The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is standing firmly by its opinion that glyphosate, the world’s most commonly used weedkiller, is probably carcinogenic to humans despite a new large-scale study suggesting the opposite.
Earlier this month, a new report was published, which made it clear that glyphosate “was not statistically significantly associated with cancer at any site”.
The Reuters news agency reported that the research was part of a large and important project known as the Agricultural Health Study (AHS), which has been tracking the health of tens of thousands of agricultural workers, farmers and their families in Iowa and North Carolina.
Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), the study found there was no association between glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s popular herbicide RoundUp, “and any solid tumors or lymphoid malignancies overall, including non-Hogkin Lymphoma (NHL) and its subtypes”.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have approved the chemical, claiming it is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans from exposure through the diet”. The same opinion was shared by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) as well as the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
However, this is in contrast to an assessment by IARC, which in 2015 concluded that the herbicide solution was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
EFSA said it had carried out a thorough analysis and taken account of the IARC’s findings. Greenpeace, for its part, called EFSA’s report “a whitewash”.
EURACTIV.com contacted IARC for a comment on the new scientific evidence.
In its reply, IARC pointed out that the AHS was one of the key studies evaluated in its Monograph and the updated report confirms its previous findings.
The IARC evaluation also included all other published studies of cancer in humans and glyphosate exposure in different areas of the world.
“Some of these other studies of humans exposed to glyphosate reported increases in the same type of cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The AHS did not outweigh the positive associations found in these other epidemiological studies.
“In fact, based on the IARC Working Group’s analysis, the data from all the studies combined show a statistically significant association between non-Hodgkin lymphoma and exposure to glyphosate.”
The AHS report also stressed there was “some evidence of increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) among the highest exposed group”, but highlighted this association was “not statistically significant”.
But for IARC, these are “interesting new findings”.
“The new report, however, provides interesting new findings on an association of glyphosate exposure and leukemia, a different kind of blood cancer, in the study population,” IARC said.
Asked whether the new study could affect IARC’s review, it replied, “It is important to recognize that the IARC Monograph classification reflects the consensus view of an independent expert working group, based on a systematic review of all available studies. It is therefore inappropriate for IARC to speculate about how new data from one study might change that expert opinion.”
Red meat is also ‘probably carcinogenic’
Health Commissioner Andriukaitis told EURACTIV last month that around the world today all the organisations in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the US, present the same conclusions on glyphosate is unlikely to be carcinogenic.
He also hinted that sometimes it’s “strange” that people argue against glyphosate only by focusing on the IARC findings.
On 13 November, the EU health chief joined the European Parliament’s agriculture committee where glyphosate was discussed. He reiterated that glyphosate critics only focus on the IARC’s findings and that red meat is also ‘probably carcinogenic’.
“Why are we so silent about red meat? It’s also probably carcinogenic.”
“I spent a lot of time on empty discussions about this possibility [of carcinogenicity], sorry to say. You didn’t convince me. I based my opinion on science, and I need to see a common sense approach,” Andriukaitis explained.
Glyphosate producers like Monsanto have already sent legal notifications to the Commission and in the event it’s not re-authorised, the executive will be taken to the court.
“Sorry, but we need to understand that we are responsible. I am legally obliged to finalise the situation with glyphosate […] we have no chance to opt out. Why? Because we have no grounds for a phase-out. We have no legal ground. You can tell people what you wish, but I can’t because I am legally responsible,” he emphasised.
Commission has changed its rhetoric
The European Commission has so far failed to reach a qualified majority among member states to re-approve glyphosate.
In the last vote on 9 November, 14 member states voted in favour of Commission’s proposal for a five-year re-authorisation, while 9 voted against and 5 abstained.
EURACTIV has learned that Bulgaria, Romania and Poland abstained because they refused to vote for a re-approval of less than ten years.
So far, the Commission has been stating that the member states are hiding behind the executive on the case and urged them several times to take up their responsibilities otherwise after 15 December, a date that glyphosate expires, there will be a full ban of the substance.
However, its rhetoric has changed. It now says it’s seeking the largest possible “support” among member states to re-authorise glyphosate. In addition, it counts on the European Parliament’s recent resolution calling for a five-year phase-out period as well as the majority of the member states.
On 27 November, there is a meeting of the Appeal Committee and according to the regulation, the Commission has the possibility to move on with its proposal if, once again, no qualified majority either in favour or against is reached.
An EU source said, “Under the current EU legislation the European Commission has the legal obligation to reply to the submitted applications for approval or renewal of approval of active substances.”
The regulation also states that the authorisation of Plant Protection Products (PPPs), including ones based on glyphosate, as well as their conditions of use on the territory, remain the responsibility of member states, who have to conduct risk assessments for each product, taking into account the climatic and agricultural conditions in their territories.
Sources noted that the Commission had consistently called for full implementation of the Sustainable Use of Pesticides Directive, the introduction of low risk and bio pesticides and bans of certain co-formulants that are used in glyphosate-based products.
EURACTIV understands that the same proposal is to be sent to the Appeal Committee, while amendments are possible in the Appeal Committee if there is consensus.