Scientists Debate Safety of Glyphosate

Emily Nink

Glyphosate, a broad-spectrum herbicide commonly known as Roundup, is used in more than 160 countries. While glyphosate is the second most widely used herbicide on lawns and gardens in the United States, its primary use is on farms growing corn and soy, where producers used more than 300 million pounds in 2012. And in March 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared glyphosate a probable carcinogen.

But the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently decided glyphosate is probably not a hazard to human health. The conclusion will be used by the European Commission, which is the authority that decides whether glyphosate remains on the EU list of approved active substances. EU member states can also use the conclusion when assessing the safety of glyphosate-containing products.

The European Commission requested that EFSA review the WHO report that declared glyphosate as a carcinogen. The committee also peer-reviewed an initial risk assessment report produced by Germany, and sent its conclusions to the European Commission, which has the final say on approved active substances. More than 150 new toxicological studies were included in the risk assessment, which concluded that available data does not show carcinogenic properties of glyphosate.

“This has been an exhaustive process,” says Jose Tarazona, head of EFSA’s pesticide unit. “By introducing an acute reference dose we are further tightening the way potential risks from glyphosate will be assessed in the future. Regarding carcinogenicity, it is unlikely that this substance is carcinogenic.” EFSA will use these findings when reviewing the maximum residue levels for glyphosate in food, which member states will carry out in 2016.

Many scientists, however, believe the decision was subject to industry influence. “This food ‘safety’ agency acted with blinders on, relying on a draft supplied to them by an industry task force that included Monsanto,” says Dr. Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Roundup is the most widely used weed-killer in the world and now it’s more critical than ever for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review this chemical quickly—and independently of industry pressure.’’

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Intercept found that 27 out of 32 studies used to inform a 2015 EPA decision—which concluded that glyphosate is not an endocrine disruptor—were funded by industry. In the months since that decision, U.S. farmworkers have sued Monsanto, alleging that Roundup caused their cancer.

And the NRDC sued the EPA in February 2015, claiming the federal agency was too slow to act on glyphosate, to the detriment of biodiversity and conservation. “The longer EPA delays, the greater the risk we could lose the monarch migration,” says Dr. Sylvia Fallon, an NRDC senior scientist and director of its Wildlife Conservation Project.

Meanwhile, the Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), a committee administered jointly by WHO and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), is set to determine the allowable level of glyphosate on food around the world in the coming year. JMPR’s conclusions provide the basis for food commodities that are internationally traded, as well as providing recommendations to governments of member nations and regions.