Scientific dispute over glyphosate’s safety highlighted in European press article
EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis has announced at a press conference (at 8:20 in the video) that the Commission will extend the licence for glyphosate for 18 months due to “legal obligations”, pending the decision of the European Chemicals Agency on glyphosate’s health risks.
He did not specify what restrictions would be placed on use of the substance.
Meanwhile Euranet Plus has published a series of three excellent articles on glyphosate. Part 2 is below. Audio interviews and graphics are included at the original URLs.
Glyphosate, the most-hated herbicide – Part 2
Euranet Plus, June 20, 2016
The EU might extend the authorisation of the herbicide glyphosate for 18 months after a political dispute which disclosed the links between industry and food safety control. Euranet Plus is publishing the second part of an investigation – focusing on scientific wrangling.
As often with chemicals, the story starts in the green and mountainous Switzerland, where Dr. Henri Martin, a chemist working for a pharmaceutical company, discovered glyphosate in 1950.
But Dr. Martin or his employer might have had a poor business acumen since they did not find any pharmaceutical applications and so the molecule was sold to other companies.
In 1970, a Monsanto chemist, Dr. John Franz, identified the herbicidal activity of glyphosate and four years later, the end-use product called Roundup was commercialised.
Then in 1996, so-called “Roundup Ready”, genetically engineered soybean, maize and cotton which are glyphosate-tolerant, were approved for planting in the U.S.
In the following years Roundup, whose active product is glyphosate, became the most-sold herbicide in the world, produced by one of “the most-hated company in the world, Monsanto”, as Martin Pigeon, researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) puts it.
“Glyphosate is Monsanto. It’s because people don’t like Monsato that they focus on glyphosate”, explained a source closed to the matter.
Surprisingly enough, German member of the European Parliament (MEP), Peter Liese (centre-right), does not find that Monsanto is exerting too much pressure to convince lawmakers that glyphosate authorisation might be renewed. (audio in German)
“I had a meeting with Monsanto and I was really surprised to see how few arguments they presented,” explains Liese, adding that “there is also the supposition that Monsanto would be quite happy with a glyphosate ban since they might afterwards bring new products on the market which would be more expensive.”
Liese explained that this theory has been mentioned at the European Parliament. “I do not agree with that, but my discussion with Monsanto was quite weird because they did not defend their product at all.”
Use of glyphosate multiplied by 260
The global use of glyphosate has increased dramatically since the late 1970’s, from 3,200 tons in 1974 to 825,000 tons in 2014, a multiplied factor of almost 260.
This increase mainly results from widespread adoption of Roundup Ready crops which were genetically engineered to be tolerant to glyphosate.
A research paper published last February points out that two-thirds of the total volume of glyphosate applied in the United States from 1974 to 2014 “has been sprayed in just the last ten years.”
French MEP José Bové (Greens) is well known in Brussels for his outspokenness and he considers that Roundup Ready was a “fantastic idea” to keep Monsanto’s business running. (audio in French)
“Shortly before Monsanto’s license on Roundup was about to become public domain, the company has elaborated a strategy to continue to sell its flagship product,” explains Bové.
“And this strategy was to put on the market GMOs tolerant to glyphosate, which were called corn or soya Roundup Ready. From this very moment, only the GMOs sold by Monsanto could avoid that the corn or the soya would have been killed by the herbicide.”
“By doing this Monsanto has raised exponentially its Roundup sells and the business has been relaunched.”
Monsanto’s business would have continued to run smoothly if a World Health Organization agency, based in Lyon (France), had not published a report – called monographs – in March last year.
In this report, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” as there was “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.”
The Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), a consortium of companies campaigning to renew glyphosate’s EU licence, has criticized the IARC conclusions, arguing the need to de-politicise the debate in Europe.
“The IARC classification differs from the conclusions […] of regulatory agencies around the world that have reviewed all of the relevant data on glyphosate over the last 40 years,” the GTF stated, adding that IARC made “very basic errors in data interpretation”.
A few months later, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), legally in charge to assess the renewal of the authorisation of glyphosate, reached an opposite conclusion in November 2015.
EFSA concluded that glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans” and this report was the very moment that the scientific argument became trickier.
“The main differences are at first because we have more studies. So we were able to use those additional studies that were not assessed by IARC,” explains Jose Vicente Tarazona, head of EFSA’s Pesticides Unit.
“And secondly and probably the most important thing regarding animal carcinogenicity: we consider that some of the information and some of the indications that have been considered by IARC are related to secondary toxicity, so for us they are not relevant.”
Following EFSA’s conclusions, an open letter was sent to EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis by a group of scientists led by Professor Christopher Portier.
“The EFSA conclusion that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans is inappropriate,” the scientists stated.
Taking an unusual hard stance, the letter also criticised the BfR, the German food and chemical safety agency, saying it has made a “scientifically unacceptable” assessment.
BfR’s central role is linked to the fact that Germany as so-called rapporteur member state has been chosen to scrutinise the chemical industry’s renewal request for glyphosate.
Based on toxicological studies delivered by the chemical industry, the German safety agency had submitted to EFSA a draft re-assessment report which was criticised by Professor Portier and his colleagues.
Five EU environmental organisations have opened a legal procedure against Monsanto, BfR and EFSA and filed documents to the state attorney in Berlin “showing that the responsible institutions misinterpreted research studies.”
The NGOs also voiced concerns about the fact that the BfR and EFSA’s risk assessments are based on scientific publications financed by the chemical industry.
“The European Food Safety Agency first of all has a problem with its own independence. The panel members have often conflicts of interests with the industry,” says Nina Holland, researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory.
“Secondly, they are not paid so they have to do it in their free time, which also really restricts the number of people which want to be member of such panels. And finally they have a transparency problem.”
“Their opinions are based on industry studies principally and often civil society organisations, other scientists do not have access to these studies because they are supposed to be trade secrets. If you take that packet together, you can say that there is really a problem in the way our food safety is being assessed.”
Two-years cooling-off period
In May 2012, concerns over conflicts of interests at EFSA caused the EU Parliament’s Committee on Budgetary Control to delay by six months the discharge of the agency’s 2010 budget, which means to freeze its budget.
In its last report for the year 2014, the same committee reiterated its call for EFSA to apply a two-years cooling-off period for its staff and stressed that experts “must be paid for their work so as to enable their independence”.
“In the case of glyphosate it’s even worse because the working group giving the EFSA’s opinion on glyphosate was composed of people sent from the national food safety agencies,” adds Holland.
“And 80 percent of the members of the working group on glyphosate did not even want to disclose their names, so there is no possibility to scrutinise their conflict of interests.”
“In the case of endocrine disruptors there was a working group of whom we do know the names: 8 out of 18 had a conflict interest for instance with Cefic, the chemical lobby industry, or Syngenta, and none of them really had any expertise in human endocrinology.”
But the most sensitive issue might be the access to the scientific studies produced by chemical companies and used by EFSA.
“In the Renewal Assessment Report […] there is an over-reliance on non-publicly available industry-provided studies”, stated Professor Portier in a report published in March.
A total of 14 scientific studies were undisclosed by EFSA and three of them, financed by Adama Agan Ltd (Israel), Nufarm (Austria) and Arysta LifeSciences Corporation (Japan), have been particularly under the spotlights.
EFSA and the Commission explained that they cannot disclose the studies based on a 2001 EU regulation regarding public access to documents which previews a few exceptions, among them the protection of “commercial interests.”
But the same legislation explained that exceptions shall not be applied when “there is an overriding public interest in disclosure”.
Then, a 2006 regulation concerning the request for access to environmental information, stated that “an overriding public interest in disclosure shall be deemed to exist where the information requested relates to emissions into the environment,, which is precisely the case for glyphosate, as the European Court of Justice concluded in a 2013 judgement.
This is what EU lawmakers pointed out in a resolution voted in April, calling on the Commission and EFSA “to immediately disclose all scientific evidence” used for the positive classification of glyphosate.
The answer of the industry “to address the public concern regarding the safety of glyphosate products” was to provide access to all 14 carcinogenicity studies “in a physical room environment”.
So-called “reading rooms” have been used for MEPs willing to access the EU-US trade negotiations papers. Basically it’s a room where one can consult thousands of document pages without being allowed to make any copy – just writing notes on a piece of paper.
Visitors are never let alone. It’s not a spy movie, it’s all about protection of commercial interests.
“I don’t agree with the answer of the industry. This reading room is not transparent”, said EU Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis last April in Strasbourg. But so far, the industry did not make a more generous offer.
Industry under attack
Asked about the way EFSA is keeping studies secret, Kate Guyton, IARC toxicologist who was involved in the March 2015 monographs on glyphosate, admits she is puzzled by EFSA’s secrecy.
“We have rules that everything has to be public, it has to be finalized. We only consider publications that are actually finished and published, and we only consider data that are really from government sources”, Guyton says.
“You know, I am not all that familiar with the EFSA regulation, what they are bound to publicly release. I think it’s difficult if they want to have a scientific argument against what IARC has done by using data that no one can has access to.”
“I think that is not a credible scientific argument without having full access to those data.”
The EU food security agency explains though that it would accept any new request for information as long as the Commission gives a green light.
“Basically we would appreciate any movement for additional transparency”, Jose Vicente Tarazona says.
“But nevertheless, in our view, we have already published sufficient information for allowing public scrutiny. Obviously EFSA will cooperate with the Commission in order to facilitate any final decision. But it’s a negotiation now between the Commission and the companies.”
Yet according to a leaked protocol of a phone conference which was held on March 18, 2016 between EFSA, the Glyphosate Task Force (GTF), the European Crop Protection Association (ECPA) and the DG Health, both EFSA and DG Health representatives were involved and aware that the industry has “strong concerns” on publishing the studies.
Eventually, the principle of the reading room was considered as the most convenient even though there were some doubts whether this would be conform to the Commissioner’s remarks on whether it will “address the NGO’s requests and public perception.”
“If reading room is agreeable, there will be a need to communicate on the approach chosen,” a DG Health representative added.
“As an industry we are constantly under attack; under attack by NGOs, under attack by politicians of a particular slam”, explains ECPA’s Director of Public Affairs Graeme Taylor.
“I think what we need is actually to have a genuine and open dialogue with all of the individual parties and we are open to do that. And I think it will not just be to our benefit, but it will be to the benefit of the European consumers who I do understand can be scared by some of the rhetoric we hear from NGOs around the use of pesticides or from the politicisation of science that we hear these days.”
Author: Jean Michel Bos, Euranet Plus News Agency