Glyphosate and the crucial battle for independent science

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

There is a systemic problem when it comes to the authorisation and use of pesticides in the EU. [Shutterstock]

At its core, the political battle for transparency about the herbicide glyphosate is actually a battle for independent science and for the transparent and democratic functioning of the EU institutions, write five Greens/EFA MEPs

MEPs Heidi Hautala, Philippe Lamberts, Michèle Rivasi, Bart Staes and Benedek Jávor represent the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament.

Given the recent disclosure of the Monsanto Papers in an ongoing US court case on glyphosate, we took the initiative to write a letter to European Commission President Juncker on the issue today (24 March).

We are convinced that strong and truly independent European institutions like the EFSA (the food safety authority), EMA (the medicines agency) and ECHA (the chemicals agency) are crucial for defending public health and building public trust in the EU.

Indeed, transparency is a pre-requisite for any democratic debate, which is why it’s not acceptable that these institutions are doing their best to spread the idea that they are being transparent about their work on glyphosate, while our year-long battle to get access to key scientific studies demonstrates exactly the opposite.

The very same day that ECHA issued its opinion on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, 15 March 2017, it had been one year since we requested public access to the 75 unpublished studies on which both EFSA and ECHA based their conclusions that glyphosate is not carcinogenic to humans; contrary to the findings of the WHO’s cancer research agency, IARC.

So far, the partial information and censored studies that we have received from EFSA are insufficient for two crucial reasons.

One: EFSA is basically denying that there is an ‘overriding public interest’ in the studies they received from industry, and is thus favouring the commercial interests of companies like Monsanto, who have banded together to create the “Glyphosate Task Force” (GTF) to defend their interests.

Even the information about which laboratories were responsible for the studies and whether or not they were controlled on ‘good laboratory practices’ (GLP) by independent agencies remains to this day a “commercial secret”.

In effect, this means that the GTF companies are setting the boundaries of scientific scrutiny and defining the limits of public transparency, whilst at the same time earning billions of euros each year through the sale of their glyphosate-based pesticides. The potential here for a conflict of interest escapes nobody, except – apparently – EFSA.

Not to mention that the glyphosate market is a huge cash cow that continues to grow rapidly. The demand for the controversial and no-longer-patented substance is expected to grow globally from around €5 billion in 2012 to €9 billion in 2019.

The spread of genetically modified, glyphosate-resistant crops is expected to be one of the major factors in this rise in global demand. This gives an idea of the scale of the issue.

Second, we have reason to believe that some of these secret studies might be flawed and exaggerated for commercial purposes. After all, the way the system is set up means that it is the companies that are seeking market approval that have to produce studies to prove to the regulators that their product is safe – what company looking to sell their product would ever admit otherwise?

The problem gets worse once you realise that one of industry’s key tactics is to infiltrate the regulators and ensure that they have experts sitting on the right panels, at all relevant stages of the decision-making process.

For example, part of the assessment work for ECHA was done by a group including two experts (Boobis and Moretto), who were forced to step down from EFSA’s panels because of their conflicts of interest.

This is a specific example of what Hilal Elver, the UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Baskut Tuncak, Special Rapporteur on toxics, referred to in a recent new report.

This study on the use of pesticides in global food production is severely critical of the global corporations that manufacture pesticides. The UN report blames them for “systematic denial of harms”, for “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” and for heavy lobbying of governments which has “obstructed reforms and paralysed global pesticide restrictions”.

Importantly, the report also clearly denounces the classical industry myth that pesticides are necessary to “feed the world”.

EU regulators should not be blind and deaf to what is currently happening in Monsanto’s home country, the US. As Bloomberg reported last week, an Environmental Protection Agency official who was supposed to evaluate the cancer risk of Monsanto’s Roundup, allegedly bragged over the phone to a Monsanto company executive that “he deserved a medal if he could kill another agency’s investigation into the herbicide’s key chemical”.

This official, who left the agency’s pesticide division last year, is now a central figure in more than 20 lawsuits filed in the US by farmers who accuse the company of failing to warn consumers and regulators of the risk that its glyphosate-based herbicide can cause non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Meanwhile, internal documents show that Monsanto was already well aware of the possible genotoxic effects of glyphosate way back in the nineties.

Federal court documents – which were recently unsealed – have also shone light on Monsanto’s internal emails as well as emails sent between the company and US regulators. The records suggest that Monsanto had ghost-written research and then later attributed that research to academics, according to The New York Times.

These American revelations should make Mr Bernhard Url very uneasy. Recently he criticised us and the environmental movement for not believing in science and in EFSA.

Url also stated that “the glyphosate debate is not about science”. This is to miss the point entirely: we believe in science that is independent, has been peer-reviewed, is replicable, and is published, for example in academic journals.

But the studies EFSA used to conduct its assessment do not fulfil these criteria. Like us, Mr Url should therefore be painfully aware there is a larger problem with the independence of science in general.

Indeed, recent studies have indicated that the rate of reproducibility of studies – a key scientific principle – in various fields of research, may be worryingly low. Apparently, more than 70% of 1,576 researchers participating in a recent survey tried – and failed – to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiments.

Even the Commission seems to be aware of this wide-spread and systemic problem. In February, it held an internal expert meeting entitled “possible improvements to the integrity of academic laboratory testing and reproducibility”.

The EU’s executive branch specifically referred to “selective reporting of results, pressure of academics to publish, and lack of standardisation of reference measurement procedures and reference materials.”

The evidence is therefore stacking up against Monsanto and against EFSA’s line of defence, which so far has been based on maintaining secrecy.

It’s time to take this issue seriously and defend serious, independent science rather than industry-funded, secret science. What this whole saga also shows is that it’s clearly high time to not prolong the temporary market authorisation of glyphosate in Europe.

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