Risks of glyphosate: European studies accused of underestimating them

In an open letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who received a copy from AFP on 28 May 2017, Dr Christopher Portier reiterated his concern about the carcinogenic nature of glyphosate. This scientist is thus questioning the studies on which the European Commission relies to propose the renewal of the license of this controversial herbicide substance whose use is being discussed in the European Union.

“European agencies have failed to identify all statistically significant cases”

Dr. Portier was already at the head of an association of a hundred scientists who had sounded a first warning signal in early 2016. “The analysis of Portier questions the explanations of the EFSA (the European Agency food safety, ed) who repeated in a statement last week that she had verified all the data herself, and that she was not relying on the summaries of studies done by the industry “, Greenpeace said in a statement.

We have received the letter, and we are going to ask the two agencies, the European Food Safety Agency (Efsa) and the European Chemicals Agency (Echa), to respond to it, because they are the scientific bodies Responsible for the case, responded the Commission via a spokeswoman, Anca Paduraru.

Christopher Portier had access, after a long administrative battle led by European parliamentarians to make them public, to some of the scientific data on which Echa and Efsa have based themselves to conclude that glyphosate is non-carcinogenic (see box at the end of the article). These data are provided by the phytosanitary industry, which manufactures pesticides. “Both Efsa and Echa failed to identify all statistically significant cases of cancer in rat studies,” writes the scientist.

Risks of glyphosate: the fate of glyphosate is not yet resolved

Following the green light from both agencies, the European Commission has relaunched the procedure to renew, for ten years, the authorization of glyphosate, present in the most used pesticides in the world as the Monsanto Round Up.

The use of herbicide has become increasingly controversial in the European Union. The Commission had failed to convince the Member States to renew the license which expired in the summer of 2016. Brussels had then decided to extend it by 18 months, pending the report of the Echa finally published in mid-March 2017.

The decision on the glyphosate license is taken in a technical committee composed of representatives of the Member States. It is necessary that a qualified majority draws up for or against it in order to endorse the decision which, if not, goes to the European Commission. “The discussions will start again with the Member States,” confirmed Anca Paduraru. Whatever the decision taken at European level, each Member State retains the right to authorize or not the use of glyphosate-based pesticides on their territory.

Carcinogenic or not? Scientific opinions diverge for years

Glyphosate has been the subject of several scientific studies whose divergent opinions fuel the controversy. Recently, in May March 2017, Echa has ruled out the carcinogenic risk of glyphosate. Prior to this, a study published in May 2016, jointly conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), found it “unlikely” that the glyphosate is carcinogenic “in humans exposed to it by food”.

Conversely, in March 2015, a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), also WHO-dependent, identified a carcinogenic risk. Two non-contradictory findings, according to the WHO, because the second dealt with a risk in case of very strong exposure. Before the Echa study, the European Commission relied on the opinion of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), issued in November 2015, for which the carcinogenic risk is “unlikely”. Here again the field of study is discussed, between active substance and association with other co-formulants used to concoct a herbicide.

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