IARCgate for Dummies: Three Reasons this WHO Agency’s Glyphosate Campaign is a Scandal

Today an American media source contacted me to cover the story on this week’s censoring of my IARCgate blog. He wanted to have a short paragraph to explain the situation with IARC’s glyphosate scandal and why it is important. After sending him about two pages, where I tried to exclude many of the more complicated parts, I realised that this is not a very straightforward scandal. Perhaps it is time to write a primer on IARCgate – a simplified explanation of why it is a scandal and why the debate is extremely important for the future of science-based policy-making.

There are three main areas where IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) has acted in an unprofessional or unethical manner. See the links at the bottom that provide the research, quotes and videos to back up this IARCgate for Dummies blog.

  1. Hiding a Conflict of Interest

IARC managers have developed a close relationship with Christopher Portier, a statistician employed by the Washington-based NGO, the Environmental Defense Fund. After many years of participation on IARC Working Groups and a visiting scholar period in IARC’s head office in Lyon, IARC appointed Portier in 2014 to chair their Advisory Committee. This Committee proposed the next series of IARC studies (which included a study on glyphosate). Before this, Portier had published articles against glyphosate and Monsanto. In 2015, Portier was the sole invited member allowed to participate on the IARC glyphosate working group, serving as the technical adviser (even though he was not a toxicologist). In both of these cases, IARC attempted to hide Portier’s affiliation with the anti-pesticide Environmental Defense Fund even though they knew about this conflict of interest beforehand.

 

  1. Campaigning against other Scientific Agencies

After the IARC publication of glyphosate being a probable carcinogen, Portier hit the road, touring capitals and privately meeting leading policymakers from the German government to EU Commissioners. He wrote policy letters (signed by dozens of his friends) and published articles criticising the mainstream scientific community (that had overwhelmingly rejected IARC’s study for poor methodology and lack of evidence). This proved too much for the head of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) who, in the European Parliament, had lashed out at Portier and IARC for conducting the “Facebook Age of Science”.

IARC not only defended Portier, they themselves had been busy attacking EFSA and the German Institute for Risk Assessment (the BfR – responsible for managing the EU’s glyphosate risk assessment) – claiming they had a conflict of interest for using data provided by industry. EFSA and the BfR roundly rejected IARC’s approach, responding to requests from the European Commission to reassess glyphosate given IARC’s conclusion with the resounding declaration that the herbicide was safe.

Meanwhile IARC’s Kathryn Guyton, the agency’s author of the glyphosate monograph, gave TV interviews where she accused EFSA of working with industry. This is not really how someone from an international science institution should behave and I am sure the WHO should have some sort of code of conduct on this. EFSA and IARC have stopped publicly talking to each other. Over Easter, IARC got a Le Monde journalist to carry out a further attack on EFSA. My critical reaction to that article resulted in Le Monde trying to censor me.

 

  1. Promoting a Politicised Approach to Science-based Policymaking

The IARC team’s behaviour during the glyphosate Working Group meeting was purely political. The meeting started with the members being informed that the fourth option: “Not carcinogenic” was not under consideration. Guyton herself informed an NGO group in 2014 (a year before the meeting) that the studies on pesticides would show a clear link with breast cancer. It is not surprising that IARC had planned a conclusion that no other scientific body, with over 3000 papers on glyphosate, had dared to make – only once in all of their studies has IARC ever reached a conclusion of non-carcinogenic. What is behind this discrepancy?

IARC takes a different approach to studying the science on health-related issues that almost always guarantees a positive (carcinogenic) conclusion … making their studies completely useless for policy and risk management decisions. As they are aggressively campaigning that their approach is the best, perhaps we need to look at how they are different.

Risk v Hazard-based Regulation

EFSA and the BfR are responsible for conducting the risk assessments on glyphosate for the EU – meaning they gather all of the available scientific evidence and advise on how to manage the risks (to consumers, users, producers…). If there are data gaps, they request more information from industry, the academe, researchers … and then, when they have a good picture of the state of the science, provide their advice to policymakers (the risk managers). On glyphosate, they have taken account of the 1000s of studies (plus the IARC monograph), sought extra data from producers and other scientists and concluded, categorically, that the herbicide could be safely managed and did not pose a risk to human health. This is called risk-based regulation.

On the other side, IARC doesn’t do risk management but merely decides whether a substance can be considered as a carcinogen (determining if it is a hazard). In 2015, their working group meeting to consider glyphosate threw out out all but 8 papers (in many cases because industry was involved in generating some of the data), and relied on questionable results from three publications to conclude that glyphosate was probably carcinogenic. There was no question of how high the risk of exposure was, how it could be managed or if it was relevant to EU conditions. As a hazard-based approach to regulation, their view is that glyphosate could be carcinogenic and therefore, from Portier’s activist campaigning, we need to ban it.

Risk 101: Risk = hazard + exposure. Stairs are a hazard (I might trip on them). If I am not using stairs (no exposure), then there is no risk. If I need to use the stairs (for some benefit), then I will need to manage my exposure to reduce the risk of falling (being careful, using the hand-rail, getting support if I am old or immobile).

Risk management is the reduction of exposures to known hazards. The scientific community (including EFSA and the BfR) has largely determined that glyphosate is a minimal hazard (low toxicity) whose exposure can be easily managed so that we (farmers and consumers) can enjoy the benefits of better agricultural yields. IARC feels there is a hazard and it needs to be restricted.

IARC has been campaigning against the use of the risk-based approach to regulations and this is very important not only for glyphosate, but for any regulation in future. I suspect that IARC fears its lack of legitimacy if regulators continue to ignore them, which is why they have mobilised the NGO community to support them. But by banning a substance like glyphosate because it could be carcinogenic while ignoring most of the data, the levels of exposure required and the means to limit exposure (not to mention the benefits for agriculture), we are making a mockery of the risk-management process. This appears to be what will happen.

IARC has also considered sunlight, mobile phones, red meat, coffee and working nights as carcinogenic.

 

How to fix it?

The easiest solution is for the WHO to retract the IARC monograph on glyphosate. They are meeting in May to discuss this, and given the unprofessional behaviour of the agency over the last year, this may be a good first step in repairing IARC’s tattered reputation. Likewise, in May, the European Commission will need some courage to stand up to the force of the NGO-MEP-organic lobbying coalition that sees this as an opportunity to Monsanto-bash. The farmers need to stop waiting for someone in Brussels to manage policy for them, and present others with a clear understanding of what farming without herbicides would entail.

None of these are easy which is why my hopes are on the WHO, which elsewhere had declared that glyphosate is safe.

 

References

See the following blogs on IARCgate (all translated in French as well)

24 Comments Add yours

  1. Sage Radachowsky says:

    What i would call a scandal is Monsanto’s cover-up of the evidence that glyphosate causes cancer, which was shown by their own experiment with 240 rats that concluded after two years in 1990, and then the inconvenient data was “explained away” in a 1991 EPA memo that looks political to me.

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    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Sage – can you send me the link to that study? – I don’t have it.

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      1. sagerad says:

        Neither do i, because it’s not published. You need to file an FOIA to get it, unless you’re given it by Monsanto. However, the 1991 EPA memo is available here: https://archive.epa.gov/pesticides/chemicalsearch/chemical/foia/web/pdf/103601/103601-265.pdf

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      2. riskmonger says:

        Saw the text and it seems pretty clear that the results showed no increased risk of carcinogenicity. Has anyone filed an FOIA – I’m sure they can (otherwise it may have to be filed as another of those urban legends).

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      3. sagerad says:

        The 1991 EPA memo “declared” that there is no carcinogenicity, but that is not justified by the data and their explanations make no sense.

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  2. sagerad says:

    Glyphosate does appear to cause cancer, judging from the data from Monsanto’s own experiment, a two-year rat feeding study of 240 rats that ended in 1990. The data appears to show that glyphosate causes tumors in the rats in contrast to the control group. The industry appears to have explained away this inconvenient truth and now karma catches up. I don’t really feel sorry for them.

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  3. Drakhor says:

    Well, well, well, would you look at that. It’s our oh-so-friendly anti-GMO moron Sage spouting his nonsense again. And if you disagree with him, you end up with something like this.

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    1. riskmonger says:

      It’s OK Drakhor – I am open to criticisms and debate – no one gets banned here and I don’t worry about name-calling – I am open to anything people have to say so long as I also get them to listen to my views!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Drakhor says:

        He just can’t help it…

        PS: Btw, I’m not Brad.

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      2. Drakhor says:

        And btw, by “abusing people on EcoWatch”, he means posting actual facts and scientific links. But what would our little boy Sage know about that. If it goes against his confirmation bias, it’s “trolling”.

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      3. riskmonger says:

        OK – I am still figuring out this new blogsite and how to keep posts in moderation. I’ve been called a troll many times … it’s just a word, get over it. I’d rather get to ideas

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    2. sagerad says:

      I’m not sorry man. “Brad Allen” is that you? So pseudonymous of you, or else you’re passing on “ammo” about me from one troll to another. When you abuse the sanctity of dialog to push an agenda, and especially when that agenda is dangerous and results in deaths of innocent people, then you deserve every single word of that and much more. So i stand by that. And say whatever dude, glyphosate still causes cancer and Monsanto lied about that for profits just as they lied about PCBs — they’re a sociopathic organization and need to be dismantled with a triage damage control methodology, and people punished for crimes, with actual felony charges and jail time.

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      1. riskmonger says:

        Keep it polite people or I’ll have to get you a private room. Read my last blog – Monsanto will celebrate the day that old, off-patent product is off the market. This is not about Monsanto, it is about farmers needing to control weeds with using children or heavy tillage.

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    3. sagerad says:

      And let’s see… industry trolls say things like this:

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  4. Drakhor says:

    Sage uses that memo from 1991 pretty much everywhere, and nothing else. You know what that is called? A bad case of “Single Study Syndrome”. He’s just a sad, pathetic wanna-be “activist” who smokes pot all day. Just ignore everything he babbles, it makes no sense anyway.

    https://scienceornot.net/2012/10/23/single-study-syndrome-clutching-at-convenient-confirmation/

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    1. riskmonger says:

      Single studies can do a lot of damage if not replicable (the Swedish study on power lines and cancer from the 1970s, the Skakkebaek endocrine study from the 1990s the Wakefield MMR vaccine study from the 1990s…) – but a single study can also mobilize scientists to rethink their paradigm if replicable). In this case though, if the memo is not known or shared (and no one has used the FOIA) from 25 years ago and in the thousands of studies since, nothing similar has been found, then, name-calling aside, I am afraid this is not even a single study.

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      1. sagerad says:

        Is it replicable? I don’t think we know, because i don’t think it’s been done. There have NOT been thousands of studies since. There has not been ONE study on this topic since, to my knowledge, and i’ve been looking and asking people like you to name one.

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      2. sagerad says:

        Had to reply to an older comment of yours, as there is no “Reply” button, but it’s definitely the case that Monsanto made a lot of money on glyphosate and on Roundup Ready seeds that sell only because glyphosate can be used on them. Those seeds still make IP money for Monsanto and therefore they still want glyphosate to be allowed. They’ve made plenty of money to date from approval resting on the shady 1991 EPA memo. If this is found to be fraud or influence then they ought to owe all that back to the public coffers and ought to be dissected page by page. I’m not saying the science is just slow by nature — i’m saying the science has been glacial intentionally, because the early data from the 1990 study showed probable troubles ahead.

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      3. riskmonger says:

        The debate in the EU is not about Roundup Ready since it is not used here. I put a link on the Monsanto shill blog comments about the next generation that they are trying to roll out – dicamba is working with soy beans. http://www.reuters.com/article/monsanto-dicamba-idUSL1N0ZA1XN20150624. If only the farmers were motivated to change over … but they have no reason – glyphosate is a lot cheaper and works well.
        Sorry about the reply functions – I had to put up this site last week – I got kicked off of BlogActiv because of “bad behaviour”!.

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    2. sagerad says:

      “Single study syndrome” is a symptom of when an industry finds inconvenient data and gasps “Oh no! Let’s bury this.” And then they use influence to get a 1991 EPA memo that does just that, even if three of those EPA toxicologists can’t even stomache it and write “DO NOT CONCUR” in block letters in place of a signature. But no matter. This is enough on which to base 25 years of adding a chemical to the food of the world, right? Safety is shown by… by agency decree with three dissenting toxicologists, and data that seems pretty seriously to show that glyphosate does in fact cause tumors of pancreas and thyroid in rats, some malignant and others adenomas that develop at a rate into carcinomas. Anyway, don’t speak about me. I’m a carpenter and i’m proud of who i am. I do this for the world on my off-hours and it’s not fun. It’s a burden caused by the lying and greed of an industry that would rather kill people than to forsake some profits. It’s blood money. I am being civil here and others are attempting to slander me. Please, moderator, tell them to knock it off and stick to the content, the facts, the evidence. The data from 1990 looks pretty darn bad for glyphosate. And the lack of later studies bespeaks of an industry whose m.o. is to bury inconvenient data rather than address it with integrity.

      Like

      1. riskmonger says:

        I don’t encourage name-calling – my goal is to spread reasonableness and name-calling tends to inspire the opposite.
        The events of the past couple years, from Seralini to Portier will encourage more studies on glyphosate (and I am sure there will be findings, but scientists will also disagree on the methodologies (one of the problems with Seralini).
        I still look at the basic corporate fact – in my last blog (on Greenpeace shilling for Monsanto) – no one is making a lot of money off of an old technology – Monsanto has,like other companies, alternatives that will, with patents, generate more income. Common sense would say that getting rid of “Uncle Glypho” would be in their interest. The science isn’t moving fast enough for them – we just had a vote in the EU yesterday and only the farmers were lobbying to keep glyphosate (it is cheap and effective).

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  5. Chris L says:

    I think the NGOs have been ignoring a hidden – though very obvious – risk to us all: water. According to the WHO factsheet on drowning (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs347/en/), 372,000 people die annually from drowning, and countless more are injured from this scourge. It is so dangerous in fact that it is used in torture (I have yet to hear about the CIA “glyphosate-boarding” prisoners to extract information). Great humanitarian that I am, I am willing to help Greenpeace and PAN and all their other friends to fight this affliction by banning water in all its forms. Say no to beach holidays! Down with baths! No more eight glasses a day!

    Like

    1. riskmonger says:

      Actually Chris, the Food Babe and Natural Nancy (formerly Nutritarian Nancy) did pick up that horrible story about dihydrogen monoxide but I believe those pages have been taken down.
      A curious note – there have been several attempts, but no one has been able to successfully commit suicide with glyphosate. It is less toxic than cookies!

      Like

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