The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the European Food Safety Authority publicly disagreed with IARC’s glyphosate findings. After the IARC's announcement, EFSA was commissioned to follow up.
EFSA concluded, “glyphosate is unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans."
But that hasn't completely settled the debate.
The EU has a looming deadline to reauthorize the use of glyphosate in member countries, and the risk of cancer is highly relevant in its decision. If it decides not to renew the license, Roundup would be phased out of its stores. Monsanto could pursue a legal appeal if a decision isn't made by the June 30 deadline.
The EFSA conclusion was affirmed by last week by the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA).
Last month, the Joint WHO/FAO Meeting on Pesticide Residues concluded again that glyphosate doesn’t pose a likely carcinogenic risk to humans who are exposed to it through their diet.
Major health effects linked to glyphosate haven’t been a concern to the EPA, James Aidala, a government relations consultant at Bergeson & Campbell in Washington D.C. who used to work for the EPA, told Legal Newsline.
“It’s a nice product,” he said. “They’ve evaluated it and determined that it may be a lot things but it doesn’t have a carcinogenic risk.”
The EPA is reviewing glyphosate again this year as part of its usual 15-year registration review process. A report is expected by the end of the year that will examine glyphosate’s effects on humans and the environment. It will likely focus more on ecological impacts, Aidala said.
The EPA released a preliminary report earlier this year in which, like EFSA, it said glyphosate doesn’t pose a significant cancer risk. The agency pulled back the report soon after it was released but it indicated that EPA staff think IARC’s review didn’t show a complete picture, which is a common complaint among critics of the agency and its research.
“What’s changed is all the regulatory bodies have to say what they think about IARC,” Aidala said.
As a result of regulators’ disagreement with IARC, “they’ll be under more scrutiny,” he said.
Aidala added that what can be lost in the inconclusive back-and-forth is that this is a big deal.
“It’s important because it’s very widely used," he said. "It’s important because biotechnology is supposed to be the future but it’s got to be not only commercialized but also accepted by the public.
“The story about this will continue to feed your bias. If you’re a critic, it shows you were right all the time. If you’re supportive ... this is the kind of silly, unscientific opinion that’s led to the difficulty of getting (GMOs) accepted.
“In a perfect world we could know who’s right and who’s wrong. … Therefore the debate continues.”
Glyphosate isn’t the only substance on which IARC and other scientific agencies are at odds.
Campbell said methods for classifying cell phones, red meat and diesel emissions also raised concerns.
“It causes a lot of panic — and raises groups who like to scare people a lot of money — and doesn't make anyone safer,” he said. “In modern times, IARC has a profound influence on public health policy at exactly the time they have taken less interest in scientific credibility. They used to be a rigorous, serious body but in recent years they have embraced epidemiology and public posturing.”
When IARC puts a panel together, it won’t call on experts from the industry — or those who have consulted for the industry, he said.
That leaves out a number of smart people in a field where consulting with the industry is the mark of a high-caliber academic, he added.
Leaving out industry studies also dismisses a substantial portion of relevant research.
“Obviously (regulatory agencies) also put the burden of proof on companies to prove something is safe," he said. "Companies must pay for studies to show that, not taxpayers. So if you say you won't allow industry studies, you leave out everything except academic epidemiology.”
Epidemiologists analyze the causes and effects of health and disease, identifying risk factors and preventative care. Campbell criticizes this method because he said it doesn’t show a definitive causal link between a behavior or substance and a disease, or a correlation.
“But IARC uses the word ‘risk’ all over (its) papers without ever calculating risk — and risk is what should be the concern," he said.
"We factor risk every day. Cars are obviously a hazard but we don't set the speed limit to 5 miles per hour because of that. We can measure parts per quadrillion so it is easy to find traces of glyphosate in anything. But that's one drop in 11,000,000 gallons of water. It cannot be harmful yet evidence of existence is used as reason for concern. That is homeopathy, not science.”