European, WHO agencies in war of words over glyphosate findings

LONDON, U.K. (Reuters) — The latest dispute to blow up around the International Agency for Research on Cancer concerns glyphosate, an ingredient in one of the world’s most widely used weed killers, Roundup, made by Monsanto.

In March 2015, an IARC monograph concluded that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic.”

Yet seven months later the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), an independent agency funded by the EU, published a different assessment, saying glyphosate is “unlikely to pose a carcinogenic hazard to humans.”

The EFSA study drew on work by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, which had concluded there was “no validated or significant relationship” between exposure to glyphosate and an increased risk of cancer.

Some campaign groups have suggested EFSA was unduly influenced by studies backed by Roundup’s manufacturer, Monsanto. An EFSA spokesperson said its assessment considered hundreds of scientific studies, both independent and industry-sponsored.

“The status of a study — e.g. independent or industry-sponsored — is irrelevant to the assessment if the study is designed, carried out and reported well,” he said in an emailed response. He said EFSA had published detailed information about every study used in its glyphosate assessment, including regulatory studies submitted by companies.

The World Health Organization, IARC’s parent organization, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which first assessed glyphosate in 1986 and has reviewed it several times since then, had also previously concluded that glyphosate “has low toxicity for humans.”

The differences might seem modest, but they have potentially huge implications for farmers, the food industry and consumers because IARC’s ruling may affect whether the European Union continues to authorize glyphosate for use in Europe. EU officials are now faced with conflicting scientific advice. Without the herbicide, say some campaigners, food production may suffer.

A public war of words between EFSA and IARC has ensued. It began with a letter last November from 96 scientists who wrote to a senior EU official urging him to ignore what they said was a “flawed” EFSA assessment of glyphosate and to prefer IARC’s judgment instead.

The letter was led by the American scientist Chris Portier, who has worked part-time since 2013 with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a U.S. non-governmental campaign group.


The EDF describes its mission as preserving “the natural systems on which all life depends”.

A spokesperson said it neither supports nor opposes pesticides, but is “strongly in favour of scientific research to assess how chemicals impact human and environmental health.”

On IARC’s website Portier was listed in 2013 as affiliated to the EDF as a “senior collaborating scientist.”

In 2014, Portier chaired an IARC meeting at which the agency’s priorities for the coming year were outlined. They included an evaluation of glyphosate.

The following year, Portier served as an “invited specialist” to the working group that decided that glyphosate was probably carcinogenic.

Critics say Portier’s EDF connections represent a conflict of interest and argue IARC should not have allowed him to be involved in the glyphosate evaluation.

IARC said his involvement presented no problem, since he took part only as an invited specialist, who does not draft any text or participate in the evaluation.

Asked by Reuters whether he had a conflict of interest, Portier said: “I agree that this has the appearance of being a conflict of interest. However, in my opinion, for this to be a real conflict of interest, I would have to be working for the EDF on pesticide related issues and/or specifically on glyphosate related issues. I am not.”

He said IARC’s decision to include him as an invited specialist was “proper and reasonable.”


EFSA defended its finding on glyphosate and hit back.

In a speech to the European parliament in December 2015, EFSA executive director Bernhard Url described the letter from 96 scientists as “Facebook science.”

He said it was taking an approach where “you have a scientific assessment, you put it on Facebook and you count how many people like it.”

Url said that was not how EFSA operated.

“For us, this is no way forward. We produce a scientific opinion, we stand for it, but we cannot take into account whether it will be liked or not,” he said.

Url also published an 18-page response to the letter from the 96 scientists, explaining how EFSA took a different approach to IARC.

In it he invited IARC to a meeting to discuss their evidence and methodologies. IARC declined, demanding instead that EFSA issue a correction to its letter, which it alleged contained “factual errors.”

Kurt Straif, the head of IARC’s monographs assessing whether substances cause cancer, said his agency had turned down the invitation because EFSA had failed “to correct false statements,” and because “we don’t see a basis for a discussion within closed doors.”

An EFSA spokesperson said it was “regrettable that the meeting is not going to take place,” and said EFSA “restates its commitment to co-operate with IARC and any other scientific organization involved in the assessment of pesticides.”


  • Birdznbees

    Around 30% of the Committee of the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, is made up of pesticide industry representatives. It is about as impartial as a Monsanto Board Meeting.

    • Peter Weigl

      What nonsense: the German BfR (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung) was famously created by Green Party Minister Kühnast, specifically set up in a way to prevent scientific assessment getting drowned by lobby interests.

      The anti Glyphosate movement is based on NGO donation optimisation programmes and baseless in science as is the similar anti-GMO movement.

      • richard

        ……while the Glyphosate movement is based on the donation optimisation programmes of vested interests…..sometimes referred to as “science” or “objective” or “progressive”???

        • Peter Weigl

          Correct, the BfR assessment is based on science, objectivity and transparency. The then Green Party minister Kühnast made sure when setting up that institution that the structures were geared to that end.

  • Birdznbees

    From Professor Klaue Werner Wenzel in Germany:

    “The German Federal Institute for Pesticide Risk Evaluation (BFR – Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung)

    On March 30th 2015, German conservationists read disturbing news about the BFR in the French journal Le Monde. The BFR was already under suspicion over its peculiar risk evaluations; for example it declared glyphosate to be ‘harmless’ despite massive evidence to the contrary.

    Le Monde revealed that one third of the Members of the BFR Commission on Pesticides and Residues are directly employed by the Pesticide Industry (Bayer, Syngenta, BASF); others came from the ‘dubious’ Bee Institutes.

    The satirical comment from Le Monde was, that in Germany: “people from the pesticide industry give expert safety advice on their own products” (45).

    • NorthenSoul

      “despite massive evidence to the contrary.”

      Said without providing ONE link to a credible source…

      • Denise

        • Peter Weigl

          credible source!
          When the IARC and EFSA stances on Glyphosates are misrepresented in such a way as in the article, all credibility goes out the window.

          IARC does not assess the risk of substances, but only their cancerogenicity – sunshine, red meat and so on are in higher categories than glyphosate. It is the brief of EFSA to asses for risk. EFSA has outsourced the Glyphosate study to the German BfR (Bundesinstitut für Risikobertung) (Federal Institute for Risk Assessment), which is impeccable. It was set up by them German Green Party minister Renate Kühnast, specifically to be able to work scientifically and not lobby influenced.