WHO, the EPA, Monsanto, and I Weigh in on Glyphosate

A few months ago, I was sitting in a meeting room across from three Monsanto reps, after just finishing a tour of their St. Louis facility. As I mulled over everything I’d learned while we walked through labs and greenhouses, I tried to come up with a tactful way to ask my next question. Finally, I just came out and said it.

“What do you have to say about RoundUp? I grew up on a farm and was around it all my life--is it safe?”

I was asking because in August, Monsanto had lost in court and been forced to pay a settlement to a farmer and his wife who blamed their cancer on RoundUp, a glyphosate-based herbicide.

A World Health Organization report concurred that glyphosate is cancer-causing, but Monsanto is appealing the decision and maintains that the chemical isn’t dangerous. They argue that evidence against glyphosate isn’t strong enough to warrant concluding that it causes cancer. And, the EPA agrees with Monsanto; in both its 1986 and 2017 review, it did not find glyphosate to cause cancer.

Monsanto, recently bought by Bayer, points out that IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of WHO) has found plenty of common things to be linked to cancer; even being a hairdresser. But that’s only part of the story--IARC has five classifications for what it calls “agents”: group one (carcinogenic to humans), group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans), group 2B (possibly carcinogenic to humans), group 3 (not classifiable as to carcinogenicity), and group 4 (probably not carcinogenic to humans).

Glyphosate is a member of group 2A, alongside drinking beverages over 65 degrees celsius, (149 Fahrenheit), DDT, Chloramphenicol (an antibiotic), and Urethane. In total, there are 89 agents under the 2A classification.

Only of the 1,077 agents on IARC’s monograph, only one is currently in group 4, Caprolactam, a component of nylon. (IARC classifies 499 agents in group 3, 120 in group 1, and 311 in 2B). You can find a handy list of the classifications in the monograph here.

My question was wellmet--the folks were polite and didn’t seem offended that I’d brought up a touchy topic. But they stuck to the press-release lines: RoundUp is perfectly safe. The settlement had only been award because of the jurors were scientists, and thus didn’t really understand what was going on. I decided to keep digging.

While we were on tour, I asked people we ran into about whether or not they used RoundUp. At Delaware Valley, while giving us a tour of the student farm, one of the farmer/professors gave it a ringing endorsement, saying that it was the safest chemical for students to use. It wouldn’t cause burns if spilled on skin and wasn’t dangerous to inhale. It was, he said, his go-to chemical.

But the lawsuits are piling up, and plaintiffs include the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Chief Beverly Cook gave a statement quoted in the Ottawa Citizen, saying that “The Akwesasne Mohawks suffer from high levels of cancer and other illnesses that we believe are due to our exposures to Monsanto’s PCBs used by industrial facilities located upwind and upriver from our community, and elsewhere.” Some countries, Germany among them, are crafting tighter regulations for the chemical. A glyphosate case is making it all the way to federal court this coming February.

The question is murky, but it’s one that matters in the fight for global food security. If glyphosate is safe, then it’s a great tool in our arsenal for protecting crops. If it’s not, its use has endangered countless people. The story is one I’m following closely, and I’m hoping for more answers sooner than later.

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