Monsanto Calls for Retraction of WHO’s Glyphosate Assessment

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photo credit: Flickr user Mike Mozart, Creative Commons license

Few minds are likely to be changed by the World Health Organization’s reclassification of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen. That is because there is little new to add but fuel to the fire.


To be clear: The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) assessment of glyphosate is not a study, but rather a determination that came out of a week-long meeting of an advisory panel in Lyon, France earlier this month. The panel reviewed a limited data set and decided to classify glyphosate with a 2A rating as “probably carcinogenic.”

IARC’s full report is not due out for another year, but in the meantime, many are wondering how IARC came to a conclusion that, as Dr. Phil Miller, Monsanto’s vice president of global regulatory affairs, put it, “is starkly at odds with every scientific body.”

“It is hard to find how they got to that conclusion when nobody else did,” Dr. Keith Solomon, professor emeritus at the Academy of Toxicological Sciences, University of Guelph, told Farm Chemicals International. Solomon, who has been conducting studies on pesticide toxicology since 1978, said one of his own published papers on glyphosate exposure in Colombia was misinterpreted by IARC. “(Glyphosate) is not a trivial compound. They are putting a lot of uncertainty out there.”

Agricultural industry executives stressed that IARC is not a regulatory authority, and as such, there is no practical impact of the assessment.

“We don’t see this impacting regulatory status,” Brett Begemann, Monsanto president and chief operating officer, said on a conference call on Tuesday. “Regulatory agencies have already come to the conclusion that glyphosate is safe for human health and environment. The German BfR came to that same conclusion months ago on a product that has been out there for 40 years.”

Begemann was referring to the German Risk Agency (BfR), which said in a re-evaluation in January 2015 that “the available data do not show carcinogenic or mutagenic properties of glyphosate nor that glyphosate is toxic to fertility, reproduction or embryonal/fetal development in laboratory animals,” and “in epidemiological studies in humans, there was no evidence of carcinogenicity and there were no effects on fertility, reproduction and development of neurotoxicity that might be attributed to glyphosate.”

One key study among many that IARC disregarded was the multi-year, taxpayer-funded U.S. Agricultural Health Study, which demonstrated that glyphosate exposure in more than 57,000 pesticide applicators was not associated with cancer.

“Frankly, the public deserves to know whey they excluded data,” Miller said.

What Next?

On the call, Miller urged next steps for IARC, including retraction. “I would like for them to retract their statement and justify how they came to their conclusion that differs so vastly from regulatory bodies around the world that have determined that glyphosate is safe for humans and the environment.”

“There are over 60 genotoxicity studies on glyphosate with none showing results that should cause alarm relating to any likely human exposure. For human epidemiological studies there are seven cohort and 14 case control studies, none of which support carcinogenicity,” said Sir Colin Berry, emeritus professor of pathology at Queen Mary University of London. Berry has served on a number of regulatory bodies for the United Kingdom, European Union and WHO.

The IARC classification not only falls short and contradicts decades of research, said Begemann, but it also has the potential to unnecessarily confuse and cause alarm with the public – especially as consumers often stumble across posts by agenda-driven groups on social media.

“What troubles me most and really disappoints me is that this information (can purposefully be used) to scare and intimidate moms and dads who want to know their food is safe,” Begemann said on the call.

A spokesman for CropLife International added that IARC works strictly on hazard-based, rather than risk-based, assessments where the intrinsic properties of a substance are assessed. “This is why coffee, Aloa Vera and talcum powder, for example, have all been categorized by IARC as ‘possibly carcinogenic.’ What IARC does not consider is the actual carcinogenic risk of these substances, which is low to non-existent.”

More pesticides, including some organochlorine insecticides and some chlorphenoxy herbicides, will come under review by IARC this June. The full list is available here.