The EFSA, open for business ... provided you're a global pesticide corporation. Photo: Corporate Europe Observatory via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
EFSA decides: no cancer risk from glyphosate
13th November 2015
Europe's top food safety regulator has ruled that the world's top selling herbicide, glyphosate, does not cause cancer - in defiance of the WHO and overwhelming scientific evidence. The decision opens the way for a 10-year EU re-approval next year, before its Chemicals Agency has released its own findings.
It is blindingly obvious that the WHO approach is right from the perspective of public safety, and that the EFSA approach simply serves the interests of the pesticide companies.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published its conclusion on the safety of glyphosate and whether its EU approval should be renewed.
And their answer is ... glyphosate "is unlikely to be genotoxic (i.e. damaging to DNA) or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans."
This contrasts with the finding of the World Health Organisation's cancer agency IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) that glyphosate is "probably carcinogenic to humans" and the statement of IARC expert Prof Chris Portier that it is "definitely genotoxic".
EFSA also proposes to raise the Acceptable Daily Intake of glyphosate from 0.3 to 0.5 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.
But food campaigners are adamant that the EFSA reached the wrong decision. Greenpeace EU food policy director Franziska Achterberg commented: "EFSA's safety assurances on glyphosate raise serious questions about its scientific independence.
"Much of its report is taken directly from unpublished studies commissioned by glyphosate producers. The evidence of harm is irrefutable but EFSA has defied the world's most authoritative cancer agency in order to please corporations like Monsanto."
Under EU law, a presumed link to cancer means a pesticide cannot be used, unless human exposure can be shown to be 'negligible'. So the EFSA finding opens the door for the European Commission to recommend that glyphosate should still be used in the EU after its current approval runs out on 30th June 2016.
EFSA considered 'more studies' than IARC
EFSA says it considered more studies than the IARC, claiming that this additional evidence made its report more authoritative. And it's true - EFSA evaluated six industry-sponsored animal experiments that the WHO did not include in its review.
However the IARC omitted these studies because neither the studies, nor the data on which they are based, have been published or subjected to peer review. IARC policy is to consider only studies published in the scientific literature in order to ensures transparency for the public and the scientific community.
The contradiction between IARC's report and EU Authorities on glyphosate classification was examined by toxicologist Dr Peter Clausing of Pesticides Action Network (PAN) Germany, who detected major flaws in the assessment of glyphosate by the German regulator BfR.
In his critical review, Dr Clausing highlights that even without considering independent academic literature, significant tumour incidences were found in five mice studies and at least two rat studies of the regulatory animal experiments produced by the industry. However BfR and EFSA dismissed these findings by
- cheating on the use of the control groups;
- overlooking statistically significant results;
- considering cancer incidences from human epidemiology studies as inconsistent;
- dismissing genotoxicity data as ierelevant due to the claimed lack of carcinogenic effects.
PAN Europe's Chemicals Officer Hans Muilerman said: "EFSA's opinion violates the precautionary principle; BfR and EFSA only conclude to adverse effects in case of overwhelming evidence; in case of doubt they give the advantage of the doubt to industry instead of giving priority to the protection of human health and the environment."
Glyphosate is only a single ingredient in herbicide products
Another difference in approach is, as EFSA comments, "The IARC report looked at both glyphosate - an active substance - and glyphosate-based formulations, grouping all formulations regardless of their composition. The EU assessment, on the other hand, considered only glyphosate."
So although several of these industry studies support the IARC classification by showing increased cancer rates in animals following exposure to glyposate herbicides such as Monsanto's 'Roundup' formulations, EFSA claims these cannot be attributed to glyphosate as a single ingredient.
According to EFSA it is "likely" that the "genotoxic effects observed in some glyphosate-based formulations are related to the other constituents or ‘co-formulants' ...certain glyphosate-based formulations display higher toxicity than that of the active ingredient, presumably because of the presence of co-formulants."
But EFSA insists that it's not its job to consider the glyphosate products and formulations that are actually used - that's down to national regulators: "Member states are responsible for evaluating each plant protection product that is marketed in their territories."
Technically EFSA is right. EU-wide pesticide regulation, which EFSA opinions feed into, only considers the isolated active ingredient in a pesticide - glyphosate, in the case of Roundup. But as Claire Robinson of GMWatch observes: "Anyone who thinks the member states will save us from glyphosate herbicide toxicity probably has not looked at the current state of national member state expertise.
"In addition, the public interest work to unravel the web of secrecy surrounding national pesticide regulators of member states and to uncover their potential conflicts of interest with industry has barely begun. If we leave it to member states to regulate formulations, it will never happen. The real battle against glyphosate herbicides and similar toxic products will likely be fought and won between consumers and retailers."
The final hurdle for glyphosate - the European Chemicals Agency
Health risks associated with the use of glyphosate, including the link to cancer, will also be investigated by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), which will begin consulting on their findings at the end of this month.
According to Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, the ECHA "may still condemn glyphosate and prevent the weed killer being re-approved under EU law."
However, ECHA is not expected to release its report until 2017. And the danger is that the Commission could pre-empt the ECHA's findings by granting a 10-year licence for glyphosate in 2016, before the ECHA publishes its conclusions - and potential outcome that Achterberg describes as "senseless".
"The EFSA decision is absolutely no surprise", said Melchett. "Given that this review of glyphosate relies almost entirely on industry funded, unpublished studies, it would be unthinkable for the EFSA to come to any conclusion other than that glyphosate is safe to use.
"The reason that other eminent international scientists advising the WHO have already come to different conclusions is, as the EFSA themselves admit, purely because the other scientists are considering a much wider range of evidence than just industry studies, and they are looking at the impacts of glyphosate as it is actually used.
Although glyphosate is always used in combination with a range of other often toxic chemicals, and although researchers have found that glyphosate mixes as sold to farmers and gardeners can be 1,000 times more toxic than glyphosate acting on its own, the EFSA insists on looking at the impact of glyphosate alone.
"It is blindingly obvious that the WHO approach is right from the perspective of public safety, and that the EFSA approach simply serves the interests of the pesticide companies."
Principal source: GMWatch.
Also on The Ecologist
- 'Glyphosate - EFSA must make a full and open scientific assessment' by Jorgo Riss, K. Jensen & F. Veillerette.
- 'Don't let Monsanto deny glyphosate carcinogenicity!' by Professor Peter Saunders.
- 'IARC: Glyphosate probably carcinogenic' by Oliver Tickell.
- 'Ruthless power and deleterious politics: from DDT to Roundup' by Evaggelos Vallianatos.
- 'Roundup - a converging pattern of toxicity from farm to clinic to laboratory' by Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji / ISIS.
- 'Toxic glyphosate herbicides fly under the EU's regulatory radar' by Pete Farrer & Marianne Falck.
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