Controversy over glyphosate has reached an all-time high in the European Union (EU), after researchers accused the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) of plagiarizing a report supporting its safety. The plagiarized sections were largely lifted from a paper written by the pesticide industry, raising serious concerns about the legitimacy of the findings.
The scandal asserts that the German risk assessment of glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup herbicide, contains sections “copy pasted” from industry contributions, which likely influenced the EU’s favorable vote to renew the chemical’s license.
Questions Surrounding EU Glyphosate Risk Assessment First Surfaced in 2015
Concerns over glyphosate’s toxicity have been mounting since the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) 2015 determination that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen.” In the EU, European Commission leaders met in March 2016 to vote on whether to renew a 15-year license for glyphosate, which was set to expire in June of that year.
The decision was tabled amid mounting opposition, as more than 180,000 Europeans signed a petition calling for glyphosate to be banned outright. Ultimately, more than 2 million signatures were collected against relicensing the chemical. In June 2016, however, the European Commission granted an 18-month extension to glyphosate while they continued the review.
In November 2017, EU countries voted to renew glyphosate’s license for another five years, amid intense debate from opposition who warned the chemical may cause cancer and harm soil health. The decision was said to be largely the result of a BfR (EU-commissioned) risk assessment,1 which essentially found that glyphosate is safe and “classification and labeling [of glyphosate] for carcinogenicity is not warranted.”2
Concerns over whether the assessment was truly an independent review surfaced almost immediately. The Guardian reported at the time that much of the assessment was not actually written by independent scientists but rather “by the European Glyphosate Task Force, a consortium of agrochemical firms.”3
BfR responded, stating that there was too much evidence for them to report on the original studies in-depth so instead they commented on descriptions provided by the industry. “BfR regulators commented, in italics, on the industry text, but this falls well short of what most people would understand as an independent review,” The Guardian noted in 2015.4
German Toxicologist Also Criticized BfR’s Glyphosate Assessment
Peter Clausing, Ph.D., a former industry toxicologist who is now in the employ of Pesticide Action Network Germany, also criticized the BfR assessment and claimed the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) committed scientific fraud when they contradicted the IARC, concluding that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.
According to Clausing, BfR and EFSA included five mouse studies in their evaluation — all of which actually showed that male mice experienced a statistically significant increase in one or more types of cancer.
Clausing also noted that these findings alone exceed the EU’s criterion for the classification of glyphosate as a 1B carcinogen (substances presumed to have carcinogenic potential for humans), which would result in an automatic ban. He also showed that Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines for industry testing of chemicals had been violated. GM Watch wrote:5
“Interestingly, the IARC reviewed the available animal studies and concluded, like Clausing, that they showed that glyphosate caused an increase in cancer. Why the difference of opinion between IARC and the German authorities?
The answer is given in BfR’s own report on IARC’s findings. Unlike the German authorities, IARC applied the superior statistical analysis — the trend test. Also unlike the German authorities, IARC did not violate OECD guidelines by claiming that a second type of statistical analysis canceled out the findings of the first.”
EU Glyphosate Risk Assessment Report Plagiarized From Industry Paper
The most condemning evidence of all comes from Stefan Weber and Helmut Burtscher of the German environmental nongovernmental organization (NGO) Global 2000, who again brought up the curious fact that the EU gave glyphosate a clean bill of health, in contrast to the IARC finding. They explained:6
“The question arose as to whether relevant parts of the risk assessment of glyphosate were not actually written by scientists working for Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), but by the European Glyphosate Task Force (GTF) — the coalition of pesticide companies submitting the application.
This suspicion could not be satisfactorily cleared up during the hearings of the European Parliament’s Special Committee on the Union’s authorization procedure for pesticides (PEST). Therefore in response, a group of parliamentarians with different political affiliations commissioned the present study.”
The researchers used computer software to compare the BfR assessment with one submitted to the EU by Monsanto and other GTF members. Extensive plagiarism was uncovered, particularly in the chapters assessing published studies on health risks related to glyphosate.
In those chapters, 50.1 percent of the content was plagiarized, including “whole paragraphs and entire pages of running text describing the design and outcome of the studies and assessing their relevance and reliability.”
Even evaluations of published studies in the BfR report “were copy pasted from the application for approval and presented as the assessments of the authorities,” Weber and Burtscher wrote. Further, in what they described as “one of their most remarkable findings,” even the BfR’s explanation of how they assessed the published literature was plagiarized from GTF:7
“The BfR had thus copied Monsanto’s explanation of Monsanto’s approach in evaluating the published literature, yet had presented it as the approach of the authority. This is a striking example of deception regarding true authorship.”
Plagiarism Influenced EU’s Conclusions on Glyphosate Safety
The ultimate question, then, is whether BfR’s plagiarism influenced their assessment of glyphosate’s safety, including its potential to cause cancer, to which Weber and Burtscher said the answer is a “clear yes,” adding:8
“The IARC based its cancer classification on ‘limited evidence in humans,’ ‘sufficient evidence in animals’ and ‘strong evidence for genotoxicity’ as possible molecular mechanisms for the carcinogenicity of glyphosate. The GTF, however, classified published studies that link glyphosate to genotoxicity and an increased risk of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans as ‘not reliable.'”
One study in question was conducted by Gilles-Eric Séralini. The lifetime feeding study, published in 2012, revealed numerous shocking problems in rats fed GMO corn, including massive tumors and early death. Rats given glyphosate in their drinking water also developed tumors.
The following year, the publisher retracted the study saying it “did not meet scientific standards,” even though a long and careful investigation found no errors or misrepresentation of data. Follow-up research by Séralini showed that long-term exposure to even ultralow amounts of Roundup may cause tumors, along with liver and kidney damage in rats.
In this study, the dose used was “environmentally relevant in terms of human, domesticated animals and wildlife levels of exposure,” prompting the authors to suggest Roundup may have significant health implications.9,10 However, because the original study was “retracted,” it was excluded from the EU glyphosate assessment. GTF even said it was “not considered reliable anymore.”
In 2017, Hans Muilerman of consumer group Pesticide Action Network (PAN) sent letters to EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis and EFSA, stating that the study’s exclusion amounts to “a very serious case of manipulation” of science.11
In addition to influencing the ultimate EU recommendation in favor of the safety of glyphosate, Weber and Burtscher concluded that BfR also acted deceptively in their actions: “In our opinion, the question of whether the BfR intended to deceive the reader must be answered with a clear ‘yes.’ Clear indications of deception were found.”12
Glyphosate Residues Widespread in Food Supply
Definitively answering the question of whether glyphosate causes cancer is an urgent one, as people are being exposed to it daily. As the most widely used pesticide in the world,13 you can guess that it’s showing up virtually everywhere, and research has detected residues in everything from cereal and granola bars14 to wine and beer.15
While the chemical is widely sprayed on genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops (to the tune of more than 250 million pounds annually in the U.S. alone16), preharvest spraying of glyphosate,17 known as desiccation, is another problem.
About two weeks prior to harvest of grain crops like wheat, oats and barley, glyphosate is sprayed onto the crop, which accelerates the drying process, allowing for earlier harvest. It’s believed that spraying the chemical on crops so close to harvest results in much higher residues and is a major contributing factor to the rising levels of glyphosate in Americans.18
Four Seed Companies Control Majority of Global Market
Chemical company Bayer, which now owns Monsanto, is the largest of four companies that now control more than 60 percent of the global seed market.19 Corteva (a company created out of the recent merger of Dow and DuPont), Chem-China (which recently acquired Syngenta) and BASF make up the other three.
Philip Howard of Michigan State University created the seed industry consolidation chart below, which shows the monopoly these four companies have over the food supply.20
While the industry claims that mergers pave the way for greater innovation and growth, the reality is fewer choices and higher prices for farmers. As just one example, the price of a bag of seed corn has risen from $80 to $300 over the past decade alone — a price hike attributed to the consolidation of seed companies and reduced competition.21
Bayer even announced plans to cut about 10 percent of its global workforce after acquiring Monsanto, after making promises of job growth. Further, Civil Eats reported:22
“These companies also aggressively protect their IP rights, which means less innovation and more restrictions on how seed is used and exchanged, including for seed saving and research purposes.
These restrictions affect conventional and organic agriculture alike by making a large pool of plant genetics inaccessible to public researchers, farmers and independent breeders, which in turn limits the diversity of seed in our landscapes and marketplace and weakens our food security.
A number of studies suggest increased market domination removes companies’ incentive to innovate.”
Moving Toward a Safer, Sustainable Food Supply
With the cozy ties between government regulators and pesticide companies becoming more brazen every day, and the continued consolidation of these companies leading to a virtual takeover of the food supply, what can you do to opt out of the madness?
At the very basic level, refuse to eat foods that are grown using toxic chemicals like glyphosate. Support local farmers growing grass fed and organic foods, and avoid GE foods as well as those desiccated with glyphosate.
As for whether glyphosate causes cancer, in August 2018 a jury ruled in favor of plaintiff Dewayne Johnson in a truly historic case against Monsanto. Johnson — the first of over 8,000 cases pending against the chemical company — claimed Monsanto’s Roundup caused his Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the court agreed.
Monsanto was ordered to pay $289 million in damages to Johnson, and they vowed to appeal, but the appeal was rejected by the judge in October 2018.23 Then, Johnson accepted a $78 million settlement24 after the same judge lowered the punitive damages the jury had awarded him. Although it was considerably less than the original judgment, it was still a major blow to the industry.
As for BfR, they’ve posted a rebuttal to the plagiarism accusations, assuring their assessment is quality-assured and independent, and stating that industry reports are “routinely” part of such assessments.25
The fact remains, though, that it’s unknown what health risks will eventually be revealed from eating food contaminated with low levels of glyphosate. Eating organic as much as possible and investing in a good water filtration system for your home are among the best ways to lower your exposure to glyphosate and other pesticides, as well as not using such chemicals around your home or garden.
If you’re concerned about glyphosate residues in your food, you can help to prompt change by reaching out to the companies that make your food. Let them know that you prefer foods without glyphosate residues — and are prepared to switch brands if necessary to find them.
In addition to voicing your opinion to food companies, contact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and encourage them to restrict preharvest applications of glyphosate in order to reduce the amount of this toxic chemical entering the food supply.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has petitioned the EPA to reduce the amount of glyphosate residues allowed in oats as well as prohibit the use of glyphosate as a preharvest desiccant,26 but as it stands, neither the EPA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) monitors for glyphosate levels on most food crops, even as studies suggest Americans’ exposure levels are increasing.