A Matter of Fact – Professor Refuses to Correct Errors in New Scientific Paper Finding Problems With Glyphosate
By Carey Gillam
Update, June 5: On June 5 a spokesperson or Scientific Reports said, "When any issues are raised with Scientific Reports about papers we have published, we investigate them carefully and we will take action where appropriate." He pointed out that Scientific Reports is an online, open-access journal in the "Nature Research family of journals" but is editorially independent of Nature.
The authors of a newly published paper examining the impacts of exposure to the world's most widely used herbicide declared some shocking news.
The team from Washington State University found that descendants of rats exposed to the chemical glyphosate developed prostate, kidney and ovarian diseases, obesity and birth abnormalities. The findings, published in April in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, added to the global debate about the safety of glyphosate and Monsanto's Roundup and other glyphosate-based weed killers.
But perhaps more stunning than that news, the research team also stated in their paper that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a specialist scientific arm of the World Health Organization, had "retracted" its finding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen.
The error is one of many in the paper reported to the authors over a month ago that has yet to be corrected. But none, perhaps, is more glaring than the one about IARC.
IARC had issued a lengthy paper in 2015 that concluded by classifying glyphosate as a 2A human carcinogen. That IARC classification sparked thousands of lawsuits against Monsanto, the longtime purveyor of Roundup and other glyphosate herbicides and fueled debate around the globe. The IARC classification also helped prompt many European countries to start moving to limit or ban glyphosate use. Cities, school districts and retailers across the United States have also stopped using or selling glyphosate products. Monsanto's German owner Bayer AG has lost 40 percent of its shareholder value due to the persistent concerns about Monsanto's glyphosate herbicides.
But according to the WSU team, the IARC classification that triggered it all was retracted in 2016. They wrote:
"In March 2015 the International Agency of Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a Grade 2a carcinogen based on prevalence of liver and kidney tumors in chronic feeding studies. Shortly after, this statement was retracted in 2016."
A retraction by IARC of its finding would be highly significant. Indeed, Monsanto in 2015 did seek a retraction but IARC has defended its work, as have numerous independent scientists from multiple countries. And notably, IARC has never retracted its finding of glyphosate as a 2A probable carcinogen.
"The classification has not been changed and is still valid," said IARC spokeswoman Veronique Terrasse.
The Washington State research team was led by Michael Skinner, professor of the WSU School of Biological Sciences. Seemingly the error would be easy to correct. But when contacted about the error, Skinner said he had no intention of correcting the statement because no correction was needed. He said that he has told scientists who have raised the issue with him to write a letter to the editor of the journal.
"The Definition of Retract includes to "Draw or be drawn back or back in" or "withdraw or go back" or "reconsider or drawn back," so this is why the word was used in this context," Skinner said in an emailed response.
Scientific Reports is part of Nature, a weekly international journal that bills itself as "publishing the finest peer-reviewed research in all fields of science and technology…" No one from Nature or Scientific Reports responded to a question about whether or not the error would be corrected.
Several outside scientists have identified other factual errors in the paper, and said they threaten to undermine the credibility of the findings overall.
"This is supposed to be picked up by the peer review," said Chuck Benbrook, an agricultural economist and glyphosate expert whose own scientific research was cited incorrectly by the Skinner team in their paper. Benbrook contacted Skinner in April immediately after the paper was published laying out several errors that need correcting. Benbrook noted that all of the problems he is aware of were in the introduction to the paper and had nothing to do with the scientific conclusions.
"Why he didn't quickly correct the factual errors … is hard to understand," said Benbrook.
Among the other factual errors:
1. The paper stated that glyphosate accounts for nearly 72 percent of global pesticide usage, citing Benbrook's research. Benbrook's research does not say that, but says that 72 percent of glyphosate sprayed globally has been applied in the last decade.
2. The Skinner paper states that IARC's classification of glyphosate was based on the prevalence of liver and kidney tumors in chronic feeding studies. In fact, the IARC classification, as detailed in IARC's paper, states the classification was based on data from animal studies, epidemiology studies, and "strong evidence" of genotoxic mechanisms of action.
3. As well, the paper cited in a footnote a paper that contradicted IARC's finding of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen that was exposed nearly two years ago as the ghost-written work of Monsanto scientists. Skinner's paper did not note that this paper, titled "Genotoxicity Expert Panel review: weight of evidence evaluation of the genotoxicity of glyphosate, glyphosate-based formulations, and aminomethylphosphonic acid," was so problematic for its lack of disclosure of Monsanto's involvement that the journal that published it — Critical Reviews in Toxicology — issued an "expression of concern" and a correction statement.
Skinner's research was supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. He and his colleagues exposed pregnant rats to glyphosate between their eighth and 14th days of gestation. The dose, which they said was half the amount expected to show no adverse effect, produced no apparent ill effects on either the parents or the first generation of offspring. But the researchers saw dramatic increases in "several pathologies affecting the second and third generations," according to a press release promoting the study.
The study has garnered quite a bit of attention. Several news outlets have reported on the study, quoting Skinner. Bayer AG, the German company that bought Monsanto last year, has said Skinner's study wasn't credible. But Skinner has defended the accuracy of the study, citing the fact it was peer-reviewed and published in an accredited scientific journal.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>