By Grant Jacobs 18/10/2018

The NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals it has selected as of highest concern. This list doesn’t include glyphosate.

We all like to know what we’re up against when using chemicals, so that we can avoid unnecessary risk. That’s one of the aims of the EPA:[1] to offer rulings and information to help us.

I’m interested in genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and other genetic techniques like gene editing. Knowing the history of a topic helps to see where things are coming from. Glyphosate (and RoundUp[2]) has been demonised by groups opposed to GMOs: attacking glyphosate is seen as a way to ‘get at’ one company that produces GMOs, Monsanto. It’s also leveraged by some pushing ‘organic’ farming.

Where do things stand with glyphosate, and how does the EPA’s shortlist reflect Eugenie Sage’s statement that she was considering asking the EPA to reassess RoundUp?

Should the NZ EPA re-assess glyphosate?

Short answer: they already have.

In 2016 the EPA commissioned former head of the National Poisons Centre, Dr Wayne Temple, to review the risk, including what IARC[3] reported.

I’ve heard no further public call from Sage. My read is she winged it—hoping for popular response to the ‘RoundUp’ court case—and later realised her call wasn’t a thing.

It’s important politicians not interfere with regulatory agencies. They’re scientific agencies. Their call should be based on the science, however that falls.

Protest and ‘that’ court case focus on a report by IARC. IARC reports are a ‘heads-up’ for regulatory agencies; it’s the regulatory agencies that set guidelines for the public.

IARC’s classifications can confuse. They’re the evidence level, not likelihoods of causing cancer.

There’s another difference: regulatory agencies deal with risk; IARC only offers potential hazards. A hazard is present even if you’re not exposed to it, or it’s of such low risk it’s not a real concern or the same as risks we accept. Risk assessment considers if you’re exposed to it, in what setting, at what level — that’s the relevant stuff for consumers.

Worldwide all regulatory agencies have approved glyphosate for use. The court judge in the Johnson v Monsanto ‘Roundup’ court case notes this in her tentative ruling to review the damages awarded.

Science moves forward over time. You follow the evidence and look at what the collective whole of the evidence shows. Since the IARC monograph, a study[4] of over 54,000 people on farms found no link of glyphosate to cancers bar an statistically insignificant ‘maybe’ to AML[5] that it’d be cautious (and PC) to go the extra mile on.

I’d love to see protesters talk about the non-science reasons they object. Protest is often really about non-science concerns, demonising things to make some other point. In the case of glyphosate, it’s dominantly opposition to Monsanto as a source of GMOs. Used as advised, glyphosate is fine.

What’s being re-examined?

Before tackling why attacking glyphosate is a bad idea, lets quickly look at what the EPA is re-examining.

The EPA is changing their approach to assessing some chemicals to use a pro-active priority shortlist.

The 40 chemicals the EPA has chosen to re-examine are listed on their website, with a brief explanation of each. EPA’s grading system has six priority levels, A (highest) to F (lowest). Those on the shortlist are from levels A and B. Glyphosate is regarded as level E (low risk).

Nine of the fourty are herbicides: 2,4-DB (not 2,4-D), Alachlor, Amitrole, Dichlobenil, Diuron, Flumioxazin, Oxadiazon, Paraquat, Trifluralin. Paraquat is often named as a potential alternative to glyphosate.

All but four of the 40 chemicals are pesticides of one kind or other (including animal toxins). The exceptions include a fire retardant, and a wood treatment compound.

This short list is taken from a much longer list of about 700 chemicals that the EPA maintain. The short list is based on the risk profiles of the chemicals.

The basic reason that the chemicals of popular protest are not on the short list is simply that they have a much lower risk profile.

Why protest lower risk chemicals?

It’s worth thinking about why lower risk chemicals are being protested. My experience is that reasons aren’t the chemicals themselves. These chemicals are being demonised in an argument over other things. It would be much better if it were more widely understood where the demonisation springs from, and for the underlying objections to be the protest, not unfairly demonising useful products.

In my experience this issue goes for many things that are presented as ‘scientific’ objections: vaccines, GMOs, 1080, water fluoridation, and so on. The products are demonised and presented as if in a ‘scientific’ battle, where the real objections are simpler and altogether more human. A topic to take further in a later post, perhaps.

Other articles on Code for life

USA Court ruling on glyphosate— the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call (Green Party MP Eugenie Sage’s call to reassess Roundup was already done, and the court case offered nothing new.)

Glyphosate is to go back to trial (Judge Bolanos has indicated she will rule on the awards made from the Johnson v Monsanto ‘RoundUp’ case, or offer a retrial.)

Regulating GMOs: time to move forward (Some key suggestions 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.)

Kumara are transgenic (Transgenes occur in nature too.)


  1. Environmental Protection Agency. Despite the name, they also cover risk to people.
  2. RoundUp is a product name; it’s not a commercial name for glyphosate-based products. The various RoundUp-labelled products have different things in them. For example, Round for lawns does not have glyphosate in it at all.
  3. International Agency for Research on Cancer.
  4. The Agricultural Health Study results can be read on their website. This scientific paper covers the glyphosate-related findings at this point in time.
  5. Acute myeloid leukemia.

About the featured image

Hand weeding in rural India. Source: Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Note how the women work and the men (supervisors?) stand about.

The photo is tangential at first glance, but there’s a message about hand-weeding there, and the wider value that agricultural practices can bring that privileged nations have the luxury of arguing about.

0 Responses to “NZ EPA is to review 40 chemicals, not glyphosate”

  • Grant
    I agree with you. I suspect the reason why Ms Sage went quiet was someone from the Ministry told her about the facts like what you have written. And if she wants science to rule, the Green’s case against GMOs is shot down.
    As a small aside, I thought some of the glyphosate meta studies indicated there could be a risk of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

  • Hi Chris,

    I thought some of the glyphosate meta studies indicated there could be a risk of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.

    It’s the reason I wrote,

    Science moves forward over time. You follow the evidence and look at what the collective whole of the evidence shows. Since the IARC monograph, a study[4] of over 54,000 people on farms found no link of glyphosate to cancers bar an statistically insignificant ‘maybe’ to AML[5] that it’d be cautious (and PC) to go the extra mile on.

    I’ve mentioned NHL more directly in my earlier articles on this topic; they’re linked in the piece above:

    I decided to simply say what there is at this point in time, and point to a couple of things that not many people are noting — the AHS study, and the need to look over time (not just pluck individual studies out individually).

    More on this later — I have to run!

  • And so the USA legal system seems determined to showcase to the world how extraordinary idiotic it is?

    Anyway, more on this topic later. I have writing and other things to attend to. (I also need to find out if Judge Bolanos as tossed out all punitive damages; the early reports I’ve seen aren’t clear.)

    I need to get back to expanding on epidemiology evidence, too. A nutshell on this and diagnosis is that no-one at this time has the means to ‘prove’ or even ‘tentatively suggest’ any one person’s NHL ‘was’ caused by anything, not just by glyphosate. You’d have thought that from this there is no valid case to be held.

    My interest is with how poorly (some) courts deal with science. It often seems there is a need to develop better ways to vet if cases should be held at all, and develop better processes for dealing with cases ultimately resting on scientific evidence.