Glyphosate Spin Check: Tracking Claims About the Most Widely Used Herbicide
By Stacy Malkan
Amid global debate over the safety of glyphosate-based herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup, numerous claims have been made to defend the product's safety. In the wake of two recent landmark jury rulings that found Roundup to be a substantial factor in causing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, we examined some of these claims and fact-checked them for accuracy.
Mark Lynas, Cornell Alliance for Science
Cornell Alliance for Science website (November 2017)
This article by Mark Lynas contains several inaccurate and misleading statements. Like many promoting glyphosate products, the claims here focus on trying to discredit the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
CLAIM: IARC is a "little known and rather flaky offshoot of the World Health Organization" that "finds almost everything carcinogenic"
FACT: IARC is the specialized cancer research agency of WHO with expert panels comprised of independent scientists from various disciplines of cancer research. In its 50-year history, IARC has assessed 1,013 substances and found 49 percent of those were "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans"; 20 percent were classified as known or probably carcinogenic to humans.
CLAIM: "Early drafts of the IARC assessment were extensively altered at a late stage to point towards a carcinogenicity finding — even when the science they were assessing pointed away from this"
FACT: This claim is sourced with a flawed Reuters report by Kate Kelland that left out crucial facts, including the fact that most of the information IARC didn't adopt from "early drafts" was from a review article co-authored by a Monsanto scientist. The review article "did not provide adequate information for independent evaluation of the conclusions reached by the Monsanto scientist and other authors," IARC said. Kelland has written a number of stories critical of IARC; documents released in 2019 establish that Monsanto secretly had a hand in some of her reporting.
Lynas used one other source to buttress his claims about wrongdoing at IARC: David Zaruk, a former chemical industry lobbyist who once worked for the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.
CLAIM: Glyphosate is the "most benign chemical in world farming."
FACT: This statement is not science-based. Studies link glyphosate to a range of health concerns including cancer, endocrine disruption, liver disease, shortened pregnancies, birth defects and damage to beneficial gut bacteria. Environmental concerns include negative impacts on soil, bees and butterflies.
SOURCE: Mark Lynas is a former journalist turned promotional advocate for agrichemical products. He works for the Cornell Alliance for Science, a PR campaign housed at Cornell University that is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to promote and defend GMOs and pesticides.
American Council on Science and Health
ACSH website (October 2017)
CLAIM: IARC's report on glyphosate was a case of "scientific fraud."
FACT: ACSH based its "fraud" claims on the same two sources Mark Lynas used to try to discredit IARC: the flawed article in Reuters written by a reporter who has cozy ties to Monsanto, and the former chemical industry lobbyist David Zaruk.
SOURCE: The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) is a front group that receives funding from chemical, pharmaceutical and tobacco companies, and pitches its services to industry groups for product defense campaigns, according to leaked internal documents. Emails from 2015 establish that Monsanto was funding ACSH and asked the group to write about the IARC glyphosate report. An ACSH staffer responded that they were already involved in a "full-court press re: IARC" regarding agrichemicals, phthalates and diesel exhaust.
Yvette d’Entremont, a.k.a. the “Sci Babe”
Self Magazine article (October 2018)
CLAIMS: "With over 800 studies on it, no study has shown the components in Roundup to cause cancer" … "there haven't been major credible studies showing a causal link between Roundup and cancer."
FACT: Several major credible studies link Roundup or its key component glyphosate to cancer, including a study submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1980s that EPA scientists at the time said was evidence of cancer concerns. There are too many studies to list, but citations can be found in the 2015 International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph on Glyphosate.
Additionally, a broad scientific analysis of the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate herbicides published in February 2019 found that people with high exposures had an increased risk of developing a type of cancer called non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
SOURCE: Yvette d'Entremont is a "contributing editor" to Self Magazine with a column called "SciBabe Explains." Self Magazine does not disclose to its readers that SciBabe partners with companies whose products she defends. In 2017, the artificial sweetener company Splenda partnered with SciBabe to help "empower fans of the SPLENDA® Brand to take an active role in busting myths about sucralose." Chemical companies have sponsored some of her speaking engagements at farming conferences.
Geoffrey Kabat, Epidemiologist
Genetic Literacy Project website (October 2018)
CLAIM: Glyphosate "has been so thoroughly studied for toxicity and the concentrations found in humans are so low that there is no need for further study … there is really nothing left to justify further research!"
FACT: In sworn testimony admitted into evidence in ongoing litigation against Monsanto and its owner Bayer AG, former Monsanto CEO Hugh Grant acknowledged the company never did any epidemiology study of glyphosate-based herbicide formulations the company sells. The company also sought to block a toxicity evaluation of glyphosate formulations by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Moreover, these comments, which Dr. Kabat attributed to an anonymous source, ignore two key facts: independent studies link glyphosate to a wide range of health problems and environmental concerns, and evidence from court filings suggests that Monsanto interfered with scientific and regulatory assessments of glyphosate (see examples and sources here, here, here and here).
According to Judge Vince Chhabria, who presided over a recent federal trial that resulted in $80 million in damages against Monsanto, "the plaintiffs have presented a great deal of evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of its product." The judge also wrote:
Regarding pesticide residues in people, recent science is raising concerns that current regulations do not provide adequate health protections. See reporting by Carey Gillam, Chemicals on our food: When 'safe' may not really be safe, and commentaries by scientists here, here and here.
SOURCE: Dr. Geoffrey Kabat has longstanding ties to the tobacco industry and has published papers favorable to the tobacco industry that were funded by the tobacco industry. He serves on the board of directors of the parent organization of Genetic Literacy Project, which works with Monsanto on PR projects. Kabat is also on the advisory board of the front group American Council on Science and Health.
Patrick Moore, PR Consultant
Video interview with Canal+ (March 2015)
CLAIM: "You can drink a whole quart of [glyphosate] and it won't hurt you."
FACT: Even Monsanto says you should not drink glyphosate. According to the company's website, "glyphosate isn't a beverage and should not be ingested — just like you wouldn't drink shampoo or dish detergent. It is always important to use products for their intended purpose and as directed on the label." (The post also clarifies that Moore "isn't a Monsanto lobbyist or employee.")
SOURCE: Moore has been portrayed as a co-founder of Greenpeace who "calls out his former group" as he argues for deregulation of toxic products or polluting industries. According to Greenpeace, "Once upon a time, Dr. Patrick Moore was an early Greenpeace member. Now he is a public relations consultant for the polluting companies that Greenpeace works to change." In 2014, Moore testified to a U.S. Senate committee that there is no scientific evidence that human activity is causing global warming.
CLAIM: "I've drank [glyphosate] before to demonstrate harmlessness" … "I've done it live and will do it again. Must be mixed w/coke or c-berry juice. Tastes soapy. No buzz"
FACT: While Dr. Folta may indeed have consumed glyphosate, this is bad advice coming from an unreliable source. As described above, even Monsanto says you should not drink glyphosate.
SOURCE: Prof. Folta has misled the public on many occasions about his agrichemial industry ties. In 2017, Dr. Folta sued the New York Times and Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Eric Lipton for reporting on Folta's undisclosed collaborations with Monsanto to help defeat GMO labeling. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Alison van Eenennaam, PhD, Animal Geneticist, UC Davis
video interview on the Real News Network (May 2015)
CLAIM: "I think there's several very comprehensive meta-analyses that have been done recently that show there are no unique toxicological or carcinogenicity effects associated with the use of Roundup. There was the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment that just reviewed hundreds of toxicological studies and nearly a thousand published reports, and concluded that the data showed neither carcinogenic or mutagentic properties of glyphosate, nor that glyphosate is toxic to fertility, reproduction, and or embryonic fetal development in lab animals … And I wouldn't call Germany necessarily a country where you would expect them to be doing a risk assessment that wasn't really looking at what the data's saying."
FACT: A 2019 report commissioned by Members of Parliament in the European Union found that Germany's risk assessment agency "copy-and-pasted tracts from Monsanto studies." See reporting in the Guardian by Arthur Neslen, EU glyphosate approval was based on plagiarised Monsanto text, report finds.
SOURCE: Dr. van Eenennaam is a leading promoter of genetically engineered animals and crops, and a fervent advocate for deregulation. Documents show she has coordinated with agrichemical companies and their public relations firms on PR and messaging.
Food Evolution Documentary Film
This 2017 feature-length documentary promotes genetically engineered foods as the solution to world hunger but glosses over a key controversy at the center of the GMO debate: whether Roundup, the herbicide that most GM crops are engineered to resist, causes cancer. The film does not even mention the IARC report that found glyphosate to be a probable human carcinogen, and it relies on just two sources to claim that glyphosate is not a worry.
CLAIM: The film shows footage of Monsanto's Robb Fraley giving a speech; when an audience member asked him about studies linking glyphosate to cancer or birth defects, Fraley waved his hand dismissively and said all those studies are "pseudoscience."
FACT: Evidence from animal studies and epidemiological data published in reputable journals link glyphosate to several adverse impacts including cancer and birth defects.
CLAIM: A farmer claims that glyphosate has "very, very low toxicity; lower than coffee, lower than salt."
FACT: Comparing the toxicity of short-term exposure of glyphosate to things like coffee or salt is irrelevant and misleading; concerns about links to cancer are based on chronic, long-term exposures to glyphosate.
SOURCE: Food Evolution was produced by Scott Hamilton Kennedy, narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson and funded by the Institute for Food Technologists, an industry trade group. Dozens of academics have called it a propaganda film, and several people interviewed for the film described a sneaky and deceptive filming process. New York University Prof. Marion Nestle asked to be taken out of the film, but the director refused.
Independent Women’s Forum
IWF website (August 2018)
CLAIM: "The truth is, glyphosate is not carcinogenic."
FACT: This article by Julie Gunlock provides no scientific backing for its claims; the only links lead to previous IWF blogs accusing environmental groups of lying and "unnecessarily scaring moms."
SOURCE: The Independent Women's Forum promotes tobacco products, denies climate science and partners with Monsanto on events to defend pesticides. IWF is funded largely by right-wing foundations that promote deregulation for polluting industries.
The International Food Information Council
IFIC website (January 2016)
CLAIM: "IARC's determination [that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen] was found by numerous experts to have excluded dozens of studies that found no evidence of glyphosate being carcinogenic. Experts also found IARC's review to be based on flawed and discredited science, some even going so far as to say the conclusion was 'totally wrong.'"
FACT: IFIC relied on industry sources for these claims, linking to articles by Val Giddings, PhD, former trade group executive turned PR consultant for the agrichemical industry; and Keith Solomon, a toxicologist who was hired by Monsanto to assess the IARC report.
SOURCE: The International Food Information Council, funded by large food and chemical companies, promotes and defends sugar, artificial sweeteners, food additives, pesticides, processed foods and GMOs. A Monsanto PR plan identified IFIC as one of the "industry partners" that could help defend glyphosate from cancer concerns.
This photo posted to the IFIC glyphosate page (then deleted after we called attention to it) is an example of the type of messaging the food industry uses to try to convince women to trust their "experts."
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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