The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) last week concluded that glyphosate, the main ingredient in many broad-spectrum herbicides including Roundup, is not carcinogenic to humans. This followed a review of glyphosate's safety, after a panel of World Health Organisation scientists declared in 2015 that it is “probably” carcinogenic. While finding glyphosate unlikely to be a cause of cancer, the ECHA did acknowledge that the chemical can cause “serious eye damage” and that it is “toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects”.
Obviously farmers' organisations welcomed the findings which they hope will lead to an extension of glyphosate's temporary European licence, when it expires later this year. However, a Greenpeace statement said that the ECHA conclusion “sweeps glyphosate cancer evidence under the carpet”. But just as agriculture has become hugely reliant on the availability of broad-spectrum herbicides, replacing them would place a burden on farming bodies to come up with viable alternatives. Who wants the hassle and expense of researching other ways to grow crops?
The problem is, there are still many unanswered questions regarding glyphosate. On the one hand, there is huge financial pressure to maintain the status quo, which could encourage collusion between regulators and industry. In 2015 Monsanto alone made $4.8bn from its sales of Roundup. Such revenues will be fiercely protected.
There are also questions about Europe's regulatory bodies. In an open letter to the ECHA on March 6 twenty civil society groups accused several Risk Assessment Committee members, including its Chair Tim Bowmer, of having conflicts of interest. Before joining the ECHA Bowmer worked as a consultant for over twenty years, advising chemical companies on how to reduce costs “and get products to the market faster”. Whether or not his many close contacts with various chemical companies could have influenced Bowmer is less important than the rigorousness of the testing process.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) last year declared its belief that glyphosate was safe. Its testing process was based on a report drawn up by the Renewable Assessment Report (RAR), written by German authorities. The methodology in this report was criticised for dismissing case-control studies, including one that showed links between glyphosate and renal tumours in mice. In addition, by not appraising the effects of glyphosate's co-formulant ingredients, given that these are nearly always present, the RAR overlooked a crucial aspect of the risk factor associated with glyphosate.Up to 500 glyphosate adjuvant/co-formulant substitutes are currently used in Europe, but the ingredients of these co-formulants are mostly kept secret. Last December, the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health Sciences published a paper by Yehia A. Ibrahim on the “acceptable daily intake and correction of underrated risk” of glyphosate-based herbicides. In his introduction Ibrahim notes that “pesticide formulations are up to three orders of magnitude acutely or chronically more toxic than their active principles... due to the toxic and/or synergistic effect of co-formulant(s).”
He continues, “It is surprising that regulatory authorities are sometimes misled or deceived by pesticide industry and accept the notion of co-formulants as toxicologically-inert materials that pose no toxicological risk to human health and the environment. This notion is not only inaccurate; it is also misleading and extremely dangerous”. Ibrahim outlines the many scientific studies that have linked incidences of chronic diseases with glyphosate, including “reproductive and hormonal problems, miscarriages, low birth weights, pre-term deliveries, and birth defects.” He bemoans the insistence of regulatory bodies on carrying out their safety testing in laboratories using pure forms of the chemical in question, without considering the cumulative effects of exposure to that chemical in real life. Glyphosate variants are present in water and food, alongside a range of co-formulant ingredients.
One of the most worrying aspects of glyphosate and human health is its possible classification as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors are responsible for weakening hormonal systems of newly formed foetuses and they can result in a host of developmental problems from learning difficulties, diabetes and obesity, to breast cancer in females and prostate cancer in males. Evidence linking glyphosate with endocrine disruption has been rejected by the pesticides industry, but as many endocrine disruptors carry through generations, the accusation is already damaging.
If glyphosate can have long-term negative implications for human health, then its environmental impacts are also likely to be significant. It is already accepted to be extremely harmful to aquatic organisms, although this has not prevented some Irish farmers and council workers from using it to clear weeds from field drains and alongside rivers. This is a callous practice of contrived ignorance, as the labels clearly warn users to keep away from watercourses.
But what of its impact on soil health? A study of glyphosate impacts on earthworms found that when placed in water with the manufacturers' recommended dilution of 1% glyphosate solution, 96.8% of worms died within 80 minutes. The study tested outcomes for much smaller dilutions also, for example, at 0.1% dilution, 63.1% of worms died, and in a solution of 0.01% 21.9% of worms died. As the authors concluded, “since nematodes make up part of a healthy soil environment [use of glyphosate herbicides] has implications for soil health.”
The situation as it stands is that the ECHA and the EFSA have declared for glyphosate. Despite this, a growing body of scientific evidence is contradicting their findings and a growing clamour of public disquiet is calling for stricter measures or a total ban. The European citizens' petition, which was launched in January and requires a million signatures within 12 months, has already garnered 480,000 of those. The ECHA decision will not reassure many of those signatories and the European Commission looks like being tasked with the job of introducing measures to ban glyphosate next year.
The fact that glyphosate is a great tool in the farmers' armoury will not save it. Unfortunately for the farmers, they will most likely lose glyphosate because of poor regulation and poor advice. Blanket spraying of food crops through practices like pre-harvest dessication and through the advent of GM glyphosate-tolerant varieties has increased human exposure beyond all need.
If farming bodies, advisors and chemical companies had been disciplined and used Roundup in moderation, with regulators fully advised as to its contents and implications, none of this would be a problem. But because of corporate secrecy, chemical companies have resisted disclosing their full ingredients' lists, so regulatory bodies have taken them at their word. This was a big mistake, as the growing body of evidence suggests. The most tragic aspect of all this is that people are the ones who will suffer if it turns out that regulators were wrong.