The European Battle Over Glyphosate’s Cancer Risk Continues

On March 15, the European Chemicals Agency declared that there is no convincing evidence to suggest that glyphosate — the key ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller — causes an increased risk of cancer in humans.

The Guardian reports:

Today, the agency decided that “the available scientific evidence did not meet the criteria to classify glyphosate as a carcinogen, as a mutagen or as toxic for reproduction.”

“This conclusion was based both on the human evidence and the weight of the evidence of all the animal studies reviewed,” Tim Bowmer, the chairman of ECHA’s Committee for Risk Assessment, said in an online briefing.

Therefore, in the opinion of the ECHA, glyphosate is safe for public use and cannot be classed as a carcinogen. This by no means ends the matter, however.

The report now faces internal scrutiny before it proceeds to the European commission for review. The outcome will contribute to the EU’s ongoing discussions about the licensing of glyphosate-containing products. A final decision will be made by the end of 2017 regarding whether to extend the temporary license granted in 2016 and reauthorize glyphosate for another 15 years of use.

Nevertheless, this decision has been welcomed by Europe’s leading agricultural industry voices who claim that the herbicide is critical to ensuring farmers’ livelihoods.

Crop Protection Association chief executive Sarah Mukherjee stated:

Glyphosate is, and always has been, safe. This ruling is another reminder this debate has never really been about safety, it has been hijacked and politicised to force a wider debate on modern agriculture. It is right we are having that debate, but it is wrong to use health scares to get there.

Mukherjee is likely referencing the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) determination of 2015 that found glyphosate “is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans and the evidence does not support classification with regard to its carcinogenic potential.”

While the Crop Protection Association may have confidence in glyphosate’s safety, it is not a view that is shared by all.

In fact, that very same determination made in 2015 was hotly contested by other reputable organizations. For example, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) listed glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” in March of 2015.

As Care2 noted in our previous coverage of this issue:

This means that there is some limited evidence in human studies that glyphosate exposure raises the risk of cancer–specifically, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Animal studies have also showed higher rates of cancerous growths in animals exposed to the active ingredient. Most research appears to focus on glyphosate’s interaction with our endocrine system.

Following the EFSA announcement in 2015, several members of the IARC panel and other high-profile scientists issued a letter in which they noted their concerns — namely, that the EFSA had relied on questionable evidence, including six industry-funded and partially unpublished studies. Comparatively, the WHO used wider data that suggested at least some cause for concern over glyphosate’s safety.

Based on this letter, public health advocates placed significant pressure on Europe to refuse to re-license glyphosate and to ignore the EFSA’s determination. Critics charged that, at the least, the announcement offered an incomplete picture of the full evidence. 

And now such concerns about the review process seem to have resurfaced in this latest review, too.

Greenpeace and other groups have officially raised objections about the supposed impartiality of the ECHA’s panel. A letter issued by Greenpeace this month noted that at least two members of the panel tasked with conducting the review of glyphosate are also “employed by public scientific institutes that also generate income from providing risk assessment consultancy services to the chemical industry.”

The panel replied, stating that it is not uncommon for panel members in any sphere of European lawmaking to have industry ties — after all, these individuals are experts and highly regarded in their field. 

While we must acknowledge that this does not necessarily mean those panel members are delivering biased opinions, Greenpeace argues that it renders suspect any conclusions made by the panel.

The Greenpeace letter also cites concerns that the ECHA’s determinations are based on some unpublished and partially published studies. This is particularly troubling, given that the ECHA has previously been accused of selecting only the data that seems to corroborate glyphosate’s safety — and ignoring other data used by groups like the WHO. That raises some serious concerns about long-term exposure risks.

This lack of transparency has been a persistent problem for European agencies as they seek to determine whether it is appropriate to reauthorize glyphosate for another 15-year term. Critics of the process, as well as wider health bodies, will likely keep urging the EU to commit to a fully transparent and methodical review of the data. And if glyphosate really is as safe as some claim, the farming industry should welcome this level of scrutiny.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

63 comments

Mark Donner
Mark Donnerabout a month ago

Monsanto's PCB's are now found at the bottom of the deepest oceans. Monsanto denies responsibility for its crimes of course. Monsanto is a planet killer worse than any terrorist organization that has ever existed.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donnerabout a month ago

Bill Arthur is a lying crook.. one of the gang that is launching an attack on the future of life on Earth. BAN CANCER CAUSING GLYSOPHATE, and all the other chemicals that crooked farmers in league with terrorist GMO/pesticide mafias are destroying our future with.

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Mark Donner
Mark Donnerabout a month ago

The name "European Chemicals Agency" says it all.. bought and paid for by the chemical corporation crooks and terrorists.

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heather g
heather g2 months ago

Both farm labourers and bees are affected...

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Tony Camilleri
Tony Camilleri2 months ago

The EU is bought by Monstersanto and Bayer who want to take over Monstersanto

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Bill Arthur
Bill Arthur2 months ago

Arthur joyce; I am not a troll or paid I am a farmer in my 70ies who has been using glyphosate among other chemicals to grow crops since 1965. Quit falling for all the naysayers who are out to get chemical companies. Companies who have produced tools that allow us to grow safe cheap food in abundance. While some believe these tools are unsafe proper studies done under proper guidelines show them to be safe. When something is PROVEN to be bad it is not used. Where would we humans be if we did not advance our food production to be able to feed all the people on the earth today? I am now growing almost double the yield of corn and wheat on a hectare today compared to what I produced when I started. It would not be possible without modern technology which has beed tested and found to be safe. How many wash down their inexpensive meal with wine or other alcohol which HAS been shown to be a carcinogen. One they take internally and then point their finger at something which has not been shown to be a carcinogen and is not used even close to their body.

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Bill Arthur
Bill Arthur2 months ago

Vivianne M you do not understand farming, it would be a real eye opener for you to visit a farm and actually see how it is done.Who replants crops 3-4 times? I can only think of 1 field that I had to replant in some 55 years of farming. That was caused be a very heavy rainstorm that happened almost as soon as we finished planting and it pounded the soil and caused crusting which the beans could not use through. That is 1 field of hundreds of fields and the problem was caused by good old mother nature and because I do not try to grow 'organically' I do not even wear my soil out with excess tillage like the 'organic' growers do. Tillage leaves soil more susceptible to crusting. Tonnes of chemicals? Are you talking fertilizer chemicals? You do realize all crops need chemicals to grow even the 'organic' crops use chemicals which they get from shit and other waste products if they can find enough to replace what is shipped off their farm.

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Bill Arthur
Bill Arthur2 months ago

Lynn R;any evidence that all these people dieing from cancer were caused by any chemical let alone glyphosate? Recommendations on usage are made by scientific studies and they do not show any problems from glyphosate. You might 'just believe' it is bad but facts show otherwise. If you can not use facts and only 'just believe' things then you do not live in reality.

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Edo R
Edo R2 months ago

Thanks for sharing!

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Ruth Rakotomanga
Ruth Rakotomanga2 months ago

"the herbicide is critical to ensuring farmers’ livelihoods". If that's so, how come they managed to survive in business so far?

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