Originally published on March 31, 2015
The recent International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) publication on glyphosate
(a chemical found in Monsanto’s Roundup) once again illustrates how international scientific bodies continue to put politics over science, run anti-industry witch-hunts and have become the playground for environmental activist predators using the cloak of an international body to try to give their campaigns a resemblance of credibility.
This time, IARC (part of the WHO) was used by an anti-pesticides campaign that was biased beyond belief. Here is what we know:
- The IARC decision on glyphosate was based on a limited selection of studies (vs decades of government studies demonstrating that glyphosate poses no significant risk to human health). Industry groups have condemned the report as cherry-picking on the basis of a few studies and ignoring the majority. For example, six reputable studies giving glyphosate a clean bill of health were proposed but ignored by the panel.
- The decision was concluded after a week-long meeting in IARC’s Lyon offices (vs a four-year study by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), appointed as the EU risk assessment rapporteur assessing 30 studies on glyphosate that found no relationship between glyphosate and increased risks of cancer). See how the BfR condemned the IARC report.
- IARC listed the chemical as a probable carcinogen (Category 2A), in the same way that coffee and any pickled vegetables are probably carcinogenic. For the record, IARC considers sunlight as a known carcinogen (Category 1) but I don’t see regulators banning people from going outside.
- If one actually reads the Lancet summary of the monograph (most activists and media sources only quoted the one sentence in the short abstract in front of the paywall), the IARC conclusion on glyphosate is “There was limited evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.” The IARC press release also admits that the glyphosate studies do not show evidence of cancer in humans, but tries to argue that there were three studies on animals indicating cancer risks (on mice) and that seemed to be enough to justify the 2A classification. They used another study to try to make the link to humans, and the author of that study lashed out that IARC got it “totally wrong”. Why is IARC trying so hard to link this chemical to cancer in humans?
- IARC waited to publish the press release on their study, embargoing it until the eve of the Europe-wide, activist campaign event known as Pesticides Action Week. Is this good science or good activist campaigning? Is IARC neutral and responsible or captured by the environmental NGO shills who know how to conduct effective PR campaigns?
- One of the key players on the IARC working group behind this rueful study is Christopher J. Portier – an activist from the American anti-pesticides NGO, the Environmental Defense Fund who was the 17thscientist on this panel of experts (listed in the Lancet publication as the invited specialist). There did not seem to be any question of conflict of interest.
She Blinded me with Bias
The media have seemed to overlook the presence of an environmental activist at the centre of an anti-pesticide decision from an international scientific body. Perhaps it is just too easy to use the IARC study to bash Monsanto than to do some research and objective analysis.
Mr Portier is an activist for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an American campaign organisation that has long been campaigning to deny farmers the means to protect their crops. EDF was founded on anti-pesticides campaigns and claims credit for banning DDT in the 1960s (and the millions of victims of malaria that ban has caused).
Portier himself is no wallflower on the Monsanto hate-scene, listing, among his achievements, research on the health effects in Vietnam from the use of Agent Orange. He recently wrote an article condemning Elsevier for retracting the controversial Séralini activist science article on Roundup and GM maize. Having Portier as the technical specialist involved in the working group deciding the carcinogenic fate of a main chemical in Roundup is like leaving a rat in charge of the cheese factory.
Curiously, when I went to the Environmental Defense Fund website to search for Portier, they did not seem to list him on any of their expert teams or staff. Did they forget that they are paying a scientist who sits on international committees and government decision-making bodies or were they trying to not be very transparent?
Portier has been a member of EDF since at least October 2013 (see an interesting article where he argues, with other EDF colleagues and consultants, for wider, non-scientific involvement in EPA chemical testing), but he did not declare his interests in April 2014 when he chaired the IARC Advisory Group that listed glyphosate as a research priority for 2015-19. Note that no industry scientists were allowed to participate on this advisory group.
IARC must be in a disgraceful state of mismanagement if they could let themselves be so blatantly captured by such an activist campaign organisation. Who let Mr Portier onto the IARC scientific team without considering it a potential conflict of interest? IARC was clearly aware of his affiliation with the Environmental Defense Fund NGO. Portier even signs some of his articles as an employee of IARC.
Who is responsible for the quality checks on an IARC scientific publication that rejected most of the mainstream literature on glyphosate (certainly not peer-reviewed by any acceptable definition I know of)? Who was behind the decision to time the publication of the IARC study on the eve of the biggest week of the year for anti-pesticide campaigners? Was there anyone in IARC with a bit of leadership and oversight who can take responsibility for this debacle?
The scientific community has roundly attacked IARC for junk science on their glyphosate publication (See the critical Nature article or the scientists’ reactions in the Science Media Centre). The best example in the latter is a statement by Sir Colin Berry, Emeritus Professor of Pathology at Queen Mary University of London.
“There are over 60 genotoxicity studies on glyphosate with none showing results that should cause alarm relating to any likely human exposure. For human epidemiological studies there are 7 cohort and 14 case control studies, none of which support carcinogenicity. … The weight of evidence is against carcinogenicity.”
So the mainstream scientists have rejected the IARC monograph as weak and dismal, and have moved on to more important work. But what about the blatant conflict of interest or the cheap activist science that is serving as the foundation for environmental NGO campaigns, then demanding the use of the precautionary principle to further handcuff farmers. This campaign has been reinforced by the vilification of industry (especially Monsanto), widely emotionalised on social media, to flank any risk of rational argument or discussion.
Stop the witch-hunt
These are troubling times for rationality and credible science. Anti-industry activist campaigns from groups like Sum-of-us, Corporate Europe Observatory or Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (through their front group, ALTER-EU), have made industry scientists in Brussels about as welcome as witches in Salem, Massachusetts. No scientists who have been involved with industry, even projects with a single industry partner, are allowed on government or international panels or expert groups because it is assumed they have a conflict of interest. This applies to most credible scientists who have had their research at some point funded by private resources, except for NGO sponsored activist scientists who apparently think they represent only the public interest and feel they can say and do whatever they bloody well like. And NGO activist groups like the Environmental Defense Fund think that it is none of our business. What would the world be like without hypocrites?
This witch-hunt against industry-linked research has to stop. An anti-industry activist group like Corporate Europe Observatory has almost 700,000€ per year to pay journalists to comb through research records to name and shame agencies who dared to request advice from scientists with even the slightest whiff of private funding. The Risk-Monger receives 0€ to identify activist campaigners who have infiltrated public bodies. I don’t stand a chance of highlighting the depth of this problem on NGO capture and can only find such situations when the outcomes are so biased and irrational (like the IARC monograph) as to scream for my attention.
IARC seems to be OK with an NGO activist as the working group special technical adviser, but ensured that industry scientists were excluded, only giving them the meaningless observer status (a cynical form of torture). I don’t understand why industry does not just get up and walk away. The pretense of dialogue and engagement in government policy-making has long been dead.
But then again, maybe no one seems interested. Last December, I showed how four of the five scientists on the European Food Safety Authority Bee Risk Assessment Working Group, the group that gave the tainted advice that led to the destructive precautionary ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, were either unqualified or engaged in anti-pesticide activist campaigns. These conflicted working-group members are still there, activist bee scientists still continue to bang their drums with policy-makers and I do not have the means to wage a “plea for reason and sanity” campaign on my own. A world without hypocrites would be a lonely place.
I am not defending Monsanto or the chemical industry, but rather the respect for proper use of evidence in the decision-making process and the means for farmers to properly protect their crops, safely and legally. Imagine for a moment if an industry scientist were found on a scientific committee with a suspicious industry-friendly outcome. Everyone would be jumping up and down spitting invectives until the industry person is removed (no matter how qualified). The hypocrisy and double standards in this case shows to just what degree the anti-industry witch-hunt has succeeded.
I would love to see heads roll in IARC and the glyphosate monograph withdrawn, but who am I kidding?
A tradition of agency activism
But this is not the first example of irresponsible activism coming out of international organisations or agencies. I have hollered loud and long about how UNEP seems to operate in a rationality vacuum (recently employing the disgraced former EEA head, Jacqueline McGlade, as their chief environmental scientist). The IPCC has evolved, especially during the dark Pachauri years, to become more political and campaign-oriented than scientific. On the Risk-Monger’s Facebook page, I have enjoyed poking fun at how the head of the WHO, Margaret Chan, would regularly blame industry for the spread of Ebola rather than accept that the WHO themselves were hopeless in managing the outbreak in the crucial early stages.
The WHO loves to give it to the tobacco industry, the IPCC lives to attack the fossil fuel companies, so I suppose it was a matter of time until some international body could line up their anti-industry bias to shoot at Monsanto. Populist, emotional, but regrettably lacking in integrity, scientific evidence or good judgment. Is this what international environmental-health governance has become: a retiring ground for militant, aging flower children?
So here is a bigger question: What is the point of IARC? What do they actually do that national governments do not themselves need to do before legislating, albeit better, with better science and without such blatant and disgraceful conflicts of interest? If there is no added-value to this agency, except to support minority activists and junk science, I can only conclude: Shut it down!
Or maybe we should indeed ban sunlight for being a known carcinogen? For those of you who take still IARC pronouncements seriously, forget about escaping the sun by working nights. IARC has listed night-shifts as probably carcinogenic (Category 2A).