WASHINGTON, April 1, 2015 – The widely rebutted review from a World Health Organization (WHO) committee that classified the herbicide glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic” to humans is generating more headlines and providing new momentum for anti-pesticide and anti-GMO activists.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report arrived just as the EPA is reassessing glyphosate as part of its scheduled re-evaluation required by the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) every 15 years.
A Reuters report, out Tuesday, misleadingly suggested that, in light of the IARC report, EPA will put new restrictions on the world's most widely used herbicide – similar to restrictions required for Dow’s Enlist. But industry sources point out that EPA’s approach is not related to the IARC report and in fact, is nothing new. When Enlist was registered, EPA noted that it intended to apply a similar weed resistance management approach for all existing and new herbicides used on herbicide-tolerant crops, noted a Monsanto spokesperson.EPA is expected to release for public comment the preliminary ecological and human health risk assessments for glyphosate later this year.
While EPA noted that it “will give full consideration to the IARC study and all the other information we have before we reach a final decision,” CropLife America CEO Jay Vroom said the agency has already seen all of the data IARC used to make its conclusion.
IARC said in its review, “the evidence in humans is from studies of exposures, mostly agricultural, in the USA, Canada, and Sweden published since 2001. In addition, there is convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Vroom, who heads an organization representing agricultural chemical companies, said IARC’s review weighed toxicological studies on lab animals more heavily than human epidemiological studies.
IARC classified glyphosate in Group 2A, one rank higher than IARC's Group 2B, “possibly carcinogenic to humans,” which includes cell phones and coffee. Group 1 is the next highest category, “carcinogenic to humans.”
So far, regulatory bodies around the globe have classified glyphosate as safe for the environment and human health. EPA concluded in its 2012 human health risk assessment of glyphosate that when used according to the EPA-approved label directions, the pesticide meets all safety standards.
More recently, the German Risk Agency (BfR), which is conducting a glyphosate registration review that began in 2012 for the European Union, issued an update in January that its investigation “did not provide any indications that glyphosate has carcinogenic [effects].”
In a media call about the IARC review, Monsanto's vice president of global regulatory affairs, Phil Miller, said the body should retract its statement and “actually justify how they've come to a conclusion that differs so vastly” from the conclusions of scientific and regulatory bodies like the EPA, which uses “the same information to come to the conclusion that glyphosate is safe for the environment and human health.”
Vroom also said the review is reason to question the value of United Nation member-states investments into IARC. “This is real distraction form IARC’s overall objective,” he said. “It’s a reason for U.S. government to say, ‘Why we are paying for this distraction?’”
Proponents of mandatory GMO labeling laws are using IARC’s review as another reason for consumers to support their efforts, but Vroom said the connection between the cancer study and GMO labeling is too much of a stretch. The IARC review “is a paper tiger,” he said.
However, Scott Faber, the executive director of the Just Label It campaign and vice president of government relations at Environmental Working Group, said in a media call that the IARC analysis should have an impact on the national GMO labeling debate. According to U.S. Geological Survey pesticide use maps, the amount of glyphosate used on genetically engineered crops in the U.S. increased from 27 million pounds in 1996 to 250 million pounds in 2009.
Arguing for the mandatory labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients, he said, “At a minimum we should give consumers the ability to decide whether they want to support a system of agriculture that has led to the widespread use of a likely carcinogen.”
The GMO labeling battle has been more about public perception than scientific analysis, but if EPA “heavily weighs” the IARC review as environmental groups have encouraged, it could have an impact on the chemical’s legal use.
“If at any time EPA discovers that the use of a registered pesticide may result in unreasonable adverse effects on people or the environment, we will take action to remove it from the marketplace or limit its use,” according to the agency.
The IARC report is just “a data point for EPA to take into account as they move ahead with the re-registration review,” Vroom said. “In the meantime it’s provided some our very predictable opponents an opportunity [to take the report out of proportion].”
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