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Does Glyphosate Cause Cancer? EPA Panel Meets to Find Out

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From Dec. 13 - 16, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) to evaluate "the carcinogenic potential of the herbicide glyphosate," the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup.

For years, Monsanto has claimed that glyphosate is safe. Advertising at one time that Roundup was "safer than table salt" and "practically non-toxic."

However, many studies contradict Monsanto's assertions. In March 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, concluded that glyphosate is a "probable human carcinogen." Then in July 2016, an IARC scientist, Dr. Kurt Straif, defended the agency's assessment that glyphosate probably causes cancer in humans. Dr. Straif stated that:

"Our evaluation was a review of all the published scientific literature on glyphosate and this was done by the world's best experts on the topic that in addition don't have any conflicts of interest that could bias their assessment.

"They concluded that, yes, glyphosate is probably carcinogenic to humans based on three strings of evidence, that is clear evidence of cancer in experimental animals, limited evidence for cancer for humans from real-world exposures, of exposed farmers, and also strong evidence that it can damage the genes from any kind of other toxicological studies."

The SAP meetings now taking place were originally scheduled for mid-October, but the EPA postponed them only a few of days before they were to begin due to "changes in the availability of experts for the peer review panel."

According to Carey Gillam, research director for U.S. Right to Know, the EPA's decision to postpone the meetings came after an intense lobbying campaign led by CropLife America, which represents the interests of Monsanto and other agricultural businesses. CropLife initially fought to keep the SAP meetings from happening at all, then said if the meetings were to be held, "any person who has publicly expressed an opinion regarding the carcinogenicity of glyphosate" should be excluded from participating.

In a letter to the EPA, CropLife singled out epidemiologist Dr. Peter Infante, who the lobbying firm felt should be "replaced with an epidemiologist without such patent bias." As the only epidemiologist slated to be on the panel, the CropLife felt that Dr. Infante may have had enhanced influence on the epidemiological evaluation on glyphosate.

Dr. Infante has testified on behalf of plaintiffs suing Monsanto over chemical exposure. Nonetheless, Dr. Infante is one of the leading experts in his field, having spent the better part of a storied career protecting the public from harmful chemicals.

Dr. Infante spent 24 years working for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, where he determined cancer risks to those working on developing toxic chemicals, including arsenic, asbestos and formaldehyde. He has also served as an expert epidemiology consultant for a number of world bodies, including the World Trade Organization and the EPA.

CropLife's letter to the EPA was sent two days before the agency announced that the glyphosate meetings would be postponed. Many accused the EPA of kowtowing to lobbyists and the businesses they represent. The accusations only grew louder when Dr. Infante's name was no longer on the list of panelists scheduled for the December meetings.

Dr. Infante told Delta FarmPress that he was "mystified" by the EPA's decision to remove him from the meetings. "I didn't choose to leave the panel," he said. "No … I was removed from the panel. I'm totally mystified by it."

The EPA's move was also surprising to environmental advocacy groups, who say it is highly unusual for the agency to remove a panelist from a Scientific Advisory Panel.

"The industry wants to say that our own government scientists, the top ones in their fields, aren't good enough for these panels," said Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union, after the SAP meetings were postponed in October. "If the EPA wants to add extra epidemiologists that is great but why didn't they do it before? They are doing this because of pressure from industry."

According to Gillam, "the delay and the maneuvering by industry to influence panel participation does little to bolster consumer confidence for the likelihood of an objective outcome."

The EPA said it will issue a risk assessment for glyphosate by spring of 2017.

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Farms with just one or a handful of different crops encourage fewer species of pollinating and pest-controlling insects to linger, ultimately winnowing away crop yields, according to a new study.

Up to half of the detrimental impacts of the "landscape simplification" that monocropping entails come as a result of a diminished mix of ecosystem service-providing insects, a team of scientists reported Oct. 16 in the journal Science Advances.

Monocrop palm oil plantation Honduras.

SHARE Foundation / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0​

"Our study shows that biodiversity is essential to ensure the provision of ecosystem services and to maintain a high and stable agricultural production," Matteo Dainese, the study's lead author and a biologist at Eurac Research in Bolzano, Italy, said in a statement.

It stands to reason that, with declines in the sheer numbers of insects that ferry pollen from plant to plant and keep crop-eating pests under control, these services will wane as well. But until now, it hasn't been clear how monocultures affect the number and mix of these species or how crop yields might change as a result.

Aiming to solve these questions, Dainese and his colleagues pulled together data from 89 studies cutting across a variety of landscapes, from the tropics of Asia and Africa to the higher latitudes of northern Europe. They tabulated the number of pollinating and pest-controlling insects at these sites — both the absolute number of individuals and the number of species — along with an assessment of the ecosystem services the insects provided.

In almost all of the studies they looked at, the team found that a more diverse pool of these species translated into more pollination and greater pest control. They also showed that simplified landscapes supported fewer species of service-providing insects, which ultimately led to lower crop yields.

The researchers also looked at a third measure of the makeup of insect populations — what they called "evenness." In natural ecosystems, a handful of dominant species with many more individuals typically live alongside a higher number of rarer species. The team found as landscapes became less diverse, dominant species numbers dwindled and rare species gained ground. This resulting, more equitable mix led to less pollination (though it didn't end up affecting pest control).

"Our study provides strong empirical support for the potential benefits of new pathways to sustainable agriculture that aim to reconcile the protection of biodiversity and the production of food for increasing human populations," Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, one of the study's authors and an animal ecologist at the University of Würzburg in Germany, said in the statement.

The scientists figure that the richness of pollinator species explains around a third of the harmful impacts of less diverse landscapes, while the richness of pest-controlling species accounts for about half of the same measure. In their view, the results of their research point to the need to protect biodiversity on and around crops in an uncertain future.

"Under future conditions with ongoing global change and more frequent extreme climate events, the value of farmland biodiversity ensuring resilience against environmental disturbances will become even more important," Steffan-Dewenter said.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.