Glyphosate, EU, Tragedy in the Making

Published in Poisons Beware

When the World Health Organization defined Glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, it should have put an immediate stop to the sale and use of Glyphosate-based herbicides.

Survival depends on a clean environment. Survival depends on a clean environment. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

The report was published in March 2015, and a press release was issued by WHO on March 20th summarizing the methods and results. The full report appeared in IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. In preparing the report on Glyphosate, international expert scientists from the International Agency for Research on Cancer worked for nearly a year evaluating “reports that have been published or accepted for publication in the openly available scientific literature” as well as “data from governmental reports that are publicly available”. The studies listed in the references for the IARC paper totalled 269.

Introduction to the WHO summary

The wording of the IARC report was suitably cautious, and the message was abundantly clear. Glyphosate poses a risk to human health.

Glyphosate-based herbicide in the Stari Grad Plain. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Industry reaction

Unsurprisingly, Glyphosate producers condemned the IARC report. The loss of the Glyphosate market would mean huge reductions in their income.

Agro-chemical giant Monsanto hired a panel of scientists to counteract the findings of the IARC experts. The claim that the panel was 'independent' was undermined by the revelation that two of the 16 experts had been employed by Monsanto in the past, and a further ten had been Monsanto consultants. The company also published a rebuttal on its website by Robb Fraley, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. He referred to the IARC classification of Glyphosate as “erroneous”, and cast aspersions on the integrity and capacities of the IARC scientists with statements such as: “...IARC reports not only create unnecessary confusion with consumers, but they also fuel efforts by activist groups to mislead the public with shoddy science.” Robb Fraley's statement put emphasis on a Reuters 'Special Report: How the World Health Organization's Cancer Agency confuses consumers', by journalist Kate Kelland, with input from Himanshu Ojha, edited by Richard Woods. A heavily biased opinion piece by two non-scientists, it does not lend much weight to the Monsanto arguments.

Monsanto is well-known for its adroitness in handling the media, and biased journalism in its favour has come under an increasing spotlight in 2016.

Monasanto's credibility is further marred by its persistent refusal to disclose certain toxicity studies regarding Glyphosate - and then denigrating its detractors for basing their criticisms on 'incomplete evidence'.

There is even a Glyphosate website, purporting to bring 'balance to the debate' over the poison. It has been created by a group of agro-chemical companies. Smoothly written spin, it touts the supposed benefits of Glyphosate in European agriculture, and discounts all contrary views as 'scaremongering'. It repeats many of the reassuring statements about glyphosate which have been shown to be untrue or misleading, for instance the belief that glyphosate acts through pathways which are not present in animals. Relatively recent research shows otherwise. The website is promoted as a Google ad, and appeared as a banner under an article I wrote for Total Croatia News in May 2016 entitled 'EU Taking the Piss'.

Google ad with link to the industry-prepared Glyphosate website, Total Croatia News, May 2016.

The home page of the Glyphosate website is beguiling, resplendent with pretty pictures of rural scenes, full of bland statements preaching objectivity. It's designed to appeal to the unwary, promoting a poison that any informed  person has long since found unacceptable. The poison vending machine is very well oiled, not a trick is missed.

Glyphosate website home page.

It's a strange world where people are made more aware of the Zika virus threat than the actual harm being done by the world's most widely used poison. 

Glyphosate-based herbicides in fields near Jelsa. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Glyphosate-based herbicide in fields near jelsa. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Respective roles

The IARC has the task of warning the public of potential cancer hazards in the products and materials which we use as common practice. It is a worthwhile humanitarian task, and people are free to accept, ignore or reject the IARC findings as they wish. The agro-chemical companies are in the business of selling their products, poisonous, hazardous or otherwise, for maximum possible gain. Consumers have the choice of not buying particular products, but heavy marketing combined with relentless political pressure have made it extremely difficult to form balanced views - until it is too late. The spread of agro-chemical poisons around the world has been inexorable. A huge amount of money has been invested in making this happen. There is no such finance available for publicizing the alternative view.

This would not be a problem if the effects of pesticides could be restricted. A 2016 survey showed that some Californian organic wines contained traces of Glyphosate, following similar findings in German beers. Not to mention the presence of Glyphosate in city-dwellers' urine, the correlation between urinary Glyphosate residues and ill-health, and a host of other unwanted contaminations. Given the pervasive effects of Glyphosate-based herbicides, people who want to choose organic, pesticide-free foodstuffs are being denied. It is not reassuring to know that when previous 'safe limits' for Glyphosate residues in foodstuffs were exceeded in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency simply raised its estimates of those so-called 'safe limits'.

European Parliament - headed off from the right direction?

In advance of the European approval for Glyphosate expiring in June 2016, members of the EU Parliament expressed their worries over unconditional renewal. From the Press release following the EU vote on March 22nd 2016:

' “So long as serious concerns remain about the carcinogenicity and endocrine disruptive properties of the herbicide glyphosate, which is used in hundreds of farm, forestry, urban and garden applications, the EU Commission should not renew its authorisation. Instead, it should commission an independent review and disclose all the scientific evidence that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) used to assess glyphosate,” said Environment Committee MEPs on Tuesday.

“The European Commission should not renew the approval of the herbicide substance glyphosate on the EU market for another 15 years, until 2031, without any restrictions as proposed,” said the Environment Committee in a non-legislative resolution passed by 38 votes to 6, with 18 abstentions.'

However, the EU Commission has shown determination to keep Glyphosate on its approved list. The Commission had recommended giving Glyphosate approval for a further 15 years, but finally reduced the proposal to seven years. It seems the MEPs, despite their grave concerns, accepted this compromise, as a further vote for a non-legislative Resolution was carried by 374 votes to 225, with 102 abstentions, in April 2016. The MEPs did express grave concerns in the Resolution, and suggested several measures to restrict the use of Glyphosate, in particular proposing a ban on its use in or near public parks, public gardens and playgrounds. As reported in Slobodna Dalmacija on April 14th 2016, Croatian MEPs Biljana Borzan and Marijana Petir were among those opposing the 15-year renewal of Glyphosate. Marijana Petir wanted the approval to be extended for a maximum of three years, preferably one, which she and others felt would be sufficient to establish firm evidence of Glyphosate's dangers and to develop a better alternative.

Glyphosate-based herbicide, field between Jelsa and Svirče. Photo: Vivian Grisogono

Glyphosate's origins and future

The 2015 IARC document describes how Glyphosate started: “Glyphosate was first synthesized in 1950 as a potential pharmaceutical compound, but its herbicidal activity was not discovered until it was re-synthesized and tested in 1970  Székács A, Darvas B (2012)”. The arrival of Glyphosate on the herbicide scene was well timed, as it coincided with the partial but significant ban on its predecessor DDT. Coincidence? The dangers of DDT were well known long before the ban. So was the ban on DDT delayed until Monsanto had come up with an alternative? The present situation seems like a mirror of those times. Seven more years to come up with an alternative so that Glyphosate can be retired without financial loss? 

Glyphosate usage worldwide

Worldwide production and usage of the poison is huge, as the IARC report acknowledged: 

“Glyphosate is reported to be manufactured by at least 91 producers in 20 countries, including 53 in China, 9 in India, 5 in the USA, and others in Australia, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan (China), Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela (Farm Chemicals International, 2015). Glyphosate was registered in over 130 countries as of 2010 and is probably the most heavily used herbicide in the world, with an annual global production volume estimated at approximately 600 000 tonnes in 2008, rising to about 650 000 tonnes in 2011, and to 720 000 tonnes in 2012 (Dill et al., 2010; CCM International, 2011; Hilton, 2012; Transparency Market Research, 2014).”

In like vein, the MEPs' draft Motion of March 2016 stated: “systemic herbicide glyphosate currently has the highest global production volume of all herbicides; whereas its global use has increased dramatically, by a factor of 260, in the last 40 years (from 3 200 tons in 1974 to 825 000 tonnes in 2014)”.

Glyphosate-based herbicide and discarded bottle. Photo Frank Verhart

The organic alternative

Russia banned the import of genetically modified (GMO) crops, joining several other countries with similar intentions. Russian President Vladimir Putin spotted the gap in the market. Organic foodstuffs are now an important part of Russia's exports, and Vladimir Putin aims to make Russia the largest exporter of organic produce. Meanwhile, Russians are discovering the joys and benefits of innovative fine dining using home-produced foodstuffs. One of the world's smallest countries, Bhutan, is among those opting for organic production, aiming to be 100% organic by the year 2020.

Precautionary Principle

In public health, the Precautionary Principle should prevail. Where there is any doubt of any kind about the safety of a product, it should not be allowed or condoned.

In the case of Glyphosate, there is no doubt at all about its potential harmful effects. Practical experience has demonstrated an array of problems in human and environmental health arising from its continued use. The scientific evidence showing the dangers of Glyphosate-based herbicides is massive and growing. The IARC paper focuses on just one potential hazard, but it is one of very many. There have been detailed accounts of the dangers of Glyphosate over many years, including a 2012 overview from the Permaculture Institute, and Eco Hvar's own report, both of which present the scientific evidence condemning Glyphosate use. Eco Hvar has also compiled a list of relevant research articles for ease of reference. 

EC stance deeply concerning

The blatantly biased behviour of the European Commission in supporting the maximum approval renewal period for Glyphosate is cause for the gravest concern. The EU Parliament is due to hold a further vote on the subject in May. If this proves inconclusive, the Commission will have the final say. Parliament's Resolutions are non-binding on the Commission. Following the April vote, Croatian MEP Biljana Borzan expressed the optimistic view that the Commission will not dare to ignore the clear message from the Parliamentarians. The signs so far - tragically - are that such optimism may be wishful thinking. The very fact that such an important decision should be strung out for over a year following the IARC report is in itself a travesty in total opposition to the Precautionary Principle. The further time suggested for 'further research' is clearly just a delaying tactic.

As for the need for a substitute product to take Glyphosate's place, it would be comforting to think that this would take the form of a truly organic alternative that would not cause harm to humans, soil, insects, plants or animals. The track record of the agro-chemical industry in modern times indicates that this too is wishful thinking.

Those of us who do not want to be force-fed poisons face a bleak future in Europe and most other countries in the world. No doubt this will be a factor which UK voters take into account when they decide on whether to vote for staying in or leaving the EU in June, ironically the same month when Glyphosate's current approval expires.

© Vivian Grisogono 2016

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