Agrichemical companies perpetually claim that their pesticides are safe. They point to scientific papers that show no human health risks. They attack activists for being “anti-science” when environmentalists challenge the validity of those claims. However, court cases underway in the USA have led to internal chemical industry documents being made public as evidence, which call into question the accuracy of the industry’s claims.
Does glyphosate cause cancer?
Earlier in August, a cache of documents were published by attorneys in the US who are suing the transnational agrichemical corporation, Monsanto. The case-action alleges that Monsanto’s glyphosate-based pesticide, Roundup, caused individuals to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.
Concerns about the safety of glyphosate and Roundup have been growing for years. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 classified glyphosate as a ">probable human carcinogen. Monsanto has publicly denied that there are cancer connections to glyphosate or Roundup, claiming that the 40 years of research and scrutiny by regulatory agencies around the world confirm its safety. The release of these documents calls that research into question.
The released documents appear to show that the agricultural chemical giant suppressed information about the potential dangers of its Roundup herbicide and relied on U.S. regulators for help. In one email that has been made public, Monsanto scientist Donna Farmer writes "you cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen ... we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement. The testing on the formulations are not anywhere near the level of the active ingredient."
A toxic cocktail
Farmer was admitting that a long-standing criticism by groups like the Soil Association of the pesticide safety testing in the USA and Europe is correct. Any pesticide that is applied will contain several chemicals, including the ‘active ingredient’ (nominated by the chemical company), and several other chemicals, designed, for example, to help the spray flow evenly, to encourage the spray to stick to the target plant, and so on. Only the ‘active ingredient’ is subject to any safety testing, even though the other chemicals may be as (or even more) toxic – nor is the final mixture safety tested either.
Are Monsanto ghost-writing research studies?
This release comes following the Court’s decision to unseal key discovery documents over Monsanto’s objection in March. Those documents indicated that Monsanto may have ghost-written research studies that appeared to be independent of the company. The documents also revealed close ties between the agrichemical company and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and indicated that Jess Rowland—a former EPA official who chaired a committee on cancer risk—worked with Monsanto to suppress reviews of glyphosate.
Attorney for the class-action, Brent Wisner said, “these [documents] show that Monsanto has deliberately been stopping studies that look bad for them, ghost-writing literature and engaging in a whole host of corporate malfeasance. They [Monsanto] have been telling everybody that these products are safe because regulators have said they are safe, but it turns out that Monsanto has been in bed with U.S. regulators while misleading European regulators."
While the class-action against Monsanto has been brought in the Unites States, the release of these documents will have considerable impact in Europe as well. The courtroom fight is happening as European Union regulators decide whether to keep glyphosate — the most widely used herbicide in the world — available for farmers. The EU has to make a decision by the end of the year.
Many of the scientific reports that the EU officials will be using to base their decision will be the same studies that have been called into question by the release of these internal Monsanto documents. For the EU to come to an informed and valid decision on whether they approve the reauthorisation of glyphosate, there have to be peer-reviewed, transparent and unimpeachable studies on which the decision can be legitimately based. It is only through clear and unbiased science that the public can have faith in the regulatory system that aims to ensure the safety of the agrichemicals in their food system.