Politics & Policy

The EPA vs. Science

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
Why is the agency delaying a long-awaited report on a weed killer? Congress wants to know.

A political battle is brewing on Capitol Hill with an unlikely source: a weed killer.

Congress is demanding to know why the Environmental Protection Agency posted and then pulled a long-awaited report on the carcinogenicity of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide. The weed killer is also the latest bogeyman for anti-GMO activists.

Two congressional committees — the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the House Agriculture Committee — have asked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to explain why her agency took the assessment offline and is continuing to delay its release.

On April 29, the EPA posted a report concluding that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide and other products) is “not likely to be carcinogenic.” The committee found no relationship between glyphosate exposure and a number of cancers, including leukemia, multiple myeloma, and Hodgkin lymphoma. The 86-page assessment was signed by the EPA’s cancer review committee back in October 2015 and marked “final.”

But the EPA took it down on May 2, claiming the documents were “inadvertently” posted and only a preliminary report. “EPA has not completed our cancer review. We will look at the work of other governments. . . . our assessment will be peer reviewed and completed by end of 2016,” said an EPA spokeswoman.

That move caught the attention of House Science Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R., Texas), who fired off a letter two days later to McCarthy, questioning the agency’s “apparent mishandling” of the report and demanding all documents and communications about the report dating back to January 1, 2015. The House Agriculture Committee followed up with its own letter (signed by both the chairman and the ranking member) asking McCarthy why the agency has “continually delayed its review of glyphosate.” Both committees expect answers within the coming weeks.

The organic industry is peddling stories about the weed killer to scare consumers into buying organic foods

This is latest round in the escalating global battle over glyphosate, which was first developed and sold by Monsanto and is now off-patent. It is safely used on crops in 160 countries, as well as on open space, parks, and suburban lawns. The reason glyphosate is so controversial — and is now becoming ground zero for the anti-GMO movement — is that it’s used on genetically engineered crops that have been developed to tolerate the herbicide. These “Roundup Ready” crops include nearly all the corn, soybeans, cotton, and sugar beets grown in the U.S.

GMO foes are now targeting glyphosate in their ongoing campaign against genetically engineered crops. The organic industry is peddling stories about the weed killer to scare consumers into buying organic foods (which don’t allow GMOs) and push for GMO warning labels. Environmental groups claim that glyphosate causes cancer and is killing bees and butterflies, and that traces of glyphosate have been found in everything from wine to breast milk to bagels. Some countries are banning the herbicide, and just last week, under political pressure from environmental groups, the EU failed to relicense glyphosate (if it doesn’t change its mind by June 30, glyphosate products will essentially be banned in all member states).

Activists are also using the court system to punish companies that use glyphosate. A lawsuit filed in New York and California accuses Quaker Oats of making “false, deceptive and misleading” claims that their oatmeal is 100 percent natural, since the company uses glyphosate to dry oats before harvest. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. filed a lawsuit against Monsanto on behalf of the family of a California farmer who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, blaming Roundup use for the man’s death. “Glyphosate is the product of both modern chemistry and a profoundly corrupt corporate culture. It is sad for our country and our people that such a powerful economic leader can only be trusted to put private greed before public health,” Kennedy said.

It seems that the EPA may be taking some cues from these anti-GMO activists. A spokeswoman said their evaluation is still incomplete because the agency needs to examine “residues of the chemical in human breast milk and a preliminary analysis of glyphosate toxicity to milkweed, a critical resource for the monarch butterfly” (neither of which has anything to do with the cancer-causing properties of the herbicide).

Chairman Smith also senses that EPA foot-dragging might be based more on politics than on science: “That the EPA would remove a report, which was marked as a ‘Final Report’ and signed by thirteen scientists, appears to be yet another example of this agency’s attempt to allow politics rather than science [to] drive its decision making. Sound, transparent science should always be the basis for EPA’s decisions.”

If the science indeed shows (again) that glyphosate does not cause cancer, the anti-pesticide Center for Biological Diversity says it will be a “major roadblock” for the anti-GMO movement, which wants to ban genetically engineered crops worldwide. It will be a blow the anti-GMO movement richly deserves.

— Julie Kelly is a food-policy writer in Orland Park, Ill., and a contributing author to the Genetic Literacy Project.

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