Is glyphosate–herbicide linked to GMOs–carcinogenic? Not if science matters.

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The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) departed from the scientific consensus on March 20 to declare glyphosate, the active ingredient in the Monsanto-created herbicide Roundup, to be a class 2A “probable human carcinogen”.

This conclusion, published in The Lancet Oncology, contradicts a strong and long standing consensus supported by a vast array of data and real world experience, and comes from an organization that rarely addresses potential pesticide carcinogenicity, perhaps because the real concerns in this area are minimal, and lie elsewhere. The IARC statement is not the result of a thorough, considered and critical review of all the relevant data. It is beyond the pale. Here’s why.

vast body of relevant information, including dozens of detailed genotoxicity, studies, animal bioassays, peer-reviewed publications and regulatory assessments, that show no evidence of carcinogenicity, and confirm its safety were presented to the IARC, but seem to have been ignored. On the other hand, witnesses report one paper so severely criticized and discredited that it was condemned by the scientific community and withdrawn by the publisher was actually taken on board by IARC.

That the IARC seems to have even considered such a fatally flawed and withdrawn paper triggers the Séralini Rule: “If you favorably cite the 2012 Séralini rats fed on Roundup® ready maize study, you just lost the argument.” The fact that IARC seems to be taking seriously this laughingstock publication suggests they have run thoroughly off the rails, gone beyond anything defensible as science, and well into fictional realms.

Scientific experts who have considered the body of relevant research do not agree with a categorization of glyphosate as likely carcinogen for a very simple reason–it’s clearly not. There is nothing in the data to support such claims, and nothing in the deep reservoir of real world experience with glyphosate, to justify such a move. Let’s be clear here. The IARC reviewed the data for less than a week before making its decision. It did not consider any new research or data, and all the information considered has already been evaluated by regulatory bodies around the world. The most recent of these reviews was conducted by Germany on behalf of the European Union. That study took more than a year and concluded—in accord with almost every major independent review of the herbicide–that it posed no serious health hazards and was certainly not carcinogenic.

IARC, a semi-autonomous extension of the World Health Organization, has been criticized before for advancing unsupportable prrecaution-based conclusions reached using flawed methodology. But IARC’s assault on glyphosate breaks new ground, which is all the more ironic given its clearly superior safety profile compared to the likely alternatives.

Glyphosate lacks the chemical structural characteristics of known carcinogens, and neither IARC nor anyone else has ever offered an even remotely plausible mechanism of carcinogenicity. No new data have been advanced to support this categorization, which can be reached only by ignoring and defying a vast body of data and experience. One might be forgiven for suspecting the intrusion of politics into the process; a suspicion not weakened by noting that one of the participants is employed by the Environmental Defense Fund, an organization of professional campaigners that has recently faced charges of manufacturing chemophobic alarms without scientific basis.

It seems IARC is in dire need of some adult supervision. Whether WHO finds the bureaucratic courage to apply such, and correct this policy miscarriage, remains to be seen. If they don’t, will IARC start picking off other safe but controversial agrochemicals as campaigning by advocacy groups heats up?

Val Giddings is senior fellow at The Information and Technologies Innovation Center. He previously served as vice president for Food & Agriculture of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and at the  Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and as expert consultant to the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, USDA, USAID, and companies, organizations and governments around the world. E-Mail: [email protected] Follow him on twitter @prometheusgreen.

  • RobertWager

    Politics, pure and simple. Very poor decision to ignore the science.

  • Mike Muszynski

    From the IARC pdf of Class 1 carcinogens (carcinogenic to humans): Salted fish – Chinese-style, Alcoholic beverages, Estrogen-progestogen oral contraceptives, Solar radiation, Ultraviolet-emitting tanning devices and Wood dust, to name a few.

    • Rosalind Dalefield

      To be entirely fair, at least some of those genuinely are carcinogenic. There is no question that alcohol is carcinogenic, and the same is true of solar radiation and UV-emitting tanning devices.

      • JezmundFamily

        Right, but it just proves the point that these things are very much dose dependent (as with anything else). Baking in the sun all day will likely give you skin cancer, but that doesn’t mean going outside a reasonable amount will. Just as you’re probably not going to get cancer from drinking in moderation. So how much glyphosate are we talking about to develop a reasonable risk of cancer is the real question.

        • Rosalind Dalefield

          Well considering it is not even genotoxic, I’d hazard a guess that it would have to be a great deal.

        • Derek Wolf

          Yes… it is a troubling question!

          Most understand very well that alcohol is carcinogenic… but adults make that choice one drink at a time.

          In the case of glyphosate/RoundUp, as it is applied on a grand scale… it is not like alcohol, where the adult can decide – I will have x amount of alcohol this week.

          Everyone eats multiple times a day, and many have the assumption that their food is safe. In the case that certain substances used in AG may not be safe… how could they regulate “the dose”?

          Troubling indeed.

          What would the voice of reason say?

          • RJB

            It would say, get a scientific education and find out how crappily the IARC came to this finding.

  • Rosalind Dalefield

    IARC cited only 16 papers, 7 of which have nothing to do with glyphosate, to classify glyphosate and some organophosphate pesticides as probable human carcinogens, while ignoring copious evidence that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. They are indeed in need of adult supervision!

    • Kevin Fogg

      that copious evidence is all industry sponsored and/or performed! the fox in charge of the hen house mentality NEVER works Rosalind! They even indicated that they follow rules when weighting evidence and one is avoid any industry performed or sponsored papers, they were up front and consistent with how they research a subject. Do you believe everything a car dealer tells you when buying a car also?

      • Rosalind Dalefield

        Incorrect. It is not all industry-sponsored or performed.

    • Derek Wolf

      The horror! Rather than accept Monsanto’s industry-ran studies… they turned to independent studies!

      What will we do if this happens again??

  • Gerard

    “On the other hand, witnesses report one paper so severely criticized and discredited that it was condemned by the scientific community and withdrawn by the publisher was actually taken on board by IARC.”

    I wouldn’t be a bit surprised but that’s a serious allegation. Need a citation for this, i.e., what witnesses and where did they make this claim?

    • RJB

      This is referring to the infamous 2012 Seralini lumpy rat study. So bad it is used by university statistics departments as an example of how not to design an experiment

  • Benjamin Edge
  • Kevin Fogg

    Val you my friend are on, or have been on someone’s payroll! one thing you failed to mention is tht the IARC follows guidelines when taken “studies” into account and the ones they disregarded were in some way performed or sponsored by industry! there is no way the public should ever rely on these flawed reports. The EU is correct Monsanto and the like are feeding us garbage and profit is all they care about make no mistake about that! this study goes against all that they’ve told us, don;t you think they and the like would do anyhting to refute it? including hiring guys like yourself to feed us more crap

    • Walrus Alt

      Food companies go to great lengths to mislead you (even lie, sometimes) to get you to buy their products and make you think they’re healthier than they really are by using various words, colors, and images on their packaging (e.g. the color green, the word “natural”, etc.)
      But please, tell me more about how seed companies are the ones who care more about your money than your health.

      • Farmer Sue

        Then what do you eat, walrus, and how do you decide if it’s good for you? who do YOU trust?

    • RJB

      Are you aware that the IARC completely misinterpreted the results in one of the studies they cited, and the author of the study has publicly pointed that out?

    • Jason Max

      There’s a lot of irony in this perspective. I constantly hear versions of “the companies should have to prove their products are safe before selling them to us.” But when they do exactly that, folks like you say “they are industry funded studies, we can’t trust them.” So, which is it? Do you want taxpayers to fund the safety trails of profitable companies, or do you want them to bear the regulatory burden?

  • Derek Wolf

    Because why should we trust the WHO, citing independent studies, rather than material submitted by the biotech companies?

    Think long and hard, Val. Eventually you’ll push through your confusion on the matter… and your emotional, irrational outbursts will be eased.

    Instead of baseless conjecture, why not invest time understanding what substantiated their findings? Hmm?

    • Derek Wolf

      And I’ll do you a solid and help you out, because even though you’re a bit unstable, I do care about people like you.

      “Glyphosate has been linked to tumours in mice and rats — and there is also what the IARC classifies as ‘mechanistic evidence’, such as DNA damage to human cells from exposure to glyphosate.

      Kathryn Guyton, a senior toxicologist in the monographs programme at the IARC and one of the authors of the study, says, “In the case of glyphosate, because the evidence in experimental animals was sufficient and the evidence in humans was limited, that would put the agent into group 2A.”

      http://www.nature.com/news/widely-used-herbicide-linked-to-cancer-1.17181

      People who appreciate science, logic, and the English language would agree – this accurately fits the description of a “probably carcinogenic” substance.

      Best wishes,

  • JP Lagrange

    IARC has a clear policy: Studies submitted by companies are not included in its reviews. You may criticize this policy, which is certainly not absurd, but you cannot tell that they go against a consensus that you declare based on these very studies.

  • Good4U

    It is cogent to keep in mind that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is not a regulatory agency, meaning that they do not make decisions on what can and cannot be deployed for food production, or on any other topic. Furthermore, the IARC conducts no research. The folks who comprise the IARC meet once and awhile in Lyon (that’s in France) or some other plush place in Europe and have a chat over a glass of wine or two about what they think might cause cancer. The folks who comprise the IARC aren’t even required to be scientists. They don’t even have to do any research. They are a bunch of stuffed shirt bureaucrats who by some political affiliation with the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) have secured for themselves plush positions as “potentates” (consultants) on a highbrow “panel” to create a lot of small talk in big rooms. They don’t even review any real data, as defined by the regulatory agencies across the globe. They don’t review any authentic toxicology studies, meaning studies conducted in compliance with Good Laboratory Practice (GLP). For those who don’t know what GLP means, it is a system of regulations that were created about 50 years ago to assure that all key toxicology studies affecting the approval of pharmaceutical drugs are not done in a fraudulent manner, meaning that the entire database supporting every study is subject to external audit, with criminal and civil penalties for any person or test facility that is found to produce fraudulent data. Several years later the precepts of GLP compliance were extended to pesticides. As a point of information, research experiments done by academic institutions (universities and colleges) are not done in compliance with GLP, thus their results, whether subjected to peer review or not, can never be determined to be fraudulent or not. Any agency that considers academic experiments preferentially over GLP compliant studies is not worthy of further comment in terms of protection of human health. Anyone who is serious about the science of toxicology typically turns away from circus showmen such as the Great Seralini, and members of his cohort, such as Dr. Oz, the mata Hari food babe, and their ilk, who thrive by inserting themselves under the Hollywood spotlight so they can sell you on some “organic” cure for what ails you.

    To complete the picture, the IARC does not concern itself with GLP compliant studies, which is their principal failure as an otherwise august body of potentates. If the IARC might deign to come down from their self ascribed pinnacle and authentically conduct cancer hazard assessments based upon well conducted toxicology studies, then their contribution to the health and wellbeing of the world might be enhanced. I would go so far as to say if the IARC might even take a step toward conducting authentic risk assessments (meaning to assess quantitative risk based on the dual factors of hazard x exposure), then I would be doubly impressed. I’m not holding my breath…

  • Dave Pennington

    “No new data have been advanced to support this categorization”

    How about some OLD data? Monsanto’s “trade secret” 2 yr study shows glyphosate causes cancer. Naturally they hid the data.