Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Chemical Trespass! RoundingUp Birth Defects

Two weeks ago I wrote about genetic trespass. This week it’s chemical trespass. Monsanto makes news again.

An international team of highly respected scientists has just released a stunning report, Roundup and Birth Defects, proving that Monsanto and industry regulators have known for decades that Monsanto’s top-selling weedkiller, Roundup, causes birth defects in laboratory animals.

Unfortunately, regulators have chosen to do next to nothing. One course of action they did take was to cover up their findings for nearly 30 years, asserting over and over that glyphosate is safe. Meanwhile, Monsanto has made billions of dollars in profits from Roundup sales over the years, reinvesting a tidy portion of these profits in lobbying regulators in the U.S. and Europe to keep the nozzle open wide.

They knew it all along

We have seen all too often how Monsanto’s people have bought and paid for favorable pesticide and agricultural biotech policies in the U.S. This time, the drama is unfolding in Europe. Germany — which as “glyphosate rapporteur” is responsible for reporting the results of industry studies to the European Union — has become Monsanto’s key accomplice, assuring the European Commission that industry studies indicate that glyphosate is safe.

In fact, those studies — conducted by Monsanto, Dow and other chemical companies — show no such thing. Instead they found “skeletal or visceral [internal organ] abnormalities” (for example, an extra 13th rib, heart defects, late embryonic deaths in rabbits), after exposure to the weedkiller. (Germany argued that the consequences of the heart malformations were uncertain and so could therefore just be ignored.)

Who knew what, when (excerpted from the report):

  • Industry has known since the 1980s that glyphosate causes malformations in experimental animals at high doses; since 1993 they've known that these effects could also occur at lower and mid-range doses.
  • The German government has known since at least 1998 that glyphosate causes malformations.
  • The EU Commission’s expert scientific review panel knew in 1999 that glyphosate causes malformations.
  • The EU Commission has known since 2002 that glyphosate causes malformations. (This was the year its DG SANCO division published its final review report, laying out the basis for the current approval of glyphosate.)

Monsanto's response? A statement on their website claiming that "Regulatory authorities and independent experts around the world agree that glyphosate does not cause adverse reproductive effects … or birth defects." That's the whole point! Regulators and (corporate) experts may agree, but they are not necessarily basing their agreement on all the scientific evidence at hand.

Europe’s gold standard thrown under the bus (just for 20 years)

Glyphosate is coming up for review. Meanwhile, a much-heralded new European pesticide rule — presumed the gold standard in pesticide regulation — comes into force this month. If assessed according to the new rule, glyphosate would almost certainly be banned. This is because the new law requires regulators to consider “scientific peer-reviewed open literature” when assessing pesticide toxicity. And much of the independent science shows birth defects, cancer, genetic damage, endocrine disruption and other serious effects, even at very low doses. 

While taking a look at what scientists are telling us about a very dangerous chemical seems like a no-brainer, the reality is that up until now, regulators have been forced to rely on badly conducted industry-generated “grey literature”. Adding insult to injury, under commercial confidentiality rules, these industry studies are withheld from the public, making it nearly impossible for the public — let alone independent scientists — to question the basis of regulators’ decisions that affect our health.

For a moment there, with this new rule coming into force, glyphosate's days seemed numbered. But never to be outdone by democratic processes, industry has succeeded in delaying its review. For a very complicated set of reasons, a thorough review of glyphosate's toxicity — taking into account the latest science and using up-to-date methodologies — will now likely not take place until 2030 — a delay of nearly two more decades.

Roundup gets a free ride

Claire Robinson, co-author of the report and researcher at the sustainability NGO Earth Open Source, explains the crucial significance of this delay:

Glyphosate could get a free regulatory ride until 2030, at a time when biotech companies are pressuring the EU for permission to cultivate glyphosate-tolerant GM seeds in Europe.

If the EU Commission gives its approval, this will lead to a massive increase in the amount of glyphosate sprayed in the fields of EU member states, as has already happened in North and South America.

In fact, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack will be in Paris this month, where at the invitation of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he will be meeting agriculture ministers from G20 countries. According to the Hagstrom Report, Vilsack says that he will be talking about biotechnology and raising “the need for science-based rules as one of the ways to increase world agricultural production and achieve greater food security.” He should have qualified the U.S. approach as rule-making based on corporate science, not peer-reviewed science.

PAN Europe sues

On May 4, PAN Europe and Greenpeace filed a complaint before the General Court of the European Union, challenging the European Commission’s decision to delay review of glyphosate. That same decision also delays the review of 38 other pesticides, including the possible carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, 2,4-D, among other hazardous chemicals.

According to Hans Muilerman of PAN Europe,

This Commission Directive opens a backdoor to allow further market access to pesticides based on the findings of very old studies. It violates EU pesticide regulation, giving priority to the protection of commercial interests over human health.

Eight months ago, we wrote about new studies by independent scientists linking birth defects to Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup. Little did any of us know then that incriminating evidence from other studies had already been collected by the companies — but kept carefully out of the public eye.

As the Roundup and Birth Defects report’s authors put it:

The work of independent scientists who have drawn attention to the herbicide’s teratogenic effects has been ignored, denigrated, or dismissed. These actions on the part of industry and regulators have endangered public health. They have also contributed to the growing division between independent and industry science, which in turn erodes public trust in the regulatory process.

What little we had left.

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii

Marcia Ishii is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii

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