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Glyphosate use faces scrutiny abroad, legal threats at home

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Monsanto Co., an agrochemical and biotech company headquartered in St. Louis, is facing some of its toughest challenges in the weeks ahead: a possible European ban on glyphosate, and several lawsuits in which plaintiffs charge that Roundup caused their cancer.

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and is used in hundreds of other companies’ weed-killing products, making it the most widely used product in herbicides. Last week the European Commission failed to extend glyphosate’s license for five years as public pressure to ban the herbicide mounts. The current license expires on Dec. 15.

Despite not getting the 15-year license for glyphosate renewed in Europe for the past 18 months while diplomats argued, Monsanto is not worried, said Scott Partridge, vice president of global strategy.

“I don’t think the European Union is focused on banning glyphosate,” Partridge told Farm World. “The debate is a function of politics. The science dictates that the farmers must prevail. Whether we will get the full 15 years or not, I am confident in the process.”

Last Thursday was the committee’s seventh attempt to reach a qualified majority on a decision, with 14 voting for licensing, including the United Kingdom, and nine voting against (including France, Belgium and Italy) with another five abstaining, including Germany.

“Glyphosate is too important a tool to take out of the hands of farmers in the midst of all the incredible challenges to feed 9.7 million by 2050. That’s in our children’s lifetime. We have to feed the world population with a smaller number of farmers, less water, using the most sustainable tools,” Partridge said.

“It is critical Europe has glyphosate. Without it, it will set Europe a half-century back, which will mean a loss of topsoil, soil erosion and more carbon emissions.”

European farmers have been speaking out, too. A spokesman for the German Farming Assoc. said that he doesn’t see a good alternative to glyphosate, and removing the herbicide from use will put their farmers at a competitive disadvantage, according to Deutsche Welle, a broadcaster in Germany.

Pesticide specialist from Purdue University Fred Whitford told Farm World that glyphosate is the most widely used herbicide in the world and there is not another pesticide with the 40-plus years of research and safety that it has, or one with as much flexibility.

“Glyphosate has a good human health profile and good wildlife and water attributes,” he said. “Other products may have the safety profile but don’t have the history of use.”

Partridge said there will be a first hearing in December in which the judge will determine whether there is enough scientific evidence that glyphosate causes cancer. This may be the turning point, he said. In addition to years of research, he cites a new study by the National Institute of Health (see related story this week) and recent court documents that Monsanto claims show foul play.

The legal cases against Monsanto, involving more than 180 plaintiffs, were begun within months of an international report released by the World Health Organization’s cancer agency that found a link between glyphosate and cancer. The 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated glyphosate was a “probable carcinogen,” and the news made headlines around the world.

However, court documents made public show multiple discrepancies in one chapter of that report. Reuters discovered “10 significant changes that were made between the draft chapter on animal studies and the published version of IARC’s glyphosate’s assessment,” according to its news report.

“In each case, a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumors was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one. Reuters was unable to determine who made the changes,” the article read.

Whitford is troubled by the findings. “If this Reuters report is true, how do you move on government policies when the conclusions are based on a report that appears to be fabricated?” he said. “IARC’s conclusion was a powerful report. You don’t go to a master gardener class in which it doesn’t come up. The secondary reports don’t make the press.”

He said the IARC process is not nearly as transparent as the U.S. EPA’s, which is undergoing its own routine review of glyphosate. A draft risk assessment is expected from the agency by early 2018, after multiple delays. The EPA reports that it will take into consideration the IARC findings, as well as the most recent research. After its release, a public comment period will ensue.

Whitford does not expect the EPA will copy the conclusions of IARC.

“The EPA makes its own decisions, although the IARC report does put EPA under tremendous pressure to defend its previous decision. If new science does emerge about glyphosate (or any other pesticide), we need to be flexible enough to change with it,” he said.