In March 2015, as Monsanto Co. was enduring a 12-month, 28 percent slide in its stock price, an agency of the World Health Organization announced that glyphosate, an herbicide developed by Monsanto and sold since 1974 under the trade name Roundup, was “probably carcinogenic in humans.”
Corporate news doesn’t get much worse than that. But now it’s been reported that WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer may have known about, but ignored, a massive U.S. study that found just the opposite. The Agricultural Health Study, led by scientists at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, found no link between exposure to glyphosate and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The National Cancer Society says non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma accounts for 4 percent of all cancer cases in the United States. It is the cancer most frequently blamed on glyphosate.
Creve Coeur-based Monsanto is, of course, a villain to many environmental activists. It has been accused of ghostwriting scientific research papers and paying scientists willing to endorse findings sympathetic to the company. That Monsanto now seems to be the victim of scientific finagling, not the perpetrator, is suspicious to its critics.
One reason for the suspicion: Monsanto is fighting hundreds of lawsuits alleging that exposure to Roundup caused various cancers, but particularly non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One California lawsuit prominently cites the International Agency for Research on Cancer evaluation, saying it “confirms what has been believed for years: that glyphosate is toxic to humans.”
If the research were repudiated, it obviously would help Monsanto’s legal case. The company is currently awaiting regulatory approval in the United States and Europe for its $66 billion acquisition by Bayer AG of Germany.
Reuters news agency reported last week that in a deposition in a California case, scientist Aaron Blair revealed that the Agricultural Health Study of 89,000 farm families, ongoing since 1993, has found no association between exposure to glyphosate and cancers. Blair also was the chairman of the cancer-research agency panel that concluded glyphosate “was probably carcinogenic.”
The agency said it couldn’t include the Agricultural Health Study’s findings because they had not yet formally been published. The agency also said the findings were too voluminous and it didn’t have space for them.
Wait — there was too much evidence, so it had to be omitted? If that’s true, the agency has some explaining to do. The fact that this semi-autonomous branch of the WHO, which itself is an arm of the United Nations, means this is a global political issue.
Roundup has been a godsend to farmers, to say nothing of backyard gardeners. It has boosted food production in a hungry world. If it’s not safe, farmers should know it. If it is safe, critics should calm down.
Science in the interest of public health is too important to be manipulated.