…the case made by IARC for a possible role of glyphosate in the etiology of NHL is quite weak. For example, the only significant finding reported for NHL and glyphosate in a US study (De Roos et al., 2003) is of questionable evidentiary weight. Glyphosate was one of 47 different pesticides evaluated for associations with NHL in this pooled analysis of case–control studies, and each pesticide was assessed using two different statistical methods. A significant association was reported between glyphosate and NHL for only one of the statistical methods applied.

In other words, IARC selected one result from among the many comparisons arising from applying two methods to the analysis of so many different pesticides.  This selecting of a favored result exaggerates the significance of any risk due to glyphosate.

IARC’s questionable finding that glyphosate is a “possible carcinogen” has been taken up by advocates and NGO’s concerned about pesticides, including the National Resources Defense Council. A bizarre episode showcases the clash of different interest groups and interpretations regarding glyphosate. In October 2015, the EPA briefly released a report, labeled “final report,” stating that glyphosate is not likely a carcinogen. But the agency quickly took the report down, saying it was a draft that was not meant to be published. The EPA’s unexplained actions have provoked a firestorm of suspicion and charges that the agency is caving into anti-pesticide activists, as well as counter-charges that the agency is unduly influenced by commercial giants like Monsanto. A new meeting of the EPA Science Advisory Panel is scheduled for December. But changes to the make-up of the panel have provoked concern as to whether the Agency will give an unbiased assessment of the issue. A Congressional Committee is now investigating the EPA’s process regarding glyphosate.

All of this points up just how politicized questions like the safety/carcinogenicity of glyphosate have become. The subtle and difficult-to-interpret results of animal experiments and studies of agricultural workers easily lend themselves to what different specialists with different points-of-view may wish to find in them. Meanwhile, the overlay of strong beliefs and ideological commitments threatens to obscure what the science has to say on a question of enormous economic importance.

What is at stake in this latest iteration of the clash over environmental threats is enormous. First, there is the possibility that a product that is cheap, safe, and effective will be restricted or banned, reducing crop yields and requiring the substitution of products about which less is known and which may pose a greater danger. Second, controversies like this cause unnecessary confusion and alarm in the public and divert attention from issues that really do matter. Third, by doing so, they add to the already considerable distrust of science.

This article originally appeared in Forbes as “While Unlikely to Be Carcinogenic, The Herbicide Glyphosate Is A Symptom Of A Deep Social Pathology” and has been republished with permission from the author.

Geoffery Kabat is an epidemiologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the author of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks. Follow him on Twitter @GeoKabat.