Glyphosate is the active ingredient of Roundup, one of the most widely employed herbicides in the world. It is sold by Monsanto, earning $5bn a year. There is growing public debate about this chemical and its effects on human health. In fact, the levels of glyphosate found in food have increased, in United Kingdom for instance, researchers found traces of its residues in 60% of British bread. Recent studies also found that glyphosate lasts very long in water and soil, contaminating the food chain. This herbicide is also employed in cities’ green areas and parks to control unwanted weeds.
In March 2015 the International Agency for Research against Cancer (IARC – part of the World Health Organisation) came to the conclusion that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. Interestingly, three months later the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and Germany’s Federal Risk Assessment Institute (BfR), came to the opposite conclusion that glyphosate was “unlikely” to be carcinogenic to humans. This generated a dispute among scientists, and a public exchange of letters between the two organisations.
So the question is, how is it possible that the IARC and the EFSA’s verdicts are opposite? It is worthy to note a crucial difference among the two institutes. EFSA’s verdict was largely based on a report issued by the BfR. But this 947 pages report was actually developed by the Glyphosate Task Force, a group in which phytopharmaceutical industry producers collaborate, coordinated by Monsanto. Studies financed by the very producers of glyphosate, are clearly not necessarily reliable, and the name of the authors – more than 80% of the experts involved in the EU’s official assessment of glyphosate refused to have their names disclosed to public -, of the laboratories, as well as much data, was not present in the BfR’s report. According to IARC, the level of risk of glyphosate depends on the intensity and on the period of exposition to the substance. Hence to ensure the safety of the consumers, it would be sufficient to establish a maximum level allowed. But the maximal residual limits already exist, and these must be redefined in the light of the recent studies.
Research on the toxicity of glyphosate has many data gaps. So far, it typically focused on the quantities that can kill a lab animal. However, the effects of low and chronic levels of exposure via food or water, have not been studied. Additionally, herbicides containing glyphosate are often applied in conjunction with other pesticides and there is little knowledge about the effects of these mixtures.
The main obstacle in this matter is that in the name of trade secrets protection, companies that produce glyphosate refuse to disclose key scientific evidence about its possible risks. Public sensitivity to the topic is fortunately growing, and the hope is that European members of parliament will reject the so-called Trade Secrets Directive, whose final vote in the European Parliament is announced for next April 12.