Parma, Italy – When it comes to the controversial weedkiller glyphosate, its critics ignore the facts and stick to ideology, according to the head of the European Union agency that certified the substance’s safety.
“According to the knowledge we have now, glyphosate is most likely not carcinogenic. Full stop. That’s what we say, using sound science,” Bernhard Url, Executive Director of the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), told dpa in an interview.
Discredit the facts
People who disagree “see a conflict between facts and their values, [but] they don’t change their values, they try to discredit the facts […] and discredit the organization that produced the facts, and that is something we suffer as EFSA,” Url said.
A 56-year-old veterinary medicine doctor who grew up in a farm in the southern Austrian region of Styria, Url said the controversy on glyphosate was a proxy for a wider political debate about issues like agrochemicals, sustainability and big corporations.
He said ESFA was happy to leave that “legitimate societal discussion” to others. “We have been dragged into a political field in which we cannot win. We are not politicians: our job is to stick to evidence, methodology and data.”
Effects on soil biodiversity and aquatic life
Glyphosate was first developed and sold commercially under the name “Roundup” by US agrochemical giant Monsanto in 1974. It is widely used in agriculture, but there are also concerns about its effects on soil biodiversity and aquatic life.
In 2015, EFSA found the herbicide “unlikely to be damaging to DNA or to pose a carcinogenic threat to humans.” That assessment paved the way for a knife-edge vote by EU member states last month to extend a licence for its use for five years.
The decision came after the German agriculture minister had his representative cast the decisive vote in favour, defying orders from Berlin to abstain and complicating Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grand coalition talks with the anti-glyphosate Social Democrats.
The EU green-light for glyphosate was a set-back for the global anti-glyphosate movement, which often cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as labelling the substance “probably carcinogenic to humans.”
Url said the “divergence between IARC and the rest of the world” was due to the IARC, a branch of the World Health Organization, using a more restrictive methodology that excludes evidence from industry studies.
“The [IARC] colleagues have done excellent work, but they have a policy of not looking at data that is not published, whereas EFSA and the other regulatory agencies […] can look at a much broader body of evidence and that led to a different outcome,” he said.
“EFSA, the [national agencies of the EU] 28 member states, the European Chemicals Agency, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, they all come to the same conclusion” on glyphosate’s safety, Url said.
But the use of industry studies is far from uncontroversial, as non-governmental groups (NGOs) say that EFSA is too easily influenced by corporations, and its experts prone to conflict-of-interest issues.
According to Corporate Europe Observatory, EFSA’s independence could be bolstered by a bigger budget, which would allow the agency to fund its own research and offer more generous terms to the external experts who take part in its deliberations.
“Right now they don’t have the capacity to pay and attract the best people,” Martin Pigeon, an EFSA expert from Corporate Europe Observatory, a watchdog on corporate lobbying on EU institutions, told dpa.
Url said banning all industry studies and industry-linked experts from EFSA would be unrealistic, not least because testing chemical substances is very expensive and the cost should be born by the private sector rather than the taxpayer.
But he said EFSA would soon make good on a promise to release all the data that underpins its scientific assessments, including industry documents, allowing sceptics to replicate the EU agency’s deliberations and check their solidity.
Studies will be publicly available
“I am sure we will go down a road in which raw data of studies will be publicly available so that academics, researchers, NGOs can scrutinize and reproduce [our] scientific results,” Url said, urging a change of EFSA statutes to enshrine this full-disclosure principle.
However, this “does not mean that 100 per cent of the studies will be published,” as commercially-sensitive, but scientifically-irrelevant parts, “like on the production process, or impurity of the substance,” might remain confidential.
Companies insist that the studies they hand over to EFSA cannot be made fully public because they would reveal their trade secrets, while Green members of the European Parliament have sued EFSA before the European Court of Justice to get full access to glyphosate data.