IARC’s unprofessional and unethical behaviour. Time to retract their glyphosate monograph

Originally published on March 21, 2016

The last blog looked at ten reasons why glyphosate is the herbicide of the century. So why then, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence and clear environmental and social benefits, is this product on the verge of having its authorisation removed? The NGO activists and pro-organic lobbyists have led a formidable campaign that started a year ago with the publication of IARC’s press release classifying glyphosate as probably carcinogenic during Pesticide Action Week 2015. IARC’s activism was unprofessional at the time – in the year that followed, it has only got worse. It is time for IARC to retract its glyphosate monograph or face an investigation for their unprofessional and unethical practices.

Let’s start with a blog I had published last year in reaction to the IARC glyphosate publication. It showed that:

  • Christopher Portier was employed by the anti-pesticide American NGO, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
  • In 2014 Portier chaired the IARC expert advisory committee on priorities for the coming years (including glyphosate). IARC did not declare his employment with the activist NGO EDF.
  • In 2015, Portier served as the only external representative on the IARC glyphosate team with the role of technical adviser, even though he was working for an anti-pesticides NGO, had published many articles against Monsanto and was not even a toxicologist.
  • The IARC study rejected thousands of documents on glyphosate that had industry involvement and based their decision on carcinogenicity on the basis of eight studies (rejecting a further six because they did not like their conclusions).

The conflict of interests and non-transparent behaviour of both IARC and Portier was outrageous. But the media did not pay attention to my research last year, assuming that bashing Monsanto had better news legs than looking at scientific unprofessionalism and unethical behaviour in a UN organisation.

But in the last year, this IARC report has been picked up by all environmental NGOs, organic farming lobbyists, social media health gurus and Green politicians, with Christopher Portier leading from the front, to the point that glyphosate is now about to have its authorisation revoked in the EU with no alternatives available. With farmers and consumers about to face serious consequences and a potential risk to global food security, maybe it is time to revisit IARC’s decision one year on and consider whether the organisation can be allowed to continue to campaign as such.

IARC’s science on glyphosate has been roundly rejected

When IARC published its monograph declaring that glyphosate was probably carcinogenic, it was met with hoots and hollers from the scientific community. The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) – the EU rapporteur on glyphosate – pounded on IARC and their flimsy methodology:

BfR has compiled the most comprehensive toxicological database, presumably worldwide, for glyphosate. This database comprises hundreds of studies that were performed by or on behalf of the many manufacturers of glyphosate and thousands of references from the open literature. This huge amount of data makes glyphosate nearly unique among the active substances in plant protection products. BfR thinks that the entire database must be taken into account for toxicological evaluation and risk assessment of a substance and not merely a more or less arbitrary selection of studies. … The new IARC classification for glyphosate as a carcinogenic substance is based firstly on “limited evidence” in humans. This risk is derived from three epidemiological studies in the USA, Canada and Sweden based on a statistical correlation between exposure to glyphosate and an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. However, this assessment was not confirmed in a very large cohort of the also cited “Agricultural Health Study” or in other studies.

Normally a government health institute should be diplomatic and constructive, but in this case, well, IARC was served notice. Even the author of one of the papers IARC chose to use, claimed that IARC got it “totally wrong” . I am sure that EFSA would be more diplomatic, taking IARC’s conclusions into consideration when they presented their advice to the European Commission on the extension of the approval on the use of glyphosate. Well, … no! The official release from the EFSA scientists was quite direct as well – IARC had got it badly wrong:

Following a second mandate from the European Commission to consider the findings from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) regarding the potential carcinogenicity of glyphosate or glyphosate-containing plant protection products in the on-going peer review of the active substance, EFSA concluded that glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential according to Regulation (EC) No 1272/2008.

That was apparently not good enough for the IARC activist scientists who started a letter writing campaign to go above and around EFSA. Bernhard Url, EFSA’s Executive Director, expressed his “impatience” with such an unscientific approach during a hearing in the European Parliament with his famous Facebook Age of Science statement.

People that have not contributed to the work, that have not seen the evidence, most likely, that have not had the time to go into the detail, that are not in the process, have signed a letter of support. Sorry to say that, for me, with this, you leave the domain of science, you enter into the domain of lobbying and campaigning, and this is not the way EFSA goes. For me this is the first sign of the Facebook age of science. You have a scientific assessment, you put it in Facebook and you count how many people like it. For us, this is no way forward. We produce a scientific opinion, we stand for it but we cannot take into account whether it will be liked or not.

The best part about this outburst is the look on Kathryn Guyton’s face. She is the IARC director responsible for the glyphosate monograph sitting next to Url trying not to notice that EFSA chief cannot even stand to look at her.

By January of this year, mouths were hanging open from Brussels to Lyon to Geneva as grown adults started to behave very childishly. EFSA had to open a web-page with all of their responses to these campaigners. I wish I were making this up, but as of today, EFSA and IARC are not speaking to each other (as acknowledged during a European Parliament debate).

In short, the scientists in IARC have absolutely no credibility in the scientific world. Why is this? Perhaps we should look at who has been the chief standard bearer of the IARC glyphosate classification over the last year – none other than Environmental Defense Fund’s Christopher Portier.

A busy little activist

When Christopher Portier left Lyon with IARC’s “probably carcinogenic” decision on glyphosate in his hands, it was not quite “mission accomplished”. It was the beginning of the Environmental Defense Fund’s campaign to ban glyphosate globally. Since then Portier has been touring the world speaking and writing as the IARC glyphosate scientist. He has briefed governments from the German Bundestag to the European Commission. He has spoken to NGO groups like the UK Soil Association (where Portier claimed he was a co-author and seemingly adjusted the IARC decision to “definitely carcinogenic”).

EFSA Executive Director, Url’s Facebook Age of Science outburst was a reaction to Portier, with the EFSA’s head schooling the American on how EU science is different from policy. Portier had gone over Url’s head, writing to DG Santé Commissioner Andriukaitis with 95 of his friends, telling him why he needs to ditch EFSA’s advice. From his kind response, Andriukaitis arranged to have a private meeting with Portier in January. A private meeting between a European Commissioner and an environmental activist campaigning to ban glyphosate around a month before the Commission was to decide on the future of a major product most EU farmers relied upon??? How is this possible? Would we have the same non-interested reaction if Commisssioner Andriukaitis met privately with the head of Monsanto?

From the point of an environmental activist, Portier’s achievements in one short year have been magnificent. He persuaded a major UN organisation to trade away their scientific credibility so he could run his NGO’s anti-Monsanto campaign. He pissed off most credible scientists to the point where international global agencies are not speaking to each other. Despite his conflict of interest, he has been able to meet and persuade the highest decision-makers to rule against permitting the use of an important, beneficial, safe, low-toxicity herbicide and screw farmers and consumers the world over. A true environmental activist!

How could one man, who was not even an expert or a toxicologist, manage to do all of this by himself? He did not – Portier had friends within IARC and elsewhere.

This is where the story gets distasteful.

Should professionals put friends before science?

Portier had a senior visiting scientist award to go work for six months in IARC in 2013-14 with Kurt Straif – head of monograph publications. While the press release in 2013 showed that IARC was aware of Portier’s NGO activist affiliation, they did not mention the Environmental Defense Fund when Portier chaired the advisory committee in 2014 to recommend priorities for the next round of IARC monographs. I suppose Portier had enough time to build up friendships and become one of those famous UN “Good Old Boys” – a tried and tested network of external experts who are called in from the shadows whenever institutions need to produce a report or set up a committee. He had been in and out of IARC for years working on monographs from diesel fumes to EMF. But frankly he had no business chairing that 2014 Advisory Committee nor being the only external technical expert allowed to be part of the IARC glyphosate team (especially as his CV does not indicate any background in toxicology).

To be fair, I do not believe that Portier was the source of the smoke and mirrors; I suspect that IARC themselves were trying to shield his engagement with the Environmental Defense Fund. I had seen an observer report to the Lyon glyphosate meetings in March 2015 that states that Portier had introduced himself at the glyphosate meeting under the affiliation of the “Environmental Defense Fund” while appearing in the participant list as “retired from National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances Registry”. Did IARC think they could get away with non-transparency and hide their friend’s conflict of interest? Does IARC not have any standards or codes demanding transparency?

Employing a friend with poor qualifications and trying to not disclose his affiliation implies that there was a serious lack of professionalism at the heart of IARC.

In the European Parliament debate on glyphosate, I asked Dr Straif about Portier’s conflict of interest. See my question at the 3:25.40 mark and Straif’s rather testy response at 3:28.10. Straif passionately listed all of Portier’s achievements (without notes) and appeared to feel quite insulted by my question. There was a clear personal friendship with Portier. IARC’s Kathryn Guyton, sitting beside Straif, had a look on her face like I had just informed her that her dog just died.

Should IARC be allowed to appoint a friend as an external expert even though there is a serious conflict of interest about having an activist campaigner from a leading anti-pesticide NGO? After Portier spent a year campaigning to ban glyphosate in the name of IARC, shouldn’t someone in IARC have disavowed his connection to a UN institution? Rather, it seems IARC director, Christopher Wild, chose to defend Portier against the EFSA reaction to his campaign antics. They seem to be working on another, unaccountable planet than the rest of us.

UNprofessionalism and hypocrisy at the heart of IARC

Kathryn Guyton, author of the IARC glyphosate report, has not behaved in a manner expected for a scientist representing an international institute. In 2014, during a speech on breast cancer she had given to the activist group: Women in Europe for a Common Future, she stated from the 16:45 mark (dubbed in French) that the herbicide studies planned for 2015 had clear indications of a link to breast cancer. Did she already have some evidence a year beforehand and should a professional employed by the WHO suggest such a thing in front of a group of activists?

Kathryn also seemed to have a hard time repressing her disdain for Monsanto in public. She participated in an anti-glyphosate report on French television where she stated why IARC’s monograph on glyphosate was better than the BfR or EFSA. At the 25:40 mark (dubbed in French) Guyton justifies rejecting all of the Monsanto research and industry studies done for regulators. She believes that EFSA has a conflict of interest in using industry data while IARC experts have no conflict of interest (OK … just Christopher Portier leading the charge on behalf of the Environmental Defense Fund … pot … kettle … black). Portier himself had the balls to accuse the BfR of having a conflict of interest … the hypocrisy is blinding.

Retract the tainted IARC glyphosate monograph

During the debate in the European Parliament, at 3:37.00, Kathryn Guyton, in response to my question, denied that IARC will re-open the glyphosate study. There is clearly internal pressure for that monograph to be retracted. To this date, the WHO has not formally accepted the conclusions of the IARC glyphosate monograph – they are having an extraordinary meeting in May to address this issue. It is my firm opinion that this activist-led, conflicted report needs to be retracted and many IARC officials, including Straif and Guyton should have their contracts terminated for the following reasons:

  • IARC allowed an agenda-driven environmental activist into the heart of their organisation to produce a tainted document
  • IARC officials allowed this to happen on the basis of friendship rather than scientific qualifications
  • IARC did not disclose Portier’s affiliations and conflict of interest when he chaired the Expert Advisory Committee in 2014 (even though they knew in 2013 he was working for the anti-pesticides NGO in 2013). It is possible they had tried to hide his affiliations again at the WG meeting in March 2015.
  • IARC had lost credibility in the scientific community and rather than stepping back, has chosen to attack the practices and methodologies of other scientific institutes like EFSA and the BfR, creating a shameful public atmosphere of immature, unprofessional school-yard bullies.
  • IARC has not disavowed itself from the activist campaigns led by Christopher Portier since the publication of the glyphosate monograph.

As I said at the outset, this research is not as sexy as bashing Monsanto and making the public more afraid of chemicals – even one as benign and beneficial as glyphosate, so I do not expect the media to find this information interesting. Because of that, there is probably no need for the WHO to act to correct such unprofessional and dare I say unethical behaviour within IARC. But I feel the farmers, scientists and consumers need to understand how such a travesty as the coming ban on glyphosate could have happened.

My next blog (tomorrow) will look at the consequences of such a ban. Lock up your daughters!

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