Glyphosate, Beer and Monsanto: An interview with the BfR’s Roland Solecki

See the French translation

Last month there was an interesting interview on the glyphosate approval process in the Süddeutsche Zeitung with Roland Solecki from the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). The BfR is the agency responsible to the EU Member States for evaluating glyphosate. Roland Solecki is head of the department responsible for the safety of pesticides. The BfR, along with EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) have been critical of how IARC’s hazard assessment on glyphosate was managed.

As it was published in German under a paywall most people in the English-speaking world did not hear much about this interview, but his statements are so spot on that it is worth sharing. The weaknesses in the text are mine, the strengths are Dr Solecki’s and that of the journalist, Jan Heidtmann (his questions in bold).

Here are the main excerpts from Dr Solecki’s interview with the German daily: Süddeutsche Zeitung, published on 19 April 2017. My comments are outside of the quotes in italics.

Is Glyphosate Safe? The Dose Makes the Poison

Would you drink glyphosate?

Roland Solecki: I generally do not drink any plant protection products.

Millions of people do. With every beer, there is glyphosate in it. In fact, you can detect traces of glyphosate in all possible foods. The question is: In what quantities? For example, to stick with beer: you must drink about one thousand liters at once for the amount of glyphosate to harm you. But you would have died long before from alcohol poisoning.

Glyphosate was first introduced by the US company Monsanto 40 years ago. Why is it still unclear whether it can trigger cancer in humans or not?

Roland Solecki: We are already of the opinion that this can be scientifically stated: when used properly in agriculture there is no cancer risk for humans. This is what the authorities in the USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and New Zealand see.

Nevertheless, there is a strong controversy over whether the substance should continue to be authorized in Europe.

Roland Solecki: For as long as glyphosate has been on the market, we have always evaluated it. This is required to take the latest state of science into account. The rotation is about ten years. So far our results have been widely accepted.

Why then this fierce debate for two years?

Roland Solecki: This can have many reasons. In the last two years, reports on the use of glyphosate in South America reached Europe. In South America, it was widely used, in, I feel, very difficult conditions. For example, in addition to glyphosate, other pesticide active substances prohibited in Europe were sprayed via airplanes. Malformations have also been associated with this massive use, but their causes are not yet proven. At the same time, the methods for the analysis of food have become increasingly better. Small quantities of glyphosate which have not previously been found can now be detected.

One of the curious points here is how patient and polite people like Dr Solecki are. If someone comes up to me and says: “I’m very worried about the health consequences from glyphosate after drinking 4,000 beers in a day”, I would have a hard time being polite. I think every NGO activist who tries to sell stupid arguments like that should be laughed out of the room, rather than being given a microphone and the opportunity to waste everyone’s time!

On IARC’s “Glyphosate Causes Cancer” Conclusion

The dispute over whether glyphosate can trigger cancer is also vehemently led by renowned scientists. Unlike the BfR, IARC considers glyphosate to be “probably carcinogenic”. IARC is, after all, the cancer research agency of the World Health Organization.

Roland Solecki: I greatly appreciate colleagues at IARC. But there are ten internationally recognised institutions, as well as the responsible body of the World Health Organization and the nutritional organisation of the UN, which conclude that: properly applied glyphosate does not trigger cancer. And one group (IARC) has said it potentially triggers cancer.

Chemistry is a clear science – why these different assessments?

Roland Solecki: I have been in science for 40 years, and there are always different opinions. This can be due to the objective of an assessment. The mission of IARC is to examine all possible substances, from red meat to hair dyes, to determine whether they could cause cancer. In the case of glyphosate, IARC has used only a part of the studies already available for the herbicide. The data they had was thoroughly assessed by colleagues from IARC. But it was just a section of the existing knowledge about glyphosate.

The IARC study would therefore be worthless. Is that so?

Roland Solecki: The IARC study has on the one hand caused us to analyse them thoroughly and once more critically review our own assessment, as is customary in science. On the other hand, it has stimulated the debate that study results of industry should also be made available to the public, which we strongly support, as far as the legal requirements for this are concerned.

Solecki’s last answer is important. The only real worth of the IARC glyphosate monograph is that it made other agencies and research institutes go back and carefully check their findings. Agencies, like the BfR, are now more certain than ever that glyphosate is safe. For the question of the industry role in research data production, I think we need to focus on the Witch-Hunt mentality of the anti-industry activists (including some disgraceful statements by those in IARC) and stand up against their fear-mongering.

On the Monsanto Papers

At present, some studies are being criticized for the further approval of glyphosate. The US company Monsanto is said to have an influence on authorities and scientists and have written studies themselves. Have you had contact with Monsanto?

Roland Solecki: Yes, I had three email inquiries from Monsanto. The employees wanted to know to whom they should send additional data. I referred them to the Federal Office for Consumer Protection, where the data belong. We have to reveal all e-mail traffic with the company. Incidentally, we have not used any of the studies criticised in the follow-up to our evaluation, which are said to favor further authorisation of glyphosate.

Maybe not directly. However, these studies have been included in the assessments of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and have thus led to the positive evaluation of glyphosate.

Roland Solecki: I can only speak for the BfR: We look at the studies we get, according to their scientific meaning. If they do not satisfy the scientific criteria, we do not use them. The significance of the few currently discussed studies is, moreover, low. The assessment of EFSA and the Member States is based primarily on the original studies and the underlying raw data. There is currently no solid evidence to suggest that scientific advice, directly or indirectly supported by the industry, could have influenced the EU risk assessment for glyphosate or even led to a positive assessment of glyphosate.

The strategy of the pro-organic industry activists today is lamentable and unethical. One message from one exuberant Monsanto consultant and they want all evidence and data thrown out. As Solecki says, the studies under question themselves were insignificant. Any activists who resort to using the Monsanto Paper nonsense are essentially admitting they are frauds – they have no evidence or science and only hope to raise enough anger and doubt to throw out all evidence. 

How Risk Assessments Work

The mistrust is nurtured precisely by the fact that the companies themselves commission and supervise the studies, which the European institutions use as the basis for their evaluation.

Roland Solecki: It is indeed the case that the legislators in America, in Europe, in Germany have established: If someone wants to produce a car, then he must provide the safety evidence. If someone wants to sell a medicine, he has to bring in the safety evidence. And if someone wants to introduce a herbicide like glyphosate on the market, then he must also provide the safety evidence. As I said, the results are then very precisely controlled. This regulation also has to do with costs, as they can go into the millions in these studies. I would like to hear what would happen if the public were to pay for these studies for private companies.

Nevertheless, the process is very one-sided: the institutions that advocate glyphosate are all based on studies made by companies. Independent sources, such as IARC, are declared irrelevant.

Roland Solecki: These studies are examined according to clear legal regulations. There are hundreds of scientists involved in independent bodies. These are not people who are paid by industry, they are highly qualified experts who also have a reputation at risk. I am not aware of any institutions which advocate glyphosate that have undertaken their own studies. They are all based on studies made by companies and on the comprehensive literary research. IARC has not been declared irrelevant by us. IARC’s classification is also based on studies financed by industry. In contrast to the BfR, however, these IARC studies were not published in the original, but only indirectly through publications.

Would it not be more sensible if state institutions would commission and control the studies and the companies would have to pay for it?

Roland Solecki: There has been an intense, political debate about this for years. However, the legislator decides on the rules for the testing of active substances, and we have no influence on them. As a scientist and evaluator, I consider the scientific quality of the underlying studies and data and not the source of the information.

Scientifically, this may be valid. Can you nevertheless understand that people are unsettled by the debate about glyphosate?

Roland Solecki: I can understand that. But I can only say that from a scientific point of view, we are trying to protect people. Plant protection products are tested like hardly any other chemical product. Household chemicals are not tested as intensively, neither are cosmetics. And that even though you apply this daily to your skin.

This is basic information that some of us have forgotten in the hysteria fomented by the anti-industry, anti-glyphosate activists. If industry is producing a substance or article, it is obliged to prove that it is safe. Industry has the expertise and the role of the regulator is to ensure they are properly using that expertise. Would you get on an airplane if they told you that the safety of that plane was not tested by the airline or the manufacturer of the plane but by a regulator? But this does not mean that the regulator blindly accepts what the industry scientist provides. The regulator’s role is to police the process and ensure public safety. As Solecki says, the reputation of hundreds of regulatory scientists in the BfR are at risk – they do not blindly accept all studies.

Interesting side comment on IARC’s hypocrisy (my conclusion). IARC is using industry-funded research, but rather than analysing the raw data (like the BfR and EFSA do), they only consider the published data. Should IARC have been so proud of such limitations?

I appreciate Dr Solecki’s honesty and openness. No doubt he has been personally attacked by activist zealots who are single-minded in implementing their fundamentalist dogma on glyphosate. That he so patiently and politely defends the process (even to a journalist who knows he has to “feed the beast”) merits my respect. His words remind us of our need to be reasonable. Unfortunately, the strength of the activists, and the weakness of the policymakers in the Age of Stupid mean such wise words are rarely received and rarely discussed.

Image source

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Beat Späth says:

    Thanks a lot David,
    Very nice stuff. As you may be aware, BfR president Hensel has also been excellent, recent examples include:
    Have a nice week


    1. riskmonger says:

      Thanks Beat – on the bright side, it is good to know that others agree with me that glyphosate is a luxury issue for the privileged … on the downside, I am never going to a BBQ again!


  2. Reblogged this on Peddling and Scaling God and Darwin and commented:
    Monsanto is the Devil incarnate in big business and their weedkiller is the most evil of all their products. #

    So we are told.

    I started using glyphospate or Round-up 30 years ago to get rid of weeds.I was recommended to do so by leading greenies in Liverpool. I have always hestitant to use it, but at times it is the best thing to do. Here some of the nonsense of Roundup/ glyphosphate is exposed


    1. riskmonger says:

      Have you ever tried to kill a sumac? I thought they were nice and colourful until the roots spread to my neighbour’s across the street. Impossible to control without glyphosate


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s