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Was Monsanto involved in EU glyphosate study?

March 23, 2017

Environmental organizations are accusing Monsanto of influencing the outcome of studies on the pesticide active ingredient, glyphosate. EU agencies have said it poses no risk of cancer to humans.

Monsanto-Bayer Unkrautvernichter Roundup
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Roberson

It's been a decades-long, controversial debate. Now environmental organizations are alleging that the chemical company, Monsanto, actively influenced studies on the risks and hazards of the pesticide active ingredient, glyphosate. Monsanto is said to have mislead regulators.

On Thursday (23.3.2017), a citizens' initiative called "Stop Glyphosate" publishes a 65-page report. The report "Glyphosate and cancer: Buying science" calls into question a number of scientific studies, accusing the researchers of conflicts of interest or that they are associated with Monsanto in some way.

These studies have been used by regulators in the US and EU to decide on the health risks involved in using the pesticide and herbicide agent. Those regulators include the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its European counterparts, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). 

Approval expires at the end of 2017

The European Food Safety Authority's position has long been that glyphosate seems to pose no cancer risk. And ECHA agrees. Last Wednesday (15.3.2017), ECHA published its assessment that glyphosate was not to be classified as a carcinogen. However, it said, glyphosate can cause "serious eye damage" and be "toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects."

Supporters and critics view ECHA's assessment from their relative positions. Supporters see ECHA's opinion as confirmation that glyphosate can be used without concern - if it's used in accordance with appropriate protective measures.

German Federal Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks, however, has been quoted as saying the EU agency had assessed glyphosate as being a "significant risk to the environment."

What they are arguing about is whether glyphosate should be reapproved for use in the EU - its current approval expire at the end of this year.

A matter of interpretation

Allegations of industry-meddling in scientific evaluations are nothing new. Even before ECHA's assessment was published this month, environmental organizations had written to ECHA's director in an open letter, drawing attention to various counts of alleged conflicts of interest among researchers.

Environmental lobbyists accuse ECHA of basing its findings not only on publicly available research, but also on unpublished studies provided to it by the industry. They say these studies have not been openly verified, and they accuse ECHA of contravening its stated principles of "transparent procedures" and "open decision making."

The WHO's position on glyphosate

Glyphosate critics cite a counter-assessment from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), published in 2015. IARC is part of the World Health Organization (WHO). Its report says glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic" to humans. But then a year later the WHO seemed to reverse its position.

The public initiative "Stop Glyphosate" says Monsanto waged a targeted and successful campaign to discredit the IARC study. Their study alleges that articles published in a scientific journal were written by researchers who had worked as advisers for Monsanto.

No end in sight

The discrepancy between the opposing studies is unusual. Following the ECHA assessment, German Federal Minister for Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt has called for return to facts on the topic. Schmidt says any decision should be based only on "scientific evaluation."

But it's hard to see how his wish will come true, given all the doubt that has been raised over the existing scientific studies. The scientific studies have now become the core of the controversy. It's likely to intensify the debate.




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