In an investigative report released earlier this week, Reuters uncovered severe intellectual dishonesty in the International Agency for Research on Cancer decision to classify glyphosate as a “possible human carcinogen.”
Glyphosate, also known by its trade name Roundup, is the world’s most popular weed killer. Its frequent use on “Roundup Ready” crops, which are genetically engineered to withstand strong applications that would kill weeds and non-modified plants, landed glyphosate smack dab in the middle of the GMO debate.
Despite a firm scientific consensus that GMO foods are safe to eat, and the existence of hundreds of independent studies that continually find no evidence that glyphosate causes cancer in humans, biases persist.
Dr. Aaron Blair, the leader of IARC’s scientific team chosen to evaluate glyphosate, is a prime example.
Although the retired epidemiologist led IARC’s charge against the weed killer, his fellow committee members weren’t aware that for over two years, their chairman had concealed massive amounts of his research with the U.S. National Cancer Institute all but proving glyphosate’s safety.
The unpublished study, on which Dr. Blair served as a senior researcher, followed tens of thousands of farmworkers and their families. Most importantly, the study revealed no association between glyphosate and a blood cancer called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the disease it is most often (incorrectly) blamed for causing.
Whereas most glyphosate studies are limited to observing the weed killer’s effects on animals, Dr. Blair’s data would have filled a large and internationally relevant hole in human-centered data. When pressed about why he neglected to even attempt publication, Dr. Blair responded that there was simply “too much to fit into one scientific paper.”
A wealth of data would be most scientists’ ultimate fantasy in the age where researchers must regularly publish or risk losing their funding. Independent researchers with the International Epidemiology Institute and the University of Cambridge even agreed there was “no ready explanation” why Dr. Blair never published the data.
The allegations bring into question IARC’s already controversial glyphosate decision, which contradicted the scientific opinion of every other global authority, including the European Food Safety Authority, United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and our nation’s own Environmental Protection Agency. But it’s far from the first time IARC stirred controversy for its questionable scientific practices.
The recent allegations follow almost one year to the day that IARC did an about-face on its 25-year long opinion that coffee causes cancer. While the agency now admits that a morning cup of Joe won’t kill you, they still incredulously maintain red meat, cell phone use, and working the night shift are all probable or possible human carcinogens.
Perhaps most troubling was that after Blair’s involvement in the IARC decision landed him in court, he admitted that his own extensive dataset would have likely changed the outcome of IARC’s glyphosate review.
While essential public health data languished in Blair’s office, IARC’s classification inspired the state of California to require a cancer warning on the product, and paved the way for a deluge of lawsuits against Monsanto, the company that developed glyphosate. Monsanto now faces millions of dollars in legal challenges.
The mischaracterization of glyphosate reverberates far beyond any one company’s financial loss. Glyphosate has hampered excess weed growth for nearly half a century, allowing farmers to till their soil less frequently, thereby minimizing erosion and agricultural runoff into the water supply. There’s a reason glyphosate is a world favorite: It’s inexpensive, less harsh than its alternatives, and it works.
In an era where “fake news” reigns supreme, we cannot allow personal biases to direct the future of scientific knowledge.
Dr. Joseph Perrone is the chef science officer at the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Accountability in Science, which provides a balanced look at the science behind sensational headlines, and seeks to debunk junk science and correct public misconceptions.