IARC’s Glyphosate Debacle: Sinking deeper into their pit of hypocrisy

See the French translation

After exposing the IARC-gate scandal, I was hoping to leave that horrid little hornets’ nest and move on to more serious issues coming out of more serious organisations … but the relentless hypocrisy emanating from this “scientific” agency has become the gift that keeps on giving. Everything IARC (the International Agency for Research on Cancer) says about themselves (and they say a lot!) flies in the face of facts. In this blog, I will discuss how IARC has been hypocritical on four key points:

  • They tell everyone they are transparent, but they recently denied sharing information for a US freedom of information act request that would have exposed how US scientists allegedly had an influence on the glyphosate monograph.
  • They tell everyone they do not have conflicts of interest, yet their glyphosate monograph was infected by activist lobbyists from the get-go!
  • They tell everyone they are using the best scientific approach, but not a week goes by without the mainstream scientific community ripping into the IARC glyphosate findings or methodology.
  • They tell everyone they are a WHO agency, but they do not engage with all stakeholders. The anti-industry prejudice from the top IARC management is disgraceful.

While the insignificance of this organisation should make IARC easy to ignore, their activism of late (engaging aggressive campaign journalists to attack other agencies like EFSA and the BfR) and their glaring hypocrisy makes this “UN agency” in no way fit for purpose. The 25 countries that are still members of this band of activists should either pull out or dismiss the top layers of management and politicised scientists.

Transparent (when it’s in our interest)

This week the Risk-Monger learnt of a Freedom of Information Act request for information on emails exchanged between several scientists in the US EPA, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) and the IARC glyphosate scientific team. The refusal to furnish access to the emails of these public officials was, according to the government response, due to IARC’s denial to be transparent. The NTP provided this text:

iarc not transparent

Rather than showing the open debate and discussions of a scientific process, IARC seems to be endorsing a shredding operation. How is this transparent? More like consensus politics through biased pre-selection. Wouldn’t it be a benefit to all, and reflect a real scientific process, if IARC published the full debates and disagreements during their assessments. Instead IARC denies access to documents and merely talks about how they are so transparent.

The real gem here is that the FOIA request was made by Americans to try to get more information on why the EPA took down a publication of a final report by its own CARC (Cancer Assessment Review Committee) that rejected the IARC glyphosate conclusions. Did IARC put influence on the NTP/EPA scientists who had close ties to the international agency? There are emails out there but they seem to have circled the wagons and think that transparency does not apply to them. See an incisive analysis of the arrogance at IARC and the NTP.

So here is IARC, whose officials like Kate Guyton and Kurt Straif go on and on to anyone who will listen about how other organisations are not as transparent as IARC is, or how documents not in the public domain have no relevance, but if it comes to viewing their documents, they fog up their records and plead international immunity. If these people had any integrity, they would accept the standards they impose on others!

To parrot IARC’s vocabulary on documents not in the public domain (ie, the three industry documents EFSA used): “We cannot say whether the emails reflect positively or negatively on whether there was influence between NTP/EPA scientists and IARC, and whether IARC scientists were involved in retracting the EPA CARC report that contradicted the findings of the IARC glyphosate monograph. Without complying with the FOIA request, we cannot be sure that IARC isn’t hiding something.”

If IARC is transparent only when it is in their interest, what about when IARC is not transparent when they have someone with a conflict of interest? The hypocrisy is stupefying!

The S’Portier of Lying

IARC loves to remind everyone how they have a process (a code!) that makes them free from any conflict of interest. But in the case of glyphosate, they weren’t.

Christopher Portier is a statistician employed by the US Environmental Defense Fund. In 2013, he went to work at IARC for six months under Kurt Straif in the monographs unit. Four days after his internship ended, he chaired a committee of independent advisors in 2014 which recommended an IARC study on glyphosate. Although he is not a toxicologist, he was the technical advisor to the IARC Glyphosate Working Group (the only external member of the panel) which published its probably carcinogenic findings in 2015. During all of this time, and the year after when Portier travelled the world lobbying against glyphosate while using and abusing his IARC affiliation, he was being paid by the Environmental Defense Fund, an American NGO with a long history of lobbying against pesticides.

Now this seems to me like a pretty clear conflict of interest. IARC knew about it in 2013, but chose not to include this information in the Advisory Report in 2014, and only corrected his affiliation in the final monograph when Portier brought it to their attention during the meeting. In other words, IARC was intentionally not-transparent about this blatant conflict of interest. Being “intentionally not-transparent” is a euphemism for lying.

After I had confronted Kurt Straif about this in the European Parliament, Straif bizarrely thanked me for giving him the opportunity to show how transparent IARC’s process is. Somehow he thinks that being an NGO activist campaigner while influencing a policy advice process is not considered as a conflict of interest and not calling for any transparency (but whomever had removed Portier’s true affiliations from the IARC documents in 2014 and 2015 obviously got the message loud and clear!).

Portier himself highlighted the virtue of IARC being free from any conflict of interest. In his lobbying to the European Commission on why the EU should integrate the IARC findings into their glyphosate regulations, he cackles on about IARC’s process in comparison to EFSA’s, which he implies has been captured by industry.

The IARC WG decision was reached relying on open and  transparent procedures by independent scientists who completed thorough conflict-of-interest statements and were not affiliated or financially supported in any way by the chemical manufacturing industry. It is fully referenced and depends entirely on reports published in the open, peer-reviewed biomedical literature.

Wow! I suppose every month when the Environmental Defense Fund cheque comes in, Christopher must be left either delusional or morally exhausted.

Smell the stupid
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Make Monographs Great Again

Kate Guyton, the lead author of the IARC glyphosate monograph, has repeatedly praised how their publication is the best risk assessment out there (funny, I thought it was a hazard assessment), and so much more superior than other agencies that use poor science, have conflicts of interest and are not transparent. But IARC’s conclusion and methodology were alpanned universally panned by the scientific community from the moment of its publication. I cannot think of one credible scientific organisation that has defended IARC’s conclusions (quite a few campaign NGOs and activist scientists have). Now, not a week goes by where there isn’t some publication that trashes IARCs findings. In August, at least three independent publications came to light:

IARC did not rely on quality papers

Professor Frank Dost, an agricultural chemist from the University of Oregon, published a paper entitled The critical role of pre-publication peer review—a case study of glyphosate in the journal: Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Dost looked at the poor quality of the papers that IARC had relied on in the glyphosate monograph and concluded that most of them should never have been published. He states:

These examples of faulty or inapplicable research exist because of inadequate pre-publication review as well as faulty procedure. They erode confidence in every other reference quoted in the monograph. For Monograph 112, only one conclusion can be drawn from the use of studies that should never have seen print or that consider only mixtures but not their components: IARC has provided no credible information about the carcinogenicity of glyphosate.

Some studies had so many simple mistakes that Dost felt certain that the authors had not even seen the paper prior to publication. The article also shows that the IARC process itself was too short to have been able to have produced a quality scientific report. See my blog that uses Dost’s article to highlight 11 critical failures in the IARC report.

IARC’s conclusions were not sound

Robert E Tarone published a paper on IARC’s glyphosate monograph in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Dr Tarone has 42 years of experience in cancer research in the US, so eyebrows in Lyon should have been raised when he made the following claim:

It is shown that the classification of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen was the result of a flawed and incomplete summary of the experimental evidence evaluated by the Working Group. Rational and effective cancer prevention activities depend on scientifically sound and unbiased assessments of the carcinogenic potential of suspected agents.

When an eminent cancer researcher publicly demonstrates how IARC’s work is flawed, biased and not “scientifically sound”, you should expect more than the usual PR drivel from Straif and Guyton about how their process is so much better. I would expect them to be fired and IARC to issue an apology and a retraction

Tarone goes on to give IARC some good advice. Rather than selecting members to Working Groups on the basis of their publications having positive cancer findings (ie, building bias into the “process”), IARC should bring in scientists who also have dissenting views. He also feels that excluding scientists with conflicts of interest (eg, working for industry) is wrong. Rather, as we saw above, IARC is refusing to release pre-publication discussions and emails.

Government review rejects IARC findings; report endorsed by IARC glyphosate WG member

A recent scientific review done by the province of New Brunswick in Canada found no risk to human health from exposure to glyphosate. The Russell Report looked at the evidence in the IARC glyphosate monograph and compared it to the available literature and other glyphosate reports to make that contradicting conclusion. What is perhaps interesting in this event is the turnaround from IARC WG member, John McLaughlin (who is also the Chief Science Adviser to the province of Ontario). He endorsed the findings and the benefits of glyphosate. It should be noted that McLaughlin was critical of the need for the herbicide when the IARC findings were first published.

IARC’s anti-industry obsession

Tarone, in the paper referenced above, also mentioned that IARC may have gone too far in cleansing itself from engaging with industry. Quite succinctly, he declares:

Evidence from recent Working Groups suggests that steps taken in 2005 to ‘increase transparency’ in the IARC Monograph process because of a perceived undue influence of ‘industrial stakeholders’ (Samet, 2015) may have gone too far. The current process seems at times to be akin to a criminal trial with a prosecutor and a biased jury, but no defense counsel.

I had noted this double-standard when I had sifted through the names of the invitation list for the Conference and gala event (see: IARC50-Conference-Listofparticipants). Not a single scientist from the pharmaceutical industry was invited. Isn’t industry doing important research on cancer … or does IARC only work with scientists who identify causes of cancer, and not those developing better cancer treatments and preventative technologies?

We are living longer today (long enough for cancers to form) because of the innovations the pharmaceutical industry has developed. And we are surviving cancer at exponentially increasing rates, developing preventative vaccines and improving the quality of such treatments thanks largely to the laborious work, investment and risk-taking from industry.  Now excuse me for expressing a bit of outrage here, but “Who the hell do these jackasses at IARC think they are??? Using public money to celebrate the achievements of half a century of science and not even acknowledging the greatest contributors to this success because they came from industry! Such mindless, arrogant hypocrites!”

The day may come, regrettably, when an IARC scientist might be diagnosed with cancer. How will he or she react? Will they opt for alternative therapy like lemon juice and turmeric? Perhaps sodium bicarbonate? Or will they opt for the research and technology developed by the pharmaceutical industry they have ostracised?

If, as I hope, they opt for the rational choice and seek the solutions developed by science, only then will they understand the hollow hypocrisy espoused by their own IARC management? Maybe they should speak up now!


Image source (Note that IARC threatens to sue anyone who uses their logo in unfriendly articles. This is not an official logo of IARC and thus may keep their lawyers busy for a bit)

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Benjamin Edge says:

    There is also this new review from New Zealand. http://www.epa.govt.nz/Publications/Glyphosate_report_lay_summary.pdf


    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks – as I said, not a week goes by without some publication or study rejecting the IARC conclusion … which means I’ll have to do a blog next month again!


  2. Cin An says:

    Is this for real? Even a quick Google search for IARC transparency yields results full of (apparently thou dost protest too much) exhortations that IARC is the most transparent and unimpeachable organization ever known to mankind. In February of this year IARC chief Chris Wilde adamantly told the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) “Transparency, openness and scientific independence are assured through the evaluation process…” when defending against EFSA criticisms that their monograph reviews were less than forthcoming about the substance and process by which they made their determinations.

    Yet it turns out Wilde and IARC specifically “don’t discourage” the destruction of substance and process-related documents by monograph participants? That’s outrageous language parsing which more honestly stated would read that they instruct participants to destroy process-related documentation and to not disclose anything other than the final IARC-staff controlled and edited conclusion. Such non-transparency requirements of participants would negate the end findings by ANY university academic review board process, government oversight requirements for taxpayer funded research, and most peer review publishing screens for any reputable scientific journal.

    However, what’s more inexplicable is how a U.S. government agency (the NIH/NIEHS/NTP) which also happens to be the largest funder of these IARC monographs can claim that U.S. government employees who are being paid taxpayer salaries and using taxpayer dollars to participate in the IARC monograph project are somehow exempt from U.S. public records and disclosure laws simply because IARC doesn’t want them to share their correspondence and other documents. Since when is U.S. law superseded by a French-based non-governmental organization which has no legal authority, treaty or other agreement with the U.S. government that says it owns and controls the work product of U.S. government employees?


    1. riskmonger says:

      I think each IARC scientist is ordered to start each response with the words: IARC is fully transparent, independent and with no conflicts of interest. They must be morally exhausted.
      I am afraid it is for real – I am tired of blogging about this but each time I see more outrageous behaviour, I can’t let it sit – this must be my 12th blog in 18 months on them – I have seen so much bullshit and disregard coming out of Lyon that I am mystified how they can continue, oblivious to the outrage.
      They are not even really part of the WHO (they are autonomous!) so there is little the UN can do to control them – the 25 member states that pay their bills have to act. That includes the US!


  3. AlainCo says:

    Just a generic comment to Dr Zaruk.
    This is a PR war, no less. The rational thinking have lost the first battles. we are dying of this craziness.

    We have to use the same methods, trying not to go beyond the red line.
    We need to make documentary like the manipulator do.
    We need to make happenings like the manipulator do.
    we need to frighten, like the manipulator.

    trying to stay honest is a challenge, but I’m sure we can do it honestly with theyr own method.
    with the documentary that is absolutely biased, but that time we will stay factual (we cannot afford , unlike they, to lie, we are watched)
    with the fright, the terror, based on what we can predict from their doing. history is clear, and sadly, real history is hidden behind ideology. just dig real history.
    We can make funny events, calling some desperate media, then the more fashion media will came, and finally the Pravda of lies will be forced to cover our happenings, to criticize, but nobody will be blind.

    we have lost few battles, we did not lose the war. yet.


    1. riskmonger says:

      We are starting to plan an event in The Hague during the Monsanto Tribunal – I still think ridicule is the best approach but the media only understands emotional positions (the testimonies they are accumulating) – I referred to this as the hysteria rationality. So we are looking for farmers to come to the Hague!


      1. AlainCo says:

        it is important that if you observe that only emotional position are visible, you organize emotional response to this PR war.
        the challenge is to get emotional from sincere rationality, but this is PR… it is engineering, and ISIS, far right and far left, anti-GMO, anti-vaccine, sects, flatearthers of many kind, and many other minorities, are exploiting very well the system.

        We cannot take the luxury to ignore how things work. It is damaging our daily life.


      2. riskmonger says:

        We are seeing an interesting time politically not unlike 1933 (after a long economic depression, xenophobia and protectionism) with a push to the extremes – seen in the recent Austrian presidential second round, yesterday in Germany, Sanders/Trump effect, France will probably have a run-off next year between the ecologists and the FN – extremists on both sides play the emotional card and get attention. I have a blog in my computer entitled: “1933” that draws historical parallels … I just don’t feel right about publishing it yet!


  4. Bill says:

    IARC now requires working group participants to sign confidentiality agreements stating that participants will not discuss anything that happens during working group meetings with anyone unless IARC grants permission. See the announcements for monographs 118 and 119 for examples. Why would NIH pay for such nonsense? How can an IARC assessment form the basis of any subsequent decision? How can the state of California rely on IARC to decide what is a carcinogen for the purpose of Proposition 65 listings? Because it gives interested parties at NIH and California the ability to pursue precaution when valid hazard, exposure and risk assessments would undermine their goals.


    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Bill – It is curious that IARC attacked EFSA for using documents not in the public domain on glyphosate, but if we read the confidentiality agreement (http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Meetings/ConfidentialityUndertaking.pdf), for monograph 118 or 119, they will be using documents that are not in the public domain. Open? Transparent? Autonomous? How many times did Straif, Guyton and Portier use these hollow words. Monograph 117 was open, but not the others … http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Meetings/. How can anyone take IARC seriously?


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