Politics & Policy

The Phony Case Against Glyphosate

Green zealots pressure the EPA to ban valuable weapons against hunger and disease.

From its inception in 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency has been a hotbed of anti-science activism, incompetence, and corruption.

In 1972, on the basis of toxicity to fish and migrating birds (but not to humans), the EPA banned virtually all uses of DDT, a pesticide once widely deployed to kill disease-carrying insects. The ban had more to do with politics than with the environment or public health (as the EPA head would later admit). At the time, the chemical was being targeted by environmentalists like Silent Spring author Rachel Carson, who claimed DDT caused cancer and killed wildlife.

Activists sued the EPA to stop the use of DDT in this country, and after months of review, a judge appointed by the agency concluded that the chemical was not carcinogenic to humans and posed little or no threat to wildlife. But EPA Administrator William Ruckelshaus, an environmental activist himself, rejected that finding and imposed the ban that still stands — much to the chagrin of mosquito-control agencies in southern Florida and Puerto Rico that are using less effective, more toxic pesticides to control the mosquitoes that transmit Zika virus.

The EPA’s action in 1972 initiated a worldwide DDT ban that has led to the suffering of tens of millions of people from mosquito-borne disease. Alternatives haven’t worked, and WHO director-general Margaret Chan recently blasted the ban in a speech to the World Health Assembly:

Above all, the spread of Zika, the resurgence of dengue, and the emerging threat from chikungunya are the price being paid for a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s.

But the DDT ban was motivated by politics, not science, as Ruckelshaus acknowledged years later. “The ultimate judgment [on DDT] remains political,” he wrote in 1979.

Decisions by the government involving the use of toxic substances are political with a small “p.” In the case of pesticides in our country, the power to make this judgment has been delegated to the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nearly a half-century later, science is still a four-letter word at the EPA, and politics prevails.

The agency continues to withhold a report completed by its cancer review committee last October that concluded that glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide, is not carcinogenic to humans. Glyphosate is the new DDT. This common weed killer is in the political crosshairs of so-called environmentalists even though it is safely and effectively used by millions of farmers in dozens of countries. Nearly every scientific organization and regulatory agency confirms that glyphosate poses no threat to human health.

But environmental activists dislike it for two reasons, both ideological: It was developed by their favorite bogeyman, Monsanto (although it is now manufactured by other companies as well) and it’s used on genetically engineered crops, which the green groups also oppose. So these activists want glyphosate restricted, if not banned altogether. And after the cancer agency of the World Health Organization classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen last year – a flawed conclusion that nonetheless fuels the anti-glyphosate movement — the EPA launched its own review.

Science is still a four-letter word at the EPA, and politics prevails.

In an 87-page report marked “final” and dated October 1, 2015, the EPA’s 13-member cancer review committee stated that glyphosate is “not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.” The group found “no association” between glyphosate exposure and a number of cancers, including colon, lung, prostate, brain, and multiple myeloma.

The assessment is a major blow to the anti-glyphosate movement. But the report, after being posted online on April 29, was taken down on May 2, with the agency claiming that it had been released “inadvertently” and that the EPA’s review was still ongoing (coincidentally, the chair of the cancer committee retired from the EPA that very same month).

The removal of the report aroused the suspicions of many on Capitol Hill, including Representative Lamar Smith (R., Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, Smith charged that the “EPA’s removal of this report and subsequent backtracking on its finality raises questions about the agency’s motivation in providing a fair assessment of glyphosate . . . ”

Smith asked McCarthy to testify before his committee on June 22, and at the hearing, he minced no words:

The Environmental Protection Agency has become an agency in pursuit of a purely political agenda rather than an agency that protects the environment. The EPA cherry-picks the science that fits its agenda and ignores the science that does not support its position.

But instead of releasing the report, the EPA is doubling down in what can only be viewed as a stall tactic. The agency will convene yet another committee in late October — more than a year after the cancer committee’s report was “finalized” — to evaluate the “carcinogenic potential of glyphosate.” Smith blasted the decision, charging that the EPA “fails to recognize or acknowledge the final and complete science that its own agency conducts and instead appears to make politically motivated decisions.”

Lawmakers here and around the world should view the DDT ban as a cautionary tale. Playing politics and appeasing ignorant ideological activists who want to ban glyphosate could result in huge global crop losses, food shortages, the use of more-toxic herbicides, and higher food prices. Science and common sense — not politics — must prevail.

— Julie Kelly is a food and agricultural writer in Orland Park, Ill. Follow her on Twitter @julie_kelly2. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology.

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