So Monsanto has dodged the bullet — for now. The European Union has just voted to relicense the controversial herbicide glyphosate — marketed as Roundup — for another five years. That's far less than the 15 years initially sought, but much better than the total immediate ban sought by some countries and legions of vocal environmental activists.
The glyphosate saga is a fascinating case study in how easily politics can derail science. In watching the glyphosate issue evolve I found myself gradually becoming more and more aghast at how quickly and thoughtlessly evidence-based policymaking was thrown away in European centers of power.
I don't want to over-hype it, but it felt a little like mob rule. You can still burn the witch in Europe — if the witch is called Monsanto. Over glyphosate Monsanto was stitched up good and proper, as we say in England.
But no one feels comfortable being in the position of defending a company with a reputation as terrible as Monsanto, so despite the obvious perversion of both science and natural justice, the activists very nearly got away with it.
All in all this was a textbook case of how science and reason so easily lose out to hysteria and emotion, especially when you can find a good pantomime villain. This was never about glyphosate as a chemical. It was about glyphosate as a symbol, a symbol for opposition to Monsanto, pesticides, GMOs and a modern farming system which populist factions of different political stripes, led by the Greens, now love to hate.
Here's roughly what happened, so far as I can tell. At some point before 2015, anti-Monsanto activists, seeking a way to deal the company a severe blow, discovered that a little-known and rather flaky offshoot of the World Health Organization — the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) — could be co-opted to declare the hated Roundup carcinogenic.
IARC was the perfect target because it finds almost everything carcinogenic. Glyphosate was eventually placed by IARC in its 2A category of “probably carcinogenic,”' a designation it now shares with red meat, wood smoke, manufacturing glass processes, drinking “very hot beverages over 65C” and even the occupation of being a hairdresser.
In IARC’s higher Category 1 “carcinogenic to humans” designation you will find familiar and uncontroversial villains such as tobacco smoke and plutonium, but also sunshine, soot, salted fish ('Chinese style') and — latterly — bacon and other processed meats.
The activists needed IARC because every other scientific and chemical safety agency that had assessed the toxicity of glyphosate had found it pretty non-toxic, and certainly by far the most benign herbicide on the market. Those giving glyphosate a clean bill of health in terms of carcinogenicity included the European Food Safety Authority, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the European Chemicals Agency and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The activists likely guessed that far as media headlines were concerned, WHO and IARC would be perceived as pretty much the same thing. They were right. "Roundup weedkiller 'probably' causes cancer, says WHO study" was how the Guardian and most of the rest of the world's media covered the resulting March 2015 IARC decision.
As a strategy it was frankly Machiavellian, but also quite brilliant. I can only admire the campaigners who came up with it. And it very nearly paid off.
Here's how the plan was put into action: a statistician called Chris Portier, previously attached to the Environmental Defense Fund, a US-based campaign group, worked closely with IARC and seems to have been influential in its decision. I don't have any special insight into this, so can't offer any great scoops, though I think we're all indebted to the dogged persistence of “Risk Monger” David Zaruk and also reporters at Reuters for what we know so far.
In particular, we now know that early drafts of the IARC assessment were extensively altered at a late stage to point towards a carcinogenicity finding - even when the science they were assessing pointed away from this. As Reuters reported:
“Reuters found 10 significant changes that were made between the draft chapter on animal studies and the published version of IARC’s glyphosate assessment. In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumors was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one."
We also know now that Portier had an enormous financial conflict of interest because he was contracted by a US-based legal firm that hoped to hoover up millions in a class-action lawsuit that would be based on the expected IARC carcinogenicity decision. Portier, it was revealed last month, was paid $160,000 by a legal firm that expected to clean up in a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto.
Imagine if glyphosate had been given a clean bill of health, and the scientist leading the assessment had been paid $160,000 by Monsanto. Yet double standards are such that when eye-watering conflicts of interest like this are exposed, they are waved away because, well, we're environmentalists, so we’re supposedly always on the side of the public interest.
What I still find shocking is that the activists were clearly not interested in whether glyphosate was actually harming anyone in the real world. If the environmental groups had really been concerned with ecological or human health issues, they would not have started with campaigning to remove the most benign chemical in world farming. They would have started with the most toxic. Glyphosate would have been last on the list, not first.
Likewise, if Greenpeace, Avaaz, Corporate Europe Observatory, Pesticide Action Network and all the other campaigning groups that flocked to the cause with their million-strong clicktivist petitions were really concerned about human cancer risks, they surely would have focused first on bacon.
I'm not joking. According to IARC, bacon is “carcinogenic to humans.” Bacon is something people actually ingest voluntarily in large quantities via eating it in sandwiches and breakfasts, whereas glyphosate is present at only trace exposures in the parts per million range, if that. As always, the poison is the dose.
Many of these same groups have waged a long campaign to downgrade evidence-based policymaking in general in Europe, and were instrumental in removing the position of EU Chief Science Advisor in 2014.
So why focus on glyphosate? Because glyphosate is a “chemical,” and chemicals are bad, especially those that can be called “pesticides.” Bacon is familiar, and to most of us smells nice while frying. Not a good subject for an international campaign.
But why glyphosate rather than one or other of the more toxic pesticides still widely used by farmers? The answer is obvious: Monsanto makes glyphosate. (Partly: since it came off patent, Chinese generic glyphosate has flooded the market.) Therefore getting IARC to pronounce it a "probable carcinogen" would be a way to strike out at both Monsanto, and — by proxy — GMOs in general.
It would also be great PR for the green groups, by keeping Monsanto in the headlines, linking it with "pesticides" and cancer, and keeping GMOs firmly locked out of Europe by giving a continuing chemophobic tinge to the ongoing hysteria about GMOs.
As an example, here's the kind of language the activists were using in the 1.3 million signatures campaign:
"Did you know a poisonous, potentially cancer-inducing chemical could be present in your body? This is possible because our food is being sprayed with it. In fact, scientists have found traces of the hazardous chemical Glyphosate in the urine of nearly 1 in 2 people tested... The World Health Organization has labelled it as “probably carcinogenic”."
And so on. This kind of thing makes me ashamed to call myself an environmentalist. I do not want to be part of a movement that so explicitly sides with ignorant, emotive populism against rigorous scientific evidence.
The activist campaign was successful in recruiting several EU member states in blocking the renewal of the glyphosate license. In particular Italy and France were steadfast in the anti-GMO — ahem — anti-glyphosate camp. In the latter, President Macron had pledged to ban glyphosate anyway within three years, or earlier if a substitute is developed.
Macron clearly understands nothing about chemistry. Glyphosate was first discovered in 1974 after decades of searching. Nothing since has come close to its profile of non-toxicity and broad-spectrum activity. Glyphosate was called a “once in a century” herbicide for good reason.
This is precisely why the European farming community, realizing what a threat it was under, belatedly mobilized against the looming ban. I know a lot of people here in the UK who had begun stockpiling Roundup. There really is no viable substitute, and banning the herbicide would have meant a lot more plowing and associated soil erosion in an expensive effort to control weeds and stop crop yields from falling too far.
I even use glyphosate myself, in small doses on my vegetable garden. It is good at knocking back perennial weeds that can't easily be pulled, and nothing else on the market has such low toxicity. I found it infuriating that environmentalists would remove it and leave much more toxic chemicals unopposed.
But this isn’t just about glyphosate. It’s about the principle at stake here. Decisions about licensing chemicals should be based on scientifically objective risk assessment, not on activist campaigns or on industry reassurances. It's a tough thing to say, but science is not democratic. One person's opinion is not as valid as another's. Expertise counts — just as it does with airplane pilots and heart surgeons.
An even deeper principle is that the truth is for everyone. Scientific truth is there to defend people against corporations, but equally sometimes to defend corporations against people. Truth is truth, and fairness is not selective. Otherwise, it’s not fair.