This past December the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) held a four-day meeting (December 13 – 16) to review EPA findings related to the potential link between glyphosate and cancer. Glyphosate is the main chemical in the herbicide Roundup, made by biotech giant Monsanto.
The EPA has looked at the toxicity of glyphosate and its ability to cause cancer several times in recent years, prompted perhaps by an authoritative report that directly contradicted the EPA’s stance on glyphosate. In March 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) announced that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC reviewed about 1,000 studies, concluding there was “strong evidence” for the genotoxicity of glyphosate and glyphosate formulations, like Roundup. Notably, the IARC avoided industry-funded studies, choosing to base its evaluation on “pertinent studies, by independent experts, free from vested interests.”
The EPA, on the other hand, has invited vested interests, including Monsanto, to submit their own research to the agency and has consistently supported Monsanto against those concerned about the environmental and health effects of glyphosate. The results of the advisory panel’s review will not be announced until sometime this spring, but there is ample reason for concern that the SAP will dismiss evidence linking glyphosate and cancer, continuing the EPA’s pattern of industry support.
The EPA and Monsanto
The EPA originally (1985) classified glyphosate as a possible carcinogen, but in 1993 the agency re-registered glyphosate as a safe chemical, based upon studies submitted by Monsanto that were performed by laboratories later found to have committed fraud.
Three years later, after a legal battle in which the EPA fought against environmental groups seeking to protect consumers from pesticides in food, Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act, which set the current safety standard of “reasonable certainty of no harm” with regard to pesticides and herbicides.
In September 2015, the EPA’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee concluded that glyphosate met that standard and was “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” and last year the agency used that same language to affirm its support of glyphosate’s safety in its Glyphosate Issue Paper: Evaluation of Carcinogenic Potential. It is this paper and the science behind it that the Scientific Advisory Panel is being asked to review.
According to the issue paper, this last evaluation came about because the agency “became aware of additional relevant studies” that had been carried out by registrants (companies, like Monsanto, that register a pesticide with the EPA, i.e., vested interests), but never submitted to the EPA.
Just how the EPA became aware of the studies is not mentioned, but the registrants must have been quite pleased that the EPA had discovered their studies and requested them for inclusion in the agency’s new evaluation. Monsanto was undoubtedly also thrilled with the conclusions of the EPA’s latest evaluation, but many scientists and consumer protection advocates are not.
Glyphosate and Cancer
An analysis of the EPA’s issue paper prepared by Bill Freese, a Science Policy Analyst with the Center for Food Safety, argues that the agency’s analysis consistently, and, more importantly, wrongly, discounts evidence of the link between glyphosate and cancer. The CFS points to numerous mouse and rat studies containing evidence, including testicular tumors, pancreatic tumors, liver tumors, and malignant lymphomas, of glyphosate’s carcinogenic properties. In each case, the findings of those studies were dismissed by the EPA, while studies that should have been rejected were included in the EPA analysis. According to the CFS, the animal data the EPA examined “provides sufficient evidence to establish a causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and increased incidence of tumors in multiple tissues.” The CFS analysis also demonstrates that the EPA completely misinterpreted epidemiological studies that provide evidence of a causal relationship between glyphosate exposure and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
More powerful evidence that the EPA is getting it wrong came in a paper published last year in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. Ninety-four researchers and scientists from around the world, representing 25 countries and dozens of respected universities and research centers (including, in the U.S., the University of Chicago, Boston University, Johns Hopkins, University of California Berkeley, University of Iowa, University of Washington, and many others), voiced their support of the IARC findings.
“The most appropriate and scientifically based evaluation of the cancers reported in humans and laboratory animals, as well as supportive mechanistic data, is that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen. On the basis of this conclusion and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude that glyphosate formulations should also be considered likely human carcinogens.”
Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, March 3, 2016, “Differences in the carcinogenic evaluation of glyphosate between the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).”
– Authored by Christopher J. Portier, Bruce K. Armstrong, and 92 other scientists and academics from around the world.
The Scientific Advisory Committee
The Scientific Advisory Panel has been asked to review the EPA’s issue paper, and “comment on the completeness, transparency, and scientific quality of the agency’s characterization of the carcinogenic potential.” It has been asked to “comment” on the strengths and limitations of “available studies,” on the agency’s review and evaluation process, and on its methodology. In fact, the panel has been asked to “comment” on a great many things. One thing it has not been asked to do is deliver a verdict—to tell us whether they think glyphosate might reasonably be thought to be carcinogenic. So it is entirely possible that the panel will deliver a great many “comments” that, while they might be occasionally critical of some aspect of the agency’s work, end up amounting to a polite commentary that the EPA can politely disregard.
The panel is under enormous pressure. At stake in the SAP’s decision are billions of dollars in biotech and agrochemical industry profits. Glyphosate is the chief ingredient in not just Roundup, but many other herbicides. Those glyphosate-based herbicides are being dumped on plants grown from Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds. According to Fortune magazine, Monsanto earned over $10 billion in 2013 just from seeds and the genetic traits it has patented. If glyphosate is restricted or banned, the market for glyphosate-tolerant GMO seeds would be threatened.
Monsanto will continue to lean heavily against the EPA to make sure that doesn’t happen. But the agency’s history suggests that Monsanto will not need to lean very hard. Indeed, in certain respects, Monsanto has already won, because Roundup and other formulations containing glyphosate are thought by many to be vastly more toxic than glyphosate alone. The EPA, however, is only looking at the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, not the many formulations.
Moreover, the remarkable ability of the agrochemical industry to shape—and even distort—the scientific record itself should not be underestimated. For example, a recent search of the PubMed database for studies related to glyphosate and cancer turned up 17 papers published in 2016. Five of them, all supporting glyphosate use, were published in a supplement to the September 2016 issue of a journal, Critical Reviews in Toxicology (CRT), with strong industry ties. (A sixth study appearing in the PubMed search and published in a different journal was also funded by Monsanto.)
The CRT supplement also included an editorial by the journal’s editor-in-chief, who has deep ties to the chemical industry. The supplement, which was billed in the journal as an “independent review” of glyphosate’s carcinogenic potential, was sponsored and supported by an industry consultancy group and funded by Monsanto.
One of the supplement papers billed as a “genotoxicity Expert Panel Review” had five authors, of which four, work for private consulting groups. The fifth has a history of joining Monsanto consultants to write papers, published in industry-friendly journals, denying any link between glyphosate and cancer. He is also listed as the first author in two other supplement studies.
The Roundup Cancer Controversy Continues
The conclusions of the FIFRA scientific advisory panel will be announced sometime this spring. The most likely outcome is that the EPA will thank them for their work— and so will Monsanto. One can hope for at least some small surprise, and perhaps even a big one. Regardless of the panel’s findings, the issues surrounding glyphosate and Roundup and the world’s food supply will not soon go away. They are too important for a world that is increasingly being exposed to the carcinogenic potential of Roundup and other pesticides.