One must look no further than the rather unexpected decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) to classify glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans” back in March 2015. Overnight, a herbicide with a track record of safe use spanning over four decades became a public health monster according to a reputable international organisation.
IARC’s decision flew in the face of the world’s major advisory and regulatory bodies – the German BfR acting on behalf of the European Union, the European Food Safety Authority, the US-EPA, the European Chemicals Agency, and also the Joint FAO/WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues – stated, in summary, that glyphosate, as properly used, raises no health concerns. In scientific talk, a bold statement of absolute safety is almost impossible to advance, and the phrase “unlikely to be carcinogenic”, for instance, is the closest one can come to “safe”.
What explains this peculiarity in scientific assessments? The difference between IARC and other bodies does not rest on methodology, but on their respective missions. While IARC decides on hazard, irrespective of exposure, most others base their conclusions on risk, and weight of evidence, thus leading to the present fundamental disagreement on how evidence is evaluated.
The Preamble to the IARC Monographs clearly spells out that the Monographs represent the first step in carcinogen risk assessment…”. Further, “The Monographs are used by national and international authorities to make risk assessments, formulate decisions concerning preventive measures, provide effective cancer control programmes and decide among alternative options for public health decisions.”
IARC does not have the last word on health matters and it cannot “authorise or ban” substances. It can only start a conversation before leaving it up to national agencies to decide.
There is little doubt that the IARC decision has been publicly used to scupper the renewal processes in Europe and the United States. The findings of all the aforementioned agencies were either ignored or casually dismissed by activists with a standard answer: these bodies are fraught with conflicts of interest, and are in the pocket of ‘Big Agri’. But this nonchalant dismissal, without proper evaluation of the technical strength of the evidence at hand, contradicts the very decision-making process.
Indeed, the controversy has been gravely polluted by the “conflict of interests” argument deployed by many entities depicting themselves as “NGOs” and propagated by the media. The sad truth is that the debate over glyphosate has never truly been about science, but has been a war waged by activists, or what EFSA’s Executive Director Bernhard Url referred to as the
“Facebook Age of Science”, where scientific arguments are accepted only if they are liked. But that won’t change the scientific fact that glyphosate is safe.