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Roundup Cancer Warning Sparks Fight Over IARC Credibility

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After an international cancer research declared that the active ingredient in Monsanto’s weed killer Roundup as a probable carcinogen, it is coming under fire for how it classifies certain substances. 

In March 2015, the World Heath Orgainization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared that the popular herbicide glyphosate is likely a cancer-causing agent.

The warning has resulted in increasing concerns worldwide about the potential side effects of Roundup exposure, which has been linked to a risk of non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other forms of cancer.

Monsanto has aggressively criticized the decision to list their Roundup as a human carcinogen, dismissing the IARC findings as agenda driven and based on “junk science.”

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has also conflicted with the IARC findings, declaring glyphosate to be safe. Scientists and supporters on both sides of the debate have called the processes of the other unscientific, and the European Commission has delayed the renewal of glyphosate’s license across Europe.

In November, 96 scientists wrote to the EU, calling the EFSA assessment flawed and the IARC’s glyphosate monograph more reliable. However, on April 18, a report published by the news wire agency Reuters indicates that a number of experts worldwide are now raising questions about the IARC’s methodologies due to the glyphosate ruling, and other substances that the IARC has recently declared carcinogenic, such as red and processed meat.

According to the report, 988 out of 989 substances investigated by the IARC have been declared as having some level of cancer risk, which critics say confuses the public and degrades IARC’s credibility.

IARC officials say that lobbyists and the media are the ones who have confused the issue, as the IARC does not consider levels of exposure or compute total risk. It only decides whether there is evidence that a substance can cause cancer, not how much exposure is necessary or the level of risk.

The stakes are high. Glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world.

The use of glyphosate has skyrocketed in recent years, amid Monsanto’s marketing strategy of creating “Roundup Ready” genetically modified seeds for crops, which are designed to withstand heavy use of the herbicide, but have resulted in more and more of the herbicide being sprayed on farm lands.

To date, about 18.9 billion pounds of glyphosate have been sprayed on the world’s crops, according to estimates of a recent study. Researchers found that glyphosate use has increased almost 15-fold since the introduction of “Roundup Ready” crops in 1996.

Roundup Restrictions Considered

A number of countries and communities worldwide have instituted full or partial glyphosate bans amid the Roundup cancer warnings.

At a meeting in March, the countries of Italy, France, Sweden and the Netherlands opposed the renewal of a 15-year license for glyphosate. The current license could expire in June 2016 if the chemical is not re-approved.

In a vote of 347 to 225, the European parliament urged glyphosate restrictions and called for Roundup and other similar weedkillers to only be renewed for seven years.

While the parliament resolution vote is non-binding, it is expected to heavily influence a European Union (EU) pesticides committee that is scheduled to meet May 18-19 to determine the relicensing of glyphosate.

The resolution calls for Roundup to be limited to professional use, which is likely due to the greater availability and use of safety precautions among farm workers, landscapers and other industrial uses, compared to homeowners spraying the chemical around their house.

Concerns over the safety of Roundup are not just limited to Europe. In February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will begin monitoring glyphosate residue in certain foods, which it has never done before.

A recent U.S. Geological Survey on glyphosate usage nationwide found that an estimated 2.6 billion pounds of the herbicide has been sprayed on America’s agricultural land over the two decades since the mid-1990s, when Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” crops that are designed to survive being sprayed with glyphosate, killing the weeds but not the crops.

In all that time, the FDA has never tested for residue or buildup in the food sold to Americans nationwide. In a report published in 2014, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) criticized the FDA for this deficiency in its pesticide program.

Monsanto now faces a growing number of Roundup cancer lawsuits in the United States, typically involving individuals diagnosed with a form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma following heavy exposure to the herbicide as a farm or agricultural worker. The complaints allege that plaintiffs may have avoided a cancer diagnosis if they had been warned about the Roundup risks, as safety precautions could have been taken or other products could have been used to control the growth of weeds.

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