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Monsanto Demands World Health Organization Retract Report That Says Roundup Is Linked to Cancer

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Monsanto Demands World Health Organization Retract Report That Says Roundup Is Linked to Cancer

Last week, the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) released a report, compiled by a team of scientists, that said glyphosate—sold by Monsanto in the herbicide Roundup—was probably linked to cancer.

Monsanto is demanding the WHO retract the report, essentially repudiating years of research by multiple scientists.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

This week, Monsanto is demanding the WHO retract the report, essentially repudiating years of research by multiple scientists. Monsanto is claiming the report was biased and that glyphosate products like Roundup are safe when the directions are followed. The company says that the WHO report contradicts regulatory findings, which can, of course, be influenced by politics and lobbying. So far, WHO has not responded.

"We question the quality of the assessment," Philip Miller, Monsanto vice president of global regulatory affairs, told Reuters. "The WHO has something to explain."

Miller claimed that the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was provided by Monsanto with information on glyphosate's safety, and that it ignored Monsanto's input.

That response indicates a level of panic on Monsanto's part because the report could hit it where it hurts—its profits. Its Roundup, formulated to be used on GMO or "Roundup Ready" crops engineered to be resistant to it, is the most widely used herbicide in the world. Originally introduced in the early ’70s to control weeds, it took off when the planting of GMO crops skyrocketed in the last 15 years. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that glyphosate use in the U.S. increased from about 20 million pounds in 1992 to 110 million pounds in 2002 to more than 280 million pounds in 2012.

The use of glyphosate weed killers has exploded since the introduction of GMOs engineered to be resistant to it. Image credit: USGS

What Monsanto is demanding is the equivalent of declaring a person innocent because there is insufficient evidence to prove his guilt. The WHO report did not claim definitely the glyphosate causes cancer, but rather that multiple scientific studies have suggested a link.

"For the herbicide glyphosate, there was limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin lymphoma," the study said. "The evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the U.S., Canada and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals. Glyphosate also caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells. One study in community residents reported increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage after glyphosate formulations were sprayed nearby."

It points out that "limited" does not mean "nonexistent" as Monsanto wants it to declare. When a substance is categorized as "probably" carcinogenic to humans, it says "there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations could not be ruled out. This category is also used when there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and strong data on how the agent causes cancer."

And, as the Reuters article points out, Monsanto says such studies are invalid, but critics say they merit attention. According to Dave Schubert, head of the cellular neurobiology laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, "There are a number of independent, published manuscripts that clearly indicate that glyphosate ... can promote cancer and tumor growth. It should be banned."

Several leading public interest organizations agree with Schubert and today urged the Obama administration to “weigh heavily” the WHO's recent conclusion that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen.” The groups believes that “As a result of WHO’s rigorous and independent review, the link between glyphosate and cancer has now been greatly strengthened."

In a letter to Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, JLI, Consumers Union, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Working Group and Natural Resources Defense Council, among others, called the WHO announcement “extremely timely, as EPA is preparing to issue its preliminary risk assessment of the widely used herbicide under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act.”

“Consumers deserve to know which foods are made with GMOs considering it’s their dollars that are largely driving the use of this dangerous herbicide,” said Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of the board for the Just Label It campaign. “This new evidence that the main pesticide used on GMO crops is a 'probable human carcinogen' is even more reason consumers should have the right to know what’s in their food."

One proponent of the "glyphosate is absolutely safe" narrative is former environmentalist/current environmental contrarian/sometime Monsanto consultant Dr. Patrick Moore, who was interviewed by filmmaker Paul Moreira for a French TV documentary. He not only insisted "[Roundup] is not dangerous to humans, he also said "You can drink a whole quart of it and it won't hurt you." But when Moreira said, "You want to drink some? We have some here," Moore responded "I'd be happy to ... not really, but I know it would't hurt me," and walked off the set when Moreira repeated his offer, calling the him an "idiot."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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