Glyphosate is “definitely genotoxic”, says Prof Chris Portier, an invited specialist advising the World Health Organisation’s cancer agency, which classed glyphosate as a probable carcinogen
Prof Christopher Portier, an invited specialist at the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which determined that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen, said at a scientific briefing today, “Glyphosate is definitely genotoxic. There is no doubt in my mind.”
“Genotoxic” means it damages DNA. It is widely believed by regulators that for genotoxic chemicals that are also carcinogenic, as glyphosate appears to be, there is no safe level of exposure.
Prof Portier was speaking today at a scientific briefing in London organised by the Soil Association.
The Soil Association is calling for a UK ban on the use of glyphosate sprayed on UK wheat as a pre-harvest weedkiller and its use to kill the crop to ripen it faster. New figures analysed by the Soil Association from government data were released at a scientific briefing in London on 15 July 2015. This revealed that glyphosate use in UK farming has increased by 400% in the last 20 years and it’s one of the three pesticides regularly found in routine testing of British bread - appearing in up to 30% of samples tested by the Defra committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (PRiF).
At the briefing, Dr Robin Mesnage of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics at Kings College in London presented data showing Roundup is 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate alone. He said, “Glyphosate is everywhere throughout our food chain - in our food and water. The lack of data on toxicity of glyphosate is not proof of safety and these herbicides cannot be considered safe without proper testing. We know Roundup, the commercial name of glyphosate-based herbicides, contains many other chemicals, which when mixed together are 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate on its own.”
Claire Robinson, an editor at GMWatch.org, said that the international response to the IARC finding had been dramatic: “Some retailers in Switzerland and Germany have removed glyphosate products from their shelves; France has committed to stop selling them to consumers via self-service by 2018. German states are calling for an EU wide ban. The Danish Working Environment Authority has declared glyphosate a carcinogen. El Salvador and Sri Lanka have banned it (due not to the IARC report but other studies linking it with kidney disease) and the Colombia government has banned aerial spraying of the herbicide on coca crops.”
Three months ago, the World Health Organisation’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), concluded, “Glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans”. The newly recognised dangers of glyphosate come against a background of increased use in the UK. Glyphosate is used in public parks and other urban areas to kill weeds. In the last year for which government figures are available, nearly a third of UK cereals, wheat and barley, were sprayed with glyphosate – a total of just over one million hectares.
Peter Melchett, Soil Association Policy Director, said; “If glyphosate ends up in bread it’s impossible for people to avoid it, unless they are eating organic. On the other hand, farmers could easily choose not to use glyphosate as a spray on wheat crops – just before they are harvested. This is why the Soil Association is calling for the immediate ending of the use of glyphosate sprays on wheat destined for use in bread.”
Claire Robinson said at the meeting that people cannot rely on regulators to protect their health: the battle will be won by consumers pressuring retailers to remove glyphosate from their shelves.
In the case of bread, a Soil Association statement said retailers and manufacturers should insist their products don’t contain any glyphosate. Although the quantities found are below the official safety level, that limit was agreed before the latest scientific findings about the dangers of glyphosate. The glyphosate spraying season starts now. In the interests of human health and the quality of British bread, the government must call a halt to the spraying before it starts.
A recent European study on city dwellers found that in the UK, 7 out of 10 people had traces of this weedkiller in their urine. The food industry tells us that the levels of glyphosate in food poses no danger to the British public. But the findings from IARC, and the cocktail of chemicals often found in bread, call this into serious question.
The levels of glyphosate found in bread are well below the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) set by the EU. However, the MRL was set well before this latest determination by the WHO. In addition, the MRL for glyphosate has always been a matter of controversy because if glyphosate is an endocrine disrupter, as some scientists suggest, there may be no safe lower level for human consumption. Whatever the MRL, research into public opinion shows that the presence of any chemicals in food is one of the main health concerns for consumers, especially those with children.
1. The Soil Association has written in recent weeks to the Farming Minister at Defra, George Eustice MP, the President of the National Farmers’ Union, Meurig Raymond, the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers, all the major supermarkets (ASDA, Co-op, M&S, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose) and bread manufacturers (Hovis, Warburtons, Allied Bakery and Brace’s) calling for them to ensure no British wheat destined for bread-making is sprayed with glyphosate before this year’s harvest, and that none of the bread that they sell contains glyphosate weed-killer.
2. Professor Portier, Dr Mesnage and Claire Robinson were speaking at a Soil Association scientific briefing in Westminster on 15 July.
NOTE (update 23 Jan 2018): In a previous version of this story, we wrote that Christopher Portier was a co-author of the IARC monograph on glyphosate. This is incorrect: Prof Portier was an invited specialist advising the working group on glyphosate. However, Prof Portier was deemed by IARC to have an interest that could be construed as a conflict of interest (being a part-time advisor to an environmental group, the Environmental Defense Fund) and thus he was not allowed to take any part in the writing of IARC's monograph report on glyphosate, nor was he allowed to vote on its classification as a probable human carcinogen. We apologise for the error and any misunderstanding caused.