A lot has been said about a recent court case ruling about Monsanto’s Roundup. Let’s look just at the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call for the New Zealand Environment Protection Agency (NZ EPA) review their stance on Roundup.
The role IARC seems to be very little understood. Many media reports (worldwide) on this court case offer a throw-away statement that the IARC report and regulatory rulings conflict.
They are not in competition. The regulatory bodies have not “set aside” or “overlooked” the IARC findings. (That’s a lobby-group line.)
In practice, regulatory bodies are using the IARC reports as they are meant to.
This seems to have confused by objections to IARC’s findings, a parallel issue.
Adding to the mix, in New Zealand the Associate Environment Minister, Eugenie Sage, has said she will ask the NZ EPA to consider declaring Monsanto’s weed-killer, Roundup, hazardous.1
The NZ EPA has already reviewed IARC’s report on their own initiative in 2016, and the court case does not appear to be centred around new safety evidence. This would suggest there is nothing further to be done.
IARC reports, and how they wish them to be used
IARC published their monograph on glyphosate in 2015. Regulatory agencies have re-examined their stance with it in mind. These steps are not either/or. They are one then the other.
It’s IARC step 1; regulatory agencies step 2.2
The throw-away statements in media reports give the impression they are competing. They aren’t.
IARC gives a heads-up as to what substances ‘might’ be hazards. It is for regulatory bodies to take this and decide where risks—if any—might lie, and how manage this.
As far as I know, every scientific regulatory agency (in the world) has cleared glyphosate for use.
The regulatory agencies have taken the IARC alert, examined where risks might lie, and confirmed it can be used.
There are a few political organisations that have over-ruled these.
Three different, sequential steps. Advisory on hazards. Regulatory on risks. Political on, what I can say? (Too often: emotive appeal, political correctness or possibly political ‘convenience’, pandering to loud voices, etc.?)
What the IARC says is their role
This description of the IARC role above isn’t my opinion, it’s how IARC describe their role themselves.
Speaking to an U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment hearing on the IARC 2015 glyphosate evaluation, IARC Director Christopher Wild is reported have said,
“IARC defers risk assessment and risk management to national and international bodies, restricting itself to provision of hazard identification as a scientific foundation to those subsequent steps,” Wild added.
You may or may not agree with IARC’s report on glyphosate (I’ve read it, and feel it has some problems), but regardless of that how their work is to be used should be described accurately.
Their intention is to alert scientific regulatory bodies of compounds they might further examine for risk.
IARC role is advisory. They do not offer a “rule” to be used a public measure. Their work is for scientific advisory groups to take up.
It is the regulatory bodies that offer ‘rules’ or guidelines for public use. All regulatory bodies that have reviewed evidence in light of the IARC monograph have continued to support the use of glyphosate-based herbicides.
It seems to me that this limitation of IARC’s role it also directly implies that IARC’s ruling, taken on it’s own, cannot serve as ’evidence’ of glyphosate causing harm. (It is an invitation to further assessment for regulatory purposes, not an offering of risk assessment or public ruling.)
Indeed, the Daubert ruling of Federal District Judge Chhabria noted similarly,
(Source: https://twitter.com/southernmike1/status/1028245621399056384, in a tweet stream unrolled here. Note this is for a federal court: the court case in the current headlines is a civil case.)
More generally IARC rulings are, by their nature, not really suitable for direct-to-public use as they do not establish where possible risk might lie.
For that, you need to look at risks, not hazards (and use regulatory bodies).
Hazards and risks
IARC reports possible hazards: things that in some setting, in some amount, in some way might cause cancer.3 (Some object to how IARC have done their analysis. Here we’re looking at the overall ‘arc’ of how their reports are used.)
Something maybe a hazard, but no risk if you are not exposed to the substance.
Similarly, there may be no risk if the dose is small. It is the dose that makes the poison: things toxic at higher doses will typically have little or no effect at low doses.
Regulatory bodies have taken note of IARC’s hazard call for glyphosate, and looked at evidence related to who is exposed, in what amounts.
They’ve decided in what if any settings are an issue for the general public, and, if any are present, how this might be mitigated. Generalising and simplifying, these note the low toxicity of glyphosate, and note any concern, if present, is limited to high doses or chronic exposure, and note issues for aquatic wildlife.
This is what the NZ EPA has done in response to the IARC report. They commissioned a report on the risks, including drawing on IARC’s hazard report. That’s how IARC would like their work to be used. It’s not ‘competing’ with it, it’s following on from it, drawing on it. One, then the other.
Eugenie Sage’s call
Her call to revise the status of Roundup looks to be a political exercise. In my opinion it would be fruitless, and time-wasting.
She’d want to first show that the court case introduces new safety evidence. My understanding (so far) is that it doesn’t.
It presumes the jury calling is sound and has weight. That a jury has called what they have doesn’t suddenly make it unsafe. It can just as equally say the jury called poorly. Many scientists worldwide have pointed this out.
Monsanto has said they will appeal the ruling. The legal matter is still in limbo.
The focus on Roundup is problematic. It falls for the political lobbying game, not the actual safety issues. Safety issues are related to the chemicals used, not a particular product or brand.
It’s doubly problematic as there has been a focus on Monsanto, the company that makes Roundup, as a straw-man substitute lobbying target. Roundup is a product of that company. The key ingredient, glyphosate, is widely used by many other companies, in a range of formulations.
Some might suggest it’s attention-grabbing, and an opportunistic move.
In any event the NZ EPA has already reviewed the evidence recently and cleared glyphosate-based products for use.
Postscript: The USA court ruling
It’s a jury’s call, made in an adversarial setting.
It’s clear to most scientists that a number of prominent court cases fly in the face of the science at hand. What is causing this, and what might work better?
I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t have an answer at hand, but it is the question that I get from this case.
The use of juries in complex cases will again be questioned.
I’ve previously suggested adversarial approaches are a poor way of dealing with science.
Another concern is precedent.
I may return to this. A number of people are implying that this ruling ‘proves’ glyphosate is unsafe.
It does not.
What it mostly highlights is how poor (jury-deliberated) courts can be at scientific matters.
- In practice I’m skeptical you can call for this one product to singled out like this. I’d think you’d have to look at the class of products it falls within, not the brand.
- To be fair, regulatory agencies in principle could elect to ignore the IARC ruling. As far as I know, none have. This is not surprising as the IARC monograph condenses a lot of information that might be useful in determining risk.
- A second point I’ve left out for simplicity is that the “probable” that the IARC refers to is NOT the likelihood of glyphosate causing cancer—as it is so often misreported—but the likelihood of the evidence examined in their study correctly calls that there is some kind of hazard present. (Furthermore, IARC will call a hazard even if there is competing evidence suggesting no hazard. They advise on that there is some evidence there a hazard.)
Other articles in Code for life
Regulating GMOs: time to move forward (Key point to frame discussion.)
Green Party GM policy and discussion about GE or GMOs (The NZ Green Party should revise their stance on GM.)
Genetic modification now accepted by most New Zealanders (A survey indicates New Zealanders now accept GM food as safe.)
Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn? (Reporting other’s objections to one controversy.)
Séralini GMO maize and Roundup study republished with no scientific peer review (One of the ‘unorthodox’ researchers opposing GMOs re-publishes a retracted paper with no fresh peer-review.)
Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)
About the featured image
The image is cropped from that held on Wikipedia (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).
Agricultural company Monsanto has been used as a straw-man substitute for protest against GMOs. Protest against glyphosate is seen by many as an extension of this. Monsanto was recently purchased by Bayer, who are closing the Monsanto name.