Glyphosate: Precaution versus Risk- When Doctors Differ Patients Die
The other day I was talking to IFA president Joe Healy. He was a bit upset about the fact that a Citizen's Convention is being established to decide the fate of glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup. He said that criticism of glyphosate is based on 'bad science'. I responded that I had seen some of the evidence and could not agree. I asked him anyhow, if it were not better to be cautious, in case these scientists are right and we are poisoning ourselves. He said “there is risk in everything. Driving to Dublin is a risk.” Fair enough I said and argued no further, but it got me thinking.
Risk comes with rewards and we can produce a lot of food relatively cheaply using pesticides. But wait a minute, whose health are we risking? Our own, indeed, yes. Our families? Perhaps. Our customers? Yes, maybe. Ok, so we can produce a lot of food cheaply this way, but it might be a risk to the health of millions of people including ourselves and our families. Now I want to assess this risk in more detail.
Here at That's Farming we have been ruffling feathers with our coverage of the glyphosate story. Some people have welcomed our investigations, while others have accused us of being anti-farming. But we are simply following the story from a non-partisan viewpoint. Safety measures are there to protect us all, our children, our neighbours and our customers. None of Ireland's relevant authorities have acted independently on this issue. They all told us that Europe was responsible for chemical safety. The Tillage Growers' Association, Teagasc, the IFA and the government, have all reflected the popular view of farmers, that chemical safety regulations are hindering the ability of farmers to make a living. It is our duty as reporters to examine whether or not this is true and if the whole furore is, as they say, political. If we find evidence which was overlooked by these organisations it is our duty to call them out on it.
As it happens, there are plenty of peer-reviewed scientific reports that cast doubt on the safety of a range of farm chemicals, especially the world's most widely used herbicide. It is this growing body of evidence that has led European politicians to set up a citizens' convention on glyphosate. It is not easy to act against the persuasive powers of multi-billion dollar corporations. Do not think for a second that these companies, BASF, Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and so on, have taken the assault on their industry lightly.
Without strong scientific evidence it would not have been possible for Europe to ban two herbicides that contained endocrine disruptors last year. Regulators have been generally losing ground in their struggle to control dangerous chemicals in Europe, even more so across the rest of the world. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has itself been accused of being partisan and it so happens, many of its senior personnel are ex-industry employees. Indeed a 2012 Corporate European Observatory report concluded: “EFSA’s scientific decision-making favours industry, not the public, and many members of its management board and expert panels have conflicts of interest caused by their links to industry.” Without independence, safety regulators are fatally compromised and we are the ones who must get the chemo-therapy, which we all know is no joke.
In the world of science there are no absolutes. If I were a scientist conducting a series of tests which I felt had given me a certain outcome, I would publish my conclusions and my exact methodology. This way someone more adept than myself could repeat the tests, assess my methods and perhaps find I had made a mistake. This is the way in which peer reviewed science works. Results are refined over time. In theory at least, egos bow to the greater good, which is to add to our pool of knowledge.
This process gets waylaid sometimes when vested interests get involved. Chemical companies roll out new products all the time. To safeguard profits, they hide their methodologies behind patents and copyrights. We need to trust that their safety standards are high, but even the best of intentions line the road to hell. When there's a problem with a multi-billion dollar product (Roundup is worth $6-7bn per annum to Monsanto) how can we trust the company to take action to safeguard our health? In the experience of NGOs fighting for compensation for victims of disasters like Bhopal, we cannot. Big companies use their clout to walk away from trouble, especially if they caused it. This is why we need independent regulators to control them.
When the World Health Organisation said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”, this was based on a review of dozens of research papers by a panel of highly-esteemed scientists working for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). These studies are transparent and public. They assessed the impacts of glyphosate across a range of scenarios and more importantly, in different compounds, as it is actually used. You might think that the findings of such a respected panel of diligent IARC professionals would be received with the gravitas they deserved. Not a bit of it. It was news neither the farmers nor industry wanted to hear. Monsanto demanded the IARC retract their findings. A review was conducted by another panel of independent scientists in 2015. There was no retraction.
The EFSA then reacted with a report of its own, which dismissed the IARC concerns about glyphosate. Using anonymous researchers, their headline-grabbing conclusion, that glyphosate was “unlikely” to cause cancer in humans and that European legal exposure levels could actually be increased by 66%, was heralded by Monsanto's Chief Technology Officer Robb Fraley with the sound bite: “Science wins!”. That was his opinion of course, but how did the two bodies come up with such different conclusions?
The EFSA assessment has several problems, not least of which was its interpretation by industry chiefs as a comprehensive rebuttal of the IARC findings. The unknown EFSA scientists actually called for more research on glyphosate toxicity, saying “other endpoints should be clarified, such as long-term toxicity and carcinogenicity, reproductive/developmental toxicity and endocrine disrupting potential of formulations.” 'Formulations' is a key-word in that sentence. Whether instructed to or not, EFSA scientists had based their opposing conclusion on lab tests of glyphosate in its pure form. Pure glyphosate is rarely if ever used. It is always added to other active agents, like surfactants, which work to transfer the glyphosate into the roots of the plant.
It was from compound formats like this that the IARC encountered evidence of danger. So while the EFSA claims that glyphosate in and of itself is safe, its actual form in the real world is still “probably” carcinogenic. When Germany banned the Roundup adjuvant POEA in 2014, it said: “Member States are encouraged to consider the substitution of alkylamine ethoxylates (POEA) in plant protection products with less toxic surfactants.” The EU belatedly followed this advice with regard to POEA in July 2016. Hundreds of other glyphosate compounds are still in use.
As chemicals are constantly being introduced, their affects over time only become obvious as more people look into them and more data accumulates. With neonicotinoids, it was only after massive bee losses that certain kinds were linked with neurological disorders that were affecting the bees. Some of these pesticides have been withdrawn, but others are still used because of strong lobbying by industry. Most farmers want to be allowed to use Roundup or the many other pesticides currently threatened with restrictions by the European Precautionary Principle. This is understandable from a self-interest viewpoint, but it looks increasingly unlikely that Roundup, for one, will be available in the not-too-distant future.
Whichever side of the precautionary debate you are on, we all need to be realistic about what we are doing to ourselves and our environment. The challenges we face are grave. Dramatic wildlife extinctions, climate change, rising human population, loss of land to urbanisation... these cannot be solved by pouring on more chemicals. If this is the only way we can farm, then we are frankly screwed. Industry has squeezed farmers into a corner. The tightening of regulations surrounding pesticides has made life even harder. We have just had the tillage crisis with poor weather further compounding rock bottom prices across all sectors of agriculture.
The current system of industrial farming brought a massive boost in yields when it first arrived. Now however with lack of rotation and our reliance on constantly drenching fields in chemical fertilizers and treatments, yields have more or less stagnated or fallen back. As farmers desperately try to regain lost ground they increase their inputs, reducing their margins and gamble this against a good harvest. Eventually something will have to give. It could be said that farmers cannot make a living because like drug-users they have been made addicted to these narcotic additives, which they cannot afford any more. The corporate takeover of agriculture pushes us into this dependence. Agriculture today is a death-match in which only the strong survive. The rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer.
There is a better way to farm and you don't need to be big or rich to do it. In Ireland we have so many natural advantages. If we can find ways to reduce our reliance on inputs and only use chemicals that are really needed, we can minimise our dependence on the industry giants who have only their own interests in mind. Crop diversification and proper rotation can help here. Heritage varieties are less prone to diseases that have evolved with high-productivity crops.
We need to set up a responsible Irish food label with guarantees about chemical traceability, seeing the opportunity in this crisis. So many people around the world worry about the effects of chemically drenched food, they are willing to pay more for something they can trust. There is a thriving organic market which we are not supplying. We need to communicate with the IFA, Teagasc and department officials and get their assistance with detoxing our food production. Otherwise we will lose our farming culture to industrial giants and surely nobody wants to see that happen.