Round-up reputation ‘rooned’

View From the Paddock: Round-up 'rooned'


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The time has come for a serious evaluation of the usefulness of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, given its recent stance on glyphosate.

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Trent Thorne

Trent Thorne

The time has come for a serious evaluation of the usefulness of the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, given its recent stance on glyphosate and that it can be reasonably argued that it is the genesis of so much hysteria. 

The chemical’s use sparked significant debate in 2015 when IARC concluded that it was ‘probably carcinogenic,’ adding it to a category that also contains red meat.

IARC’s work is focused exclusively on assessing the cancer hazard of a substance, rather than the cancer risk, and therein lies the rub. 

IARC has assessed 1001 substances since 1971, and only one has been determined ‘probably not’ likely to cause cancer in humans, while the rest are identified as a possible, probable or certain carcinogen.

This mob would put Chicken Little to shame.  To them, everything – literally everything – gives you cancer.  

In this regard, IARC only recently downgraded its original 1991 classification of coffee from ‘possibly carcinogenic’ to ‘not classifiable as to carcinogenicity’ (irrespective, it had been calculated that you needed to be drinking 87 cups of coffee per day, to have any remote prospect of getting cancer).

Numerous national and international agencies have reviewed glyphosate, including the US Food & Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Authority, yet IARC is the only one to declare the substance a probable carcinogen.

IARC wilfully ignores a basic foundation of toxicology, which holds that ‘the dose makes the poison’. There is no doubt that glyphosate is less toxic than table salt, caffeine, aspirin and baking soda.  The reality is that even water can be toxic if you drink enough of it. 

On the back of IARC’s 2015 announcement, the European Union has sought to ban the use of glyphosate from 2022, it has prompted mass litigation in the United States against Monsanto (the manufacturer of Roundup), which reached its nadir in August when it was ordered to pay a dying Californian man $395m following a jury trial, and a Brazilian court suspended its use (a decision that was only overturned last week). 

The process that IARC followed in reaching its 2015 decision on glyphosate has also been seriously questioned on a number of bases, largely due to the fact that it:

  • edited out findings from the draft IARC report that were contrary to its ultimate conclusion that the chemical probably causes cancer; and
  • overlooked the long-term US Agricultural Health Study, which included some 90,000 farmworkers and their spouses in Iowa and North Carolina over two decades, that found no significant association between glyphosate and overall cancer risk.

There are murmurings afoot in the US about withholding funding to IARC given its recent rejection of the overwhelming consensus on glyphosate risk, and it is something that should be given serious consideration in Australia too. 

Given a choice of a world with either IARC or glyphosate in it, I know which one I would choose, and I have little doubt that the overwhelming majority of farmers would be in lock step behind me.

 – Trent Thorne, agribusiness lawyer

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