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Belgien Proteste gegen Glyphosat
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Thys

They 'didn't even read' the glyphosate studies

March 23, 2017

German and European regulators never undertook a critical assessment of the cancer risks of the herbicide active agent, glyphosate. That's the view of environmental chemist Dr Helmut Burtscher.


DW: Dr. Burtscher, your initiative "Global 2000" has published a study into the approval process for the pesticide and herbicide active ingredient, glyphosate. What are the main findings?

Dr. Helmut Burtscher: The current legal framework in Europe requires regulators to consider independent literature and research in the approval process of chemicals. We've discovered that chemicals manufacturers - in this case predominantly Monsanto - have taken that to mean that can produce their own independent studies. And they have commissioned and paid scientists to do that.

There are emails, published in the US, showing how they even thought about paying scientists to put their names to "independent" studies, which were written by Monsanto. All these studies went into the decision-making process in the US and EU, and the regulators there accepted them - with thanks - as a way to wipe critical studies from the table. Those were studies that were disadvantageous for glyphosate's approval chances, because they showed a risk of cancer or genotoxicity (a risk to DNA).

Scientists are meant to be able to repeat or replicate studies to test and verify them - what's called "peer review" - and that should provide a certain transparency. So how is it possible to alter the interpretation of a study, or make it appear either negative or positive at its core?

That's how science works. But regulatory studies are the exact opposite. Regulatory studies aren't published. Monsanto does its own toxicity studies with rats and mice, it also does its own studies on genotoxicity, or they commission labs to do the work for them. They then declare the results to be company secrets before submitting them to the regulators. There are no third-party scientists who get a chance to view the data and say, "Hold on, it doesn't work like that!"

Initiative Global2000, Biochemiker Helmut Burtscher
Dr. Helmut Burtscher is an environmental chemist at Global 2000Image: Caro Steiger

So your only hope is that some regulator has a proper look at the studies. But we now know that Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) didn't do that. It took the studies that showed a significant increase in tumors, dependent on the dose of glyphosate, and interpreted that to mean there were non indications of a risk of cancer. The World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) took these very same studies from the 1980s and 1990s to arrive at the conclusion that glyphosate was "probably carcinogenic."

When the BfR was asked how it had drawn a completely different assessment it had to admit that it had relied on the statistical analyses submitted by the manufacturers. And when you look at these statistical analyses, you notice that they do not refer to the OECD standards, which are recognized everywhere, as to how you should interpret such data.

Numerous other regulators have said they agree with the assessment that glyphosate poses no risk of cancer. Apart from the BfR there is the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and their American counterparts. That leaves IARC, which seems isolated in its view. How can that be?

That's Monsanto's favorite argument, and they're always wheeling it out. They say all the world regulators - whether it's in Canada, Japan, the USA or Europe - have repeatedly stated, "Glyphosate is not carcinogenic." And then there's IARC who says, "It is carcinogenic. So who's right?"

The fact is that all these regulators get Monsanto's studies and those from other companies. And they get the conclusions delivered at the same time. It's not just that Monsanto pays for the studies or that, to an extent, they conduct the studies. It's also that they write the study reports. And that would allow the industry to have made every regulator in the world their friend.

But the BfR also deserves to be blamed for having misled the public by declaring, "We've concluded this and so have other regulatory authorities."

If, however, you take a closer look, you notice how the BfR held the reins in all of the regulators. That's how the BfR did the first European assessment in the 1990s, and again through the EFSA it evaluated its own, earlier assessment. 

It was even the same people. Then, in 2004, they wrote the recommendation for a joint meeting on pesticide residues held by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). They did it again five years later. And they're doing it yet again now in this EU re-approval process. When it comes to assessing glyphosate, they are the ones in charge almost everywhere.

Dr. Helmut Burtscher is a bio and environmental chemist with the initiative, Global 2000. He has spent 15 years there working on the toxicological effects of pesticides and other chemicals on the environment and humans.

Deutsche Welle Fabian Schmidt App NEU
Fabian Schmidt Science editor focusing on technologies and inventions
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