Politics & Policy

‘The Facebook Age of Science’ at the World Health Organization

(Haveseen/Dreamstime)

There’s a cancer growing at the World Health Organization (WHO), and it happens to be their very own cancer agency.

IARC — the International Agency for Research on Cancer — is under the purview of WHO and tasked with classifying whether certain foods, chemicals, and lifestyle choices cause cancer. Of the nearly 1,000 hazards IARC has reviewed, only one (caprolactam) has been deemed non-carcinogenic. But one recent decision is raising suspicions that the agency is more of an activist group than a scientific one.

In March 2015, IARC surprised the international regulatory and scientific community by classifying the widely used herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic.” Because it is extensively used with crops that have been genetically modified, anti-GMO and environmental groups have long had glyphosate in their crosshairs (mostly because the herbicide is sold by their bête noire, Monsanto, and marketed here as Roundup), and they cheered IARC’s decision. Over the past year, the glyphosate-causes-cancer story has been repeated by the media, environmental NGOs, and pro-GMO labeling groups to promote the false narrative that GMOs are unsafe (although glyphosate is also used in non-GM farming).

The ruling contradicted most analyses of glyphosate, which is widely viewed as the aspirin of weed killers, hugely beneficial with few risks. It massively improves crop yields while largely eliminating the need for tillage, thereby slashing carbon dioxide emissions and soil erosion. Thousands of highly regarded studies demonstrate its lack of cancer-causing potential, and official reviews by government regulatory agencies around the world and in the U.S. have universally determined that it is safe for humans. 

(In an interesting twist, over the weekend, the EPA posted a report labeled “final” from its own cancer-review committee that found glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” The report, dated October 2015, strongly questioned IARC’s flawed process. Late Monday, the agency pulled the report from its website, saying it had been inadvertently posted. “The documents are still in development,” the EPA told us. “Our assessment will be peer-reviewed and completed by the end of 2016.”)

Across the pond, some agencies are challenging IARC head-on. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a scientific review body of the European Union, also examined IARC’s claims and determined that glyphosate was probably not carcinogenic. EFSA charged that IARC had ignored the vast number of higher-quality studies that issued glyphosate a clean bill of health, and that it had focused on a handful of cherry-picked studies.

Then details about the IARC’s process started to come to light. A key person behind IARC’s move was an American environmental activist, Christopher Portier. IARC insiders quietly inserted him as the technical adviser to the agency’s glyphosate-review panel (he also served on the advisory panel that recommended a review of glyphosate the year prior). The agency did not reveal that Portier had a massive conflict of interest: His employer is the Environmental Defense Fund, an NGO responsible for the DDT ban and that also “assesses how chemicals impact human and environmental health,” according to a spokeswoman.

Portier’s activism didn’t end with publication of the IARC monograph. With the agency’s “probably carcinogenic” decision in his hands, Portier launched a public campaign against glyphosate. He briefed governments from the German Bundestag to the European Commission. He spoke to NGO groups such as the U.K. Soil Association, where he presented himself as an IARC co-author and termed glyphosate as “definitely carcinogenic.” He organized a letter with 95 co-signers to the EU’s commissioner for health, urging him to ditch EFSA’s advice.

This was too much even for the usually understated executive director of EFSA, who expressed his impatience during a hearing in the European Parliament:

For me this is the first sign of the Facebook age of science. You have a scientific assessment, you put it in Facebook and you count how many people “like” it. For [EFSA], this is no way forward. We produce a scientific opinion, we stand for it but we cannot take into account whether it will be “liked” or not.

The two agencies are currently not on speaking terms.

Portier wasn’t the only activist involved. The lead author of the glyphosate report, Kathryn Guyton, gave a speech in 2014 to an NGO group — before the review process had begun — in which she stated that the herbicide studies planned for 2015 had shown clear indications of a link to breast cancer, demonstrating her total lack of objectivity. An observer report indicated that the glyphosate meeting began with the participants being told to rule out the possibility of classifying the substance as non-carcinogenic.

The romantic notion of hand-weeding millions of acres of crops is promoted only by those who have never done it.

There is no question that the IARC-Portier anti-glyphosate campaign is triumphing. France is banning consumer sales of the herbicide (sold over the counter under various names, including Roundup), and both the French and Dutch are moving to ban it for agricultural uses as well. Colombia suspended the use of glyphosate in its coca-eradication efforts. Political pressure within the European parliament is moving to heavily restrict its use.

Activists here also continue their campaign against glyphosate. California added it to the Proposition 65 list, a catalog of more than 800 chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm based on the specious IARC findings. Environmentalists and organic companies tout phony studies claiming that glyphosate is found in everything from breast milk to bagels.

Meanwhile, farmers who use glyphosate to protect their crops and boost yields are caught in the crossfire. Even if glyphosate is banned, they will need to use another herbicide, probably more toxic, because the romantic notion of hand-weeding millions of acres of crops is promoted only by those who have never done it.

When a cancer is spreading, doctors intervene to find the source, aggressively eradicate it, and treat the patient. This is what the WHO will do in May when they convene for an extraordinary meeting to consider glyphosate. Removing the malignant tumor that the IARC has become may be the best means to allow the patient to survive.

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