Real science willing to correct mistakes

I likely can’t count the number of times I have spoken or written the words science-based. It is a mantra of sorts. And for good reason.

Technology is the most important competitive advantage for Canadian agriculture. This is how we are going to compete with emerging exporters and key international competitors.

The alternative to science-based is regulations born out of the whims of the latest internet expert. To say that most of these so-called experts are in the category of the snake oil salesmen would be a bit of an insult to the purveyors of snake oil.

Glyphosate is one product the internet likes to hate. The theories abound: glyphosate is responsible for autism, glyphosate causes celiac disease, glyphosate is causing cancer, and so on.

Glyphosate is registered for use in more than 160 countries. There is no major regulatory agency in the world that considers glyphosate a health risk.

The product has been recently reviewed by the European Food Safety Authority, the Canadian Pest Management Regulatory Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Australian Pesticide and Veterinary Medicines Authority.

All have concluded that gly­phosate is safe for both people and the environment.

Yet doubt was cast on this scientific consensus by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

In 2015, IARC classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” IARC’s statement has set off a storm of controversy, spawning lawsuits in the United States, raising doubts about the product’s approval in the European Union and opening up potential trade barriers to Canadian exports.

The U.S. lawsuits have brought information to light that call into questions the scientific processes that IARC followed to reach its conclusions. Did IARC first reach a conclusion and then go looking for confirmation?

Evidence coming out of court processes show IARC dismissed results from a draft of its review that was at odds with its final public conclusion.

Reports indicate that the conclusions of multiple scientists, which showed no link between glyphosate and cancer in laboratory animals, were edited or deleted.

Comparisons of the draft report and the final publication show 10 changes that reversed or deleted scientific conclusions that differed from the final publication.

This evidence calls into question both the conclusion reached by IARC as well as the basic scientific process. The agency’s credibility is at stake. But it is more than that. In the minds of the public, the credibility of science-based regulatory review is also at stake.

The processes for all of the regulatory agencies listed above — European, Australian, Canadian and American — are all public. Citizens and scientists are able to see the processes each of these agencies used to reach their conclusions. This is how it should be.

IARC does not share the same level of transparency. Since the revelations in the U.S. legal proceedings, the only statement IARC has made is that the draft versions of its monographs are confidential. This is not acceptable.

IARC must open up its processes and conclusions to peer review. And the agency must be willing to adjust its conclusions if that is the direction that science leads.

Science is a process of examining the facts to determine the best answer we have today. It does not mean that our understanding cannot evolve over time or that our understanding can’t change. An open and transparent process that is willing to review research that might not support current beliefs are key hallmarks of a science-based agency.

The credibility of science and public confidence in science-based regulations depend on agencies, both within Canada and abroad, meeting these basic standards of transparency.

Revelations of recent weeks show that IARC’s processes do not reach this bar. This must change.

Cam Dahl is president of Cereals Canada.

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