Eating food to survive is not a choice, it is a necessity. Thus, food safety is of the highest importance to all of us. How can food safety be upheld? How can our food supply be protected? Authoritative and reputable scientific agencies, like the World Health Organization (WHO), are relied upon to be systematic and thorough in their review of scientific evidence around food safety to aid in the protection of our food supply. Specifically, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, convenes groups of scientists from around the globe to evaluate the weight of the evidence that an agent, chemical compound, complex mixtures (including individual foods), occupational exposures, physical and biological agents and lifestyle factors can influence the risk of cancer in humans.
However, it was discovered that the IARC evaluations are not always conducted in the most scientifically sound manner. An investigative report focused on IARC’s review of the safety of glyphosate has recently surfaced, showcasing IARC’s exclusion of pertinent data in their analysis and reporting. The findings of this new investigation give us the opportunity to review IARC’s activity and the current state of science around the safety of glyphosate.
What is Glyphosate?
Glyphosate? Ever heard of it? It’s a chemical that has not escaped regulatory review and scientific scrutiny around the world. Glyphosate is an herbicide (a pesticide used to kill weeds) that has been used for crop protection since 1974. It is widely used because it is non-toxic to humans, animals and the environment. It is also notably effective for broad-range weed control, which increases yield and quality of crops, reduces soil erosion, and enhances harvesting efficiency. Not to mention, for the past 40 years, the safety of glyphosate has been reviewed and confirmed by scientific research and multiple government agencies, which have revealed that glyphosate is not a carcinogen, an endocrine disrupter, or a developmental toxicant.
IARC and Glyphosate: Round One
While the use of pesticides by farmers is government regulated, controversy and looming consumer concerns persist on using these chemicals. Some of these concerns could be tied to the release of a 2015 glyphosate report from ARC. This report reviewed the science around its safety and concluded that glyphosate fell into a class of compounds that “probably causes cancer in humans.” Many agricultural toxicologists and epidemiologists, familiar with glyphosate’s potential impacts on the environment and human health, disagreed with the conclusions of IARC at the time of the report release. Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Cancer Assessment Review Committee (CARC) on April 29, 2016, released its “final report on glyphosate. ” The report concluded, “[B]ased on the weight-of-evidence, glyphosate is classified as ‘Not Likely to be Carcinogenic to Humans.'”
IARC Takes a Wrong Turn (or Two) with Glyphosate
Most recently, it has been uncovered that the IARC assessment of glyphosate was lacking in rigor and scientific integrity. In an investigative report from Reuters, it was established that the IARC, “dismissed and edited findings from a draft of its review of the weed-killer glyphosate that were at odds with its final conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer.” The data that the IARC omitted from the final report would have reversed the conclusion that glyphosate was a cancer-causing pesticide.
This discovery by Reuters builds upon news from earlier this year, where two IARC scientists, Charles Jameson and Aaron Blair, were at fault for not sharing or including research on glyphosate that showed no link between glyphosate exposure and the incidence of cancer in the development of the IARC 2015 glyphosate report.
Now let’s dive a bit further into the regulatory parameters of glyphosate use, as well as the use of all pesticides in our food supply. Many scientific agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the EPA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the WHO review scientific research to ensure the safety of our food supply, which includes examining scientific data linked to using pesticides and potential human health impacts.
The FDA, the EPA and the USDA work concertedly to ensure our food, including all fruits and vegetables, are safe for us to eat. The EPA sets strict standards as part of glyphosate’s registration eligibility (ability to be used as a crop protection chemical). For pesticides to be approved by the EPA and others, vigorous research must be performed to establish the safety guidelines for use.
Extensive research is utilized to mitigate and monitor potential human exposure to all pesticides, including glyphosate. In addition, studies have been completed to ensure that human exposure remains at a minimum. Contact with glyphosate from produce consumption is kept at a minimum level via the EPA’s tolerance establishments for pesticide residues in food. These low levels of residue exposure are established by extensive risk assessment research. Once the tolerance is set by the EPA, the USDA and the FDA enforce these levels to ensure that the nation’s food supply is maintained safely.
While it is extremely unfortunate that the IARC report on glyphosate had some serious flaws specific to scientific rigor and quality, it is reassuring to know that the overall scientific body of evidence that has (for more than four decades) asserted the safety of glyphosate use remains steadfast and scientifically sound. Using pesticides is necessary for many crops, and thus is needed to support our current food supply. The FDA, the EPA, and the USDA—our food supply safety regulatory agencies—recognize this and remain committed to ensuring access to a safe and nutritious food supply.