Bringing sanity back to Europe’s glyphosate debate

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Defenders of glyphosate argue consumers would have to be exposed to unrealistically high doses to experience carcinogenic effects. [Leonid Eremeychuk/Shutterstock]

For glyphosate, the active ingredient in the world’s most widely used weed killer, 6 November will be a date with destiny, writes Pieter Cleppe.

Pieter Cleppe is the head of the Brussels office of Open Europe.

EU member states, which are already meeting on 5 October about this, are expected to decide on whether to extend its market authorisation for another ten years. The last time the issue was tabled by the European Commission – in the summer of 2016 – France and Germany abstained and forced the EC to merely extend the licence until the end of 2017. There has been a war of words between policymakers, scientists, and environmental activists raging ever since.

The process has gotten no less bumpy in the run-up to the vote, after new French Environment Minister Nicolas Hulot said Paris will not just abstain but outright vote against glyphosate, although recently it has said it is open to phasing it out.

Driven by fears it may be harmful to consumers, Hulot’s stance has thrown farmers into a tizzy. The French Association of Wheat Producers (AGPB) has estimated that a ban on glyphosate would add €900m per year in extra costs to the French cereals industry.

A separate study from Ipsos went even further, putting damages at a whopping €2bn when considering the costs for both cereals farmers and winemakers. But is glyphosate actually harmful, or is France on the verge of causing a self-inflicted, multi-billion-euro faux pas for no good reason?

If the science community were a democracy, there would be little cause to question the herbicide’s safety record. On 7 September, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a scientific review body of the European Union, became the latest regulatory body to conclude that there is no evidence of glyphosate having a negative effect on the human hormonal system.

Earlier this year, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) determined the substance is not carcinogenic, as did the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in a 2016 study. In addition to these two reports, almost a dozen national regulatory agencies – including Germany’s BfR and Canada’s PMRA – reached similar conclusions.

But these collective voices were drowned out by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s cancer body. IARC provided activists with material justification for something they had long suspected: that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen.

Ever since, the ensuing debate has fractured the international community, mixed politics and science, sparked court cases, and created an atmosphere so toxic that rational discussion has been rendered practically impossible.

EFSA was one of the first groups to counter IARC, accusing it in 2015 of ignoring a vast number of scientific studies that exonerated glyphosate while providing undue weight to a handful of papers that claimed otherwise.

Bernhard Url, the director of EFSA, said his colleagues at the WHO were contributing to “the Facebook age of science” at a hearing in the European Parliament, stating: “You have a scientific assessment, you put it in Facebook and you count how many people like it. For us, this is no way forward.”

Url’s quip opened a war of words that has been raging ever since. Another tiff centred on the scientist leading the WHO review, who confessed in a California court case that he knew of data clearing glyphosate of carcinogenic potential but neglected to include it in IARC’s Monograph.

On top of that, a prominent IARC scientist, Christopher Portier, appeared to be employed by the Environmental Defense Fund, an NGO with historic involvement in the anti-pesticides campaign. Out of the nearly 1,000 substances IARC has so far evaluated, only one has been deemed not to be a carcinogen; the controversy over glyphosate has only compounded fears that the body’s methods are somehow flawed.

It’s exposure, stupid

The bone of contention between the two camps revolves around exposure. For regulatory agencies, glyphosate safety should be evaluated in relation to the doses a normal person is expected to encounter in real-world conditions.

The daily maximum dose varies, but the EPA puts it at 1.75 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. To put that into perspective, consider the cereal brand Cheerios, which had the highest level of glyphosate out of any product tested by activist group “Food Democracy Now!”. To cause any harm, a 175-pound adult would have to eat more than 1,270 servings of the cereal a day to max out the daily acceptable intake. And a child of half that weight would have to eat more than 635 servings.

However, for IARC, Nicolas Hulot, and others, the mere fact that there is some risk, irrespective of exposure, is reason enough to outright ban the substance. For them, the reigning factor is the so-called precautionary principle.

The principle states that if there is no scientific consensus on a substance’s effects on the human body, that chemical should be banned on suspicion alone. Acting on this impulse, campaigners have managed to obtain 1.3 million signatures against glyphosate.

The precautionary principle has some very obvious flaws. We can never be entirely sure of a chemical’s effects on the human body; had this principle been applied in the 1950s, we may well never have known the benefits of aspirin.

It would simply never have been authorised today, according to Peter McNaughton, Sheild professor of pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. As so often happens, the loudest voices taking part in the glyphosate debate have almost no scientific background whatsoever.

This is exactly what Bernard Url warned against: trying to settle what’s harmful and what’s not by paying heed to petitions, rather than by trusting scientific experts. If the economic and even environmental cost of banning glyphosate is easy to determine, but its health risks are rebuffed by all regulatory agencies in the world, isn’t it more rational to extend market authorization?

As risky as it may be for politicians to completely outsource their decision-making power to scientific experts, it’s far worse for them to solely rely on public opinion or online petitions.