The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) meetings on glyphosate concluded last Friday after scientists spent the better part of four days discussing and analyzing numerous studies on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, a key ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide.
The Scientific Advisory Panel meetings brought together experts in toxicology and epidemiology to determine if the EPA is correct in its current assessment that glyphosate is "not likely to be carcinogenic." The agency's finding has been controversial as it runs counter to a report issued last year by the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer, which found glyphosate to be a "probable human carcinogen."
So, what conclusions did the Scientific Advisory Panel reach?
The assembled experts were split on the question of glyphosate's carcinogenicity. Some panelists felt that the EPA did its job and supported the agency's determination that glyphosate isn't a carcinogen, while others concluded that there is "suggestive" evidence of carcinogenic potential.
"I'm a little surprised there's this controversy," said panelist Marion Ehrich, co-director of the Laboratory for Neurotoxicity Studies at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. "I thought the EPA did a pretty good job."
Monique Perron, a scientist working in the Health Effects Division of the EPA's Office of Pesticide Programs, said "professional judgment" played a role in her conclusion after looking at the "weight of evidence" from a number of glyphosate studies. According to Perron, the EPA looked at published studies as well as unpublished studies that were funded by Monsanto.
Panelist Lianne Shepard, assistant chair in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington, said there is suggestive evidence that glyphosate exposure causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
"Clearly, it's suggestive to me, and it's the most appropriate public health conclusion to reach," she said.
Some of the most dramatic moments of the meetings came from the public comments portion. At one point while panelists were pouring over data, Reverend Billy and The Stop Shopping Choir interrupted the proceedings and broke out in song, harmonizing a refrain of "Monsanto is the Devil. No glyphosate."
Many in attendance scratched their heads when representatives from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment were allowed to speak in front of the panel.
The German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, or BfR, as it is known, advised and drafted a report for EFSA that found glyphosate "unlikely to cause cancer." The assessment was controversial because at the time it was working on the EFSA report, the BfR was being advised by the Glyphosate Task Force, a chemical industry front group that includes Monsanto in its ranks.
Unsurprisingly, both reps said glyphosate is not a human carcinogen. According to an EPA spokesperson, the agency didn't invite either organization—the foreign scientists simply asked if they could appear and showed up. How they got there (and who arranged for their travel) was the subject of gossip among those in attendance.
According to Carey Gillam, research director for U.S. Right to Know, environmental advocacy groups were angered by the amount of time allotted to those supportive of glyphosate compared to those who want regulators to curtail use of the chemical. During public comments, representatives from Monsanto were allotted roughly three and a half hours to make their argument that glyphosate is safe, with other chemical companies getting additional time.
Those critical of glyphosate and Monsanto, on the other hand, were only given between five and 15 minutes to speak. A spokesman for the EPA said speakers were allotted the amount of time they asked for. A number of those who spoke out against glyphosate said they were told by the agency they could only speak for a few minutes.
Alexis Baden-Mayer of the Organic Consumers Association, a vocal critic of Monsanto, was given only five minutes to speak. During her allotted time, Baden-Mayer read letters from families with loved ones who had been diagnosed with cancer after being exposed to Roundup. Among the stories read before the panel was Jack McCall's.
A longtime Cambria, California farmer, McCall used Roundup on his farm for nearly 30 years before he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Three months after his diagnosis, McCall passed away. In March, his wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit accusing Monsanto of purposely downplaying the cancer risks associated with Roundup exposure.
Another notable public comment came from Dr. Peter Infante, a nationally renowned epidemiologist who was the only epidemiologist slated to be on the EPA panel but was controversially ousted from the panel after Monsanto lobbying firm CropLife America sent the EPA a letter calling for him to be disqualified due to "patent bias" against glyphosate.
In his address to the panel, Dr. Infante said there is "impressive evidence" tying glyphosate exposure to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
"There is clearly the evidence for the risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma related to glyphosate exposure," Infante told a reporter after his address to the panel. "Is it conclusive? No, I don't think so. But I think that EPA is concluding that there is no evidence. And that's exactly wrong, according to their own criteria."
The EPA plans to release its final assessment on glyphosate in early 2017. The report will have serious implications for both the public and for Monsanto.
As for Monsanto, the agrochemical giant has been named in more than three dozen lawsuits claiming exposure to Roundup caused people to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
The EPA and the European Union are also working on licensing agreements for glyphosate, which could result in usage limits.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly for Monsanto, the company is working on a $66 billion merger with multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company Bayer AG.
If a pact is not struck beforehand, the agency's assessment on glyphosate will likely have an effect.