The controversy explained over Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide – as far as definitions go, anyway

This week, the World Health Organization managed to inject even more confusion into an already confusing question: whether glyphosate, the common weed killer popularized as Roundup by Monsanto, causes cancer.

Glyphosate poses no cancer risk, according to a report just out from a joint United Nations and WHO meeting on herbicide residues. But just a year ago, another group in the WHO, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, concluded glyphosate is probably carcinogenic. Is anyone not confused at this point?

There is a path to clarity, but it goes through the weeds of public health policy. Here is the takeaway though: The IARC studies whether chemicals can cause cancer under any possible situation — realistic or not — while the joint meeting’s report looks at whether glyphosate can cause cancer in real-life conditions, like if you eat cereal every morning made from corn treated with glyphosate. One of these reports is, by design, much more relevant to your life than the other.

The IARC is also, by design, not supposed to make recommendations to the public. It assesses “hazard,” which in scientific jargon, means something very different than “risk.” David Eastmond, a toxicologist at the University of California, Riverside, uses sharks to illustrate the difference. If you have people gawking at sharks swimming around a tank in an aquarium, the sharks are a hazard, but they pose little risk. If you have a surfer on the beach with a shark waiting offshore, now that shark is both a hazard and a risk.

To the IARC, a shark has sharp teeth and powerful jaws, and the agency doesn’t care if you’re at the beach or at an aquarium…For the real world, regulatory agencies determine “risk” by studying whether consumers or farm workers actually encounter glyphosate at levels that cause cancer. So far, the answer has been no, with the draft summary from the joint meeting this week and the European Food Safety Authority’s reassessment of glyphosate last November…

When the IARC was set up in 1965, its monographs were supposed to be resources for scientists at regulatory agencies. Exposure to potential carcinogens like sunlight or alcohol or chemicals in food might differ from country to country, and the logic was local authorities are in a better position to make local recommendations…It should let national regulatory agencies do the research,” Paolo Boffetta, a cancer epidemiologist…told me back when the agency put out its monograph on red meat.

They went through the same viral public response last year over bacon. They revisit barbecue every now and then. The point remains the same. The IARC evaluates hazard – not risk. The difference is more than semantics.

12 thoughts on “The controversy explained over Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide – as far as definitions go, anyway

  1. J.R. says:

    “Why Bayer’s Big Monsanto Bid Has Fallen Flat : Even if all where to go to plan, lengthy negotiations loom, first with Monsanto, then regulators” See also “Monsanto, Dow, Syngenta: rush for mega-mergers puts food security at risk : Recent deals in the global agrochemical and seed industry, driven by financial motivations, are a threat to farmers, prices and the environment”

  2. 'splain me this says:

    “Newly-accessible court papers allege that agrichemical giant Monsanto manufactured scientific studies affirming the safety of their star product, the hugely-popular weedkiller Roundup, and paid scientists to publish them. In February 2015, Monsanto executive William “Bill” Heydens emailed his staff instructions to ghostwrite portions of a scientific study on the safety of Roundup, and that he would tell scientists to, quote: “just sign their names” to the study. According to this same email, Heydens knew that ghostwriting the study would work: he said that Monsanto had already ghostwritten a study on Roundup in the year 2000.”
    See Monsanto emails @ and

  3. J'accuse says:

    THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — A tribunal brought together by a rights group that aims to highlight what it claims are abuses by U.S. seed company Monsanto Co. has delivered an advisory opinion alleging that the company “engaged in practices which have negatively impacted” people’s rights to a healthy environment, food and good health.
    In its findings, the Monsanto Tribunal said Tuesday that Monsanto has affected the livelihoods and health of farmers and others around the world with its sales of genetically modified seeds and the weed-killer Roundup.
    In a reaction, St. Louis, Missouri-based Monsanto says hearings last year that led to the ruling were staged by “a select group of anti-agriculture technology and anti-Monsanto critics who played organizers, judge and jury.”
    The tribunal says international law should protect the environment.
    See also and

  4. Update says:

    “Herbicide Health Dangers: Monsanto Faces Blowback Over Cancer Cover-Up”
    October 24, 2017 “A release of internal emails has revealed that U.S. agrochemical giant Monsanto manipulated studies of the company’s herbicide, Roundup. Experts believe the product causes cancer – and the consequences for the company could be dire.”
    Cancer Patients Sue Roundup, Claim Ingredient Made Them Sick

  5. Guinea Pig says:

    “Monsanto’s Roundup goes to first trial in giant legal battle” (CBS News)
    “If it loses this battle, Monsanto and its new corporate parent, German chemical giant Bayer, which closed its $60 billion acquisition earlier this month, could face billions in lost revenue. Monsanto doesn’t break out sales of glyphosate, Roundup delivered $4.8 billion in revenue in 2015. In its latest fiscal year, Monsanto cited higher global sales of glyphosate for helping lift total revenue by 8 percent. …Monsanto isn’t relying only on the courts to prove its case. Kantar Media said the company also boosted advertising about Roundup and its safety in 2018’s first quarter by 17 percent, reaching $5.6 million in spending, compared with a year earlier.”
    See also “US: Monsanto on trial over Roundup poisoning case” (Al Jazeera English)

  6. Update says:

    On Friday, the agriculture giant Monsanto was ordered to pay $289m (£226m) damages to a man who claimed the company’s herbicides containing glyphosate caused his cancer.
    A Californian jury said Monsanto should have warned users about the dangers of its Roundup and RangerPro weedkillers.
    The German pharmaceutical group Bayer completed its $66bn takeover of Monsanto in June.
    A Bayer spokesperson told the BBC the two companies operate independently. In a statement the company said: “Bayer is confident, based on the strength of the science, the conclusions of regulators around the world and decades of experience, that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer when used according to the label.”
    The company said it intends to appeal against the verdict.

  7. ‎Update says:

    The world’s most widely used weed killer may also be indirectly killing bees. New research from The University of Texas at Austin shows that honey bees exposed to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, lose some of the beneficial bacteria in their guts and are more susceptible to infection and death from harmful bacteria.
    Scientists believe this is evidence that glyphosate might be contributing to the decline of honey bees and native bees around the world.
    “We need better guidelines for glyphosate use, especially regarding bee exposure, because right now the guidelines assume bees are not harmed by the herbicide,” said Erick Motta, the graduate student who led the research, along with professor Nancy Moran. “Our study shows that’s not true.”
    The findings are published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  8. Angry mom says:

    The glyphosate-based herbicide Roundup is embroiled in cancer cases. Now its maker is putting $5 billion toward a new kind of weed killer Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, said that if Bayer is serious about reforming its products, it has to commit to a “fundamentally new paradigm for pesticides, which must start with a simple principle: This class of chemicals should not end up in people.” EWG has raised concerns about glyphosate’s hazards for children’s health. On Wednesday, EWG published a report saying that Roundup had been detected in 21 oat-based cereals and snack products tested by the organization.

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