Leading toxicologist and environmental engineer Christopher Portier has written to the European Commission denouncing the poor scientific quality of the EU’s research into glyphosate. EURACTIV France reports.
In a letter delivered to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Sunday (28 May), doctor Portier called into question the scientific findings on glyphosate, the most widespread herbicide in the world and notably the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup.
Following the conclusions of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which found that exposure to glyphosate in food products was not harmful to human health, the Commission decided earlier this month to re-authorise the chemical for another ten years.
The scientist, who examined the data used and published by the European agencies, was surprised by the omissions he found.
According to Portier, the agencies did not take into account observations of increased cancer rates after exposure to glyphosate. In his letter, he attached a complete list of all the missing data and asked EFSA and ECHA to examine them and correct their conclusions.
Juncker did not reply personally to the letter. “Given that the majority of the problems raised by the letter are related to the scientific evaluation of glyphosate, the Commission will ask EFSA and ECHA to respond,” said Anca Paduraru, a spokesperson for the EU executive. She added that it was the Commission’s opinion that there was currently no reason to doubt the evaluation of the EU agencies.
Several times in his letter, the scientist welcomed the publication of a certain amount of data concerning glyphosate, used by both agencies to develop their conclusions. But he stressed that all the data must be made available so that independent scientists can scrutinise the agencies’ work, which he described as incomplete.
The EU’s decisions on glyphosate have frequently been decried by NGOs and environmental protection organisations. Their main criticism concerns the lack of transparency that has shrouded debate on the herbicide.
Yet, “when we know that these agencies used studies paid for by Monsanto in the evaluation of the safety of glyphosate, we cannot fail to ask questions,” said Socialist MEPs Eric Andrieux and Marc Tarabella.
At first, none of the studies or data sets used by EFSA and ECHA were made public. It was only following a public furore that a selection of these documents were shown to NGOs.
“This confirms to us that we are should apply the precautionary principle: as long as we are not sure that the product is harmless, we cannot give authorisation to use it. Our citizens are not guinea pigs,” said Tarabella.
The risks associated with glyphosate are not limited to its potentially carcinogenic nature. Some studies have found glyphosate to be an endocrine disruptor and to have effects on the reproductive cycle, fertility and foetal development.
For France’s former Minister for Health Marisol Touraine, the course of action was clear. In May 2016 she said that “regardless of whether or not glyphosate is a carcinogen, […] the studies we have seen show that it is an endocrine disruptor”.
But once more, the rules recently established by the Commission on what qualifies as an endocrine disruptor have also come under fire from environmental organisations, which see them as too narrow and too focused on the short-term.
“I am concerned that other areas of the EFSA review (e.g. reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption) may have also received inadequate evaluations,” Portier wrote. Since the industry-supported scientific evidence is not available to external scientists, I am unable to evaluate these data and determine if there are positive findings that escaped detection. I encourage you to release these data for external analysis and review as well.”
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said in November 2015 that glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer in humans and proposed higher limits on the amount of residue of the weedkiller deemed safe for humans to consume.
The EFSA advises EU policymakers and its conclusion were expected to pave the way for the 28-member European Union to renew approval for glyphosate, which was brought into use by Monsanto in the 1970s and is used in its top selling product Roundup as well as in many other herbicides around the world.
Environmental groups have been calling for a ban after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organisation, said in March 2015 that glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
A campaign group said that 1.4 million people had signed a petition calling on the European Union to suspend glyphosate approval pending further assessment.
The EFSA said it had carried out a thorough analysis and taken account of the IARC’s findings. Greenpeace, for its part, called the EFSA’s report “a whitewash”.