EU are independent – otherwise there's no way we'd invite them.”
Reporter: “Yes, but Mr Greim is being paid by Monsanto and fully represents the views held by that company. So it is difficult to see how he is independent.”
Hermann Färber, Member of the German Parliament (CDU), Committee for Nutrition and Agriculture: “I can't really react to what you are saying now off the top of my head. I'd also just really like to … we need to focus on things as they are. It's not what Mr Greim says that's the deciding factor, anyway – what matters is what the regulatory authorities have to say.”
You could certainly discern a close connection with industry somewhere. Greim was already on Monitor's radar back in 1994. There was the case of toxic PCBs in wood preservatives. Tens of thousands had fallen ill because of them. The scandal led to one of Germany's biggest ever environmental court cases. Greim appeared in an expert capacity and attributed the harm inflicted to other factors – a stance that was wholly favourable to the manufacturers.
Professor Erich Schöndorf, a former public prosecutor in the court case: “He was a phoney expert. He didn't deserve to be recognised as an 'expert' or 'subject specialist'. He clearly stood on the manufacturer's side and had nothing to do with impartial scientific methodology.”
This was according to the public prosecutor at that time. Greim denied this. And so he carried on with his successful career, even participating in numerous expert commissions for the EU. He wasn't always that precise with regard to his well-established connections to industry. Whilst reporting to an important expert committee of the European Union Commission he forgot to mention, for example, that he was active for research organisations which enjoyed considerable financing by the chemicals and automotive industries.
Reporter: “I have it here. And there was a query about it. And this is what you yourself reported. And then you have this…”
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: 'From... from when?'
Reporter: “Yes, once in 2008 and then again in 2011, from your own declaration.”
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “Well, I'll have to check to see if I was still with those... with those organisations.”
We did a check. According to his own personal CV he was still with them.
In the intervening years, he has been similarly involved with a number of institutions with close links to industry – something that he either fails to declare or, occasionally, just omits to mention. Even in the current debate on nitrogen oxide emissions from diesel engines, Greim supports views that are favourable to industry. Perhaps we also need to focus on his work with one particular organisation – the European Research Association for Environment and Health in the transportation sector. Greim is the current chairman of the research advisory board. The association was created by Daimler, BMW, Volkswagen and Bosch – in order to carry out research into (amongst other things) nitrogen oxides. It was in relation to this that Greim appeared in his expert capacity on the investigative committee of the German Parliament, which looked into the car exhaust question. He subsequently spoke out against imposing more stringent gas emission limits, in favour of industry.
Reporter: “Now while you were on the committee – we are referring to car exhaust emissions – you gave [industry] your full support.”
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “I didn't! I represented the scientific position – not that of the automobile industry.”
Reporter: “Which happens to correspond, however.”
Professor Helmut Greim, toxicologist: “That's entirely possible.”
It is interesting to note that Greim received the Order of Merit because his policy advice has 'not been guided by special interests.' As the saying goes, 'Honour to whom honour is due.'
1. Glyphosate rodent carcinogenicity bioassay expert panel review. Williams GM, Berry C, Burns M, de Camargo JL, Greim H. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):44-55. PMID: 27677669.
A review of the carcinogenic potential of glyphosate by four independent expert panels and comparison to the IARC assessment. Williams GM, Aardema M, Acquavella J, Berry SC, Brusick D, Burns MM, de Camargo JL, Garabrant D, Greim HA, Kier LD, Kirkland DJ, Marsh G, Solomon KR, Sorahan T, Roberts A, Weed DL. Crit Rev Toxicol. 2016 Sep;46(sup1):3-20. PMID: 27677666
* The German original is not completely clear in this instance so the translation in square brackets is speculative.