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