Opinion: Monsanto defending glyphosate at home and abroad creates uncertainty over pesticide

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Dave Dickey

All of a sudden Monsanto’s Roundup-ready weed killer glyphosate is receiving renewed scrutiny and debate regarding whether it can cause cancer.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research dropped the first bomb in the current debate, ruling back in March 2015 that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

But less than a year later, the WHO did an apparent 180-degree turn, reporting glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet.”

Huh?  Can glyphosate cause cancer or not?

The explainers over at WHO indicated that the two reports are actually “different but complementary.” 

Looked at together, we are to conclude that if you drink glyphosate out of the jug it’s probably not going to go well for you, but the level of risk to consumers who might ingest a trace amount of glyphosate pesticide residue in their food is at low risk of contracting cancer.

All the confusion over glyphosate caused California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment this July to use its authority under Proposition 65 to put glyphosate on its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

Monsanto is fighting that listing tooth and nail, but it lost the first round in a San Francisco federal trial court.

Unsealed court documents suggest Monsanto did whatever it could to convince the world that glyphosate was safe.  But the documents are damming, suggesting moral and ethical corner cutting.

Monsanto says all this fury over glyphosate is “unwarranted on the basis of science and the law.”

But now we get this stunning report out of the European Union.

The EU Food Safety Authority is trying to decide whether or not to relicense glyphosate for a 10-year period and a decision is expected this month.

Efsa is calling for renewal based on its internal 4,300-page renewal assessment report published in 2015 that glyphosate was safe.

Four thousand, three hundred pages? Produced by the reputable Efsa?  Good stuff right?

Except it turns out Efsa, which is supposed to be independent, cribbed (that’s copy and pasted) dozens of pages directly from the Glyphosate Task Force, an industry group led by Monsanto into its report to show how unlikely glyphosate can cause cancer in humans.

Monsanto says the copy and paste methodology was appropriate given the large volume of toxicological studies submitted by Efsa.

I suspect at the end of the day Monsanto will prevail in U.S. court.  But glyphosate’s future in the European Union is less sure.

The European Union was supposed to decide this month on whether to renew usage of glyphosate for another decade.

That decision was postponed till at least December after the European Parliament voted in a non-binding resolution to phase the weed killer out by December 2022.

France is on record as saying it will not vote in favor of glyphosate, full stop.  The EU now all but concedes a 10-year renewal is dead on arrival and is exploring licensing of five to seven years.

In short, the process has become messy and uncertain where certainty is needed.

Glyphosate is not going away anytime soon, and neither is the heated debate.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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