Glyphosate: Understanding the controversy

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Applying glyphosate

Glyphosate is used by farmers all over the world. [Chafer Machinery/Flickr]

The debate over glyphosate has not been a scientific discussion but an activists’ war against ‘Big Agri’. Glyphosate is scientifically proven to be safe and should be re-authorised, writes André Heitz.

André Heitz is an agronomist and a former international civil servant for the United Nations. In his last operational position he was the director of the WIPO Coordination Office in Brussels.

Acting within the remit of its mandate, the European Commission decided on 29 June 2016 to extend the marketing authorisation of glyphosate, the active substance of the world’s most commonly-used herbicide, until the end of 2017 at the latest. It noted, quite unusually, that “member states were not prepared to take responsibility for a decision”. Indeed, four attempts – two of which constituted a formal vote – to garner a qualified majority between March and June 2016 had been unsuccessful, despite an overwhelming majority of 20 Member States in favour of renewal.

The required majority by population could not be reached because of the failure of major states to exercise their voting right – or, more properly, their duty. Germany abstained twice, as per the wishes of the SPD, the minority partner of the ruling coalition. France abstained once and voted against renewal on 23 June after the Minister for Environment, Ségolène Royal, was berated by activists for the disconnect between her aggressive, anti-glyphosate rhetoric and France’s refusal to vote against the substance. The limited extension for a maximum period of 18 months does not put an end to the glyphosate saga. On the contrary. With the European Union bullied by national politicking as member states try to shift the onus to the Commission, similar debates will most likely restart after the extension lapses.

But what exactly makes glyphosate such a controversial issue? One must look no further than the rather unexpected decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” back in March 2015. Overnight, a herbicide with a track record of safe use spanning over four decades became a public health monster according to a reputable international organisation.

IARC’s decision flew in the face of the world’s major advisory and regulatory bodies – the German BfR acting on behalf of the European Union, the European Food Safety Authority, the US-EPA, the European Chemicals Agency, and also the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues – stated, in summary, that glyphosate, as properly used, raises no health concerns. In scientific talk, a bold statement of absolute safety is almost impossible to advance, and the phrase “unlikely to be carcinogenic”, for instance, is the closest one can come to “safe”.

What explains this peculiarity in scientific assessments? The difference between IARC and other bodies does not rest on methodology, but on their respective missions. While IARC decides on hazard, irrespective of exposure, most others base their conclusions on risk, and weight of evidence, thus leading to the present fundamental disagreement on how evidence is evaluated. The Preamble to the IARC Monographs clearly spells out that the Monographs represent the first step in carcinogen risk assessment…”. Further, “The Monographs are used by national and international authorities to make risk assessments, formulate decisions concerning preventive measures, provide effective cancer control programmes and decide among alternative options for public health decisions.” IARC does not have the last word on health matters and it cannot “authorise or ban” substances. It can only start a conversation before leaving it up to national agencies to decide.

There is little doubt that the IARC decision has been publicly used to scupper the renewal processes in Europe and the United States. The findings of all the aforementioned agencies were either ignored or casually dismissed by activists with a standard answer: these bodies are fraught with conflicts of interest, and are in the pocket of ‘Big Agri’. But this nonchalant dismissal, without proper evaluation of the technical strength of the evidence at hand, contradicts the very decision-making process.

Indeed, the controversy has been gravely polluted by the “conflict of interests” argument deployed by many entities depicting themselves as “NGOs” and propagated by the media. The sad truth is that the debate over glyphosate has never truly been about science, but has been a war waged by activists, or what EFSA’s Executive Director Bernhard Url referred to as the “Facebook Age of Science”, where scientific arguments are accepted only if they are liked. But that won’t change the scientific fact that glyphosate is safe.