In a massive victory for independent science, it was announced Sunday that the U.S. Senate and Congress appropriations committees have deleted text from a controversial Bill, which would have cut all the U.S. funding to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after they challenged the chemical industry by classifying the world’s most used herbicide, glyphosate, as a probable human carcinogen in 2015.
The ‘IARC rider’ text on page 110 (sec.229) of the draft Labor Health and Human Services FY19 Appropriations Bill was removed after negotiations.
Currently, 25 Nations contribute to IARC’s total budget of about USD $50 million (about EUR 44 million), with 7.5% (USD $3.8 million) coming from the U.S..
Following IARC’s classification of glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen in 2015, Monsanto and the American Chemistry Council launched a full-throttle attack on the international scientific body.
So why all the fuss about IARC and its glyphosate review?
IARC is an arm of the World Health Organization and funded by 24 governments, and predominantly by the NIH National Cancer Institute. It has been reviewing the evidence on potentially carcinogenic agents for over four decades and has been continually improving its process to maintain rigor, objectivity, and transparency.
Enter glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling weedkiller, Roundup, and is used on the majority of commodity crops in the United States because it is effective at controlling a variety of weed types. Any change in the safety determination of this chemical would shake up the messaging that the company has used for years. Monsanto got to work quickly using several plays in the disinformation playbook to control the science and the narrative.
Monsanto’s campaign to tarnish IARC’s credibility
IARC’s monograph volume 112 evaluated glyphosate and four other herbicides by reviewing the published, peer-reviewed scientific literature available and classifying it as a “probable carcinogen.” It was published in March 2015.
A complex campaign to challenge the IARC study and IARC itself had also begun from Monsanto even before the monograph came out since they were tipped off by a former EPA employee on the document’s conclusions months beforehand. Documents released in 2017 revealed that as a part of their plan, they would “get someone like Jerry Rice (ex-IARC) to publish paper on IARC: how it was formed, how it works, hasn’t evolved over time, they are archaic and not needed now.” They would try to form “crop protection advisory groups,” conduct scientific papers on animal carcinogenicity for which “majority of writing can be done by Monsanto” to keep costs down. Monsanto even ghostwrote at least one opinion piece about IARC that was published in Forbes.
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In early 2017, the American Chemistry Council (of which Monsanto is a member) started an organization called the Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research aimed at setting the record straight on cancer determinations for certain items, including glyphosate, red meat, and cell phones by promoting “credible, unbiased, and transparent science as the basis for public policy decisions.” On its website, there are several pieces that attack IARC’s process. This appeared to be almost directly a response to the IARC’s 2015 classification as glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.
Not only was an assault launched on the institution, but the scientists at the helm of IARC and those who composed the glyphosate workgroup have been harassed and their integrity challenged. The conservative advocacy group and known FOIA abusers, Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E and E Legal) filed a series of open record requests to IARC panelists asking for deliberative documents about the glyphosate monograph, to which IARC has told scientists not to release the documents because IARC is the owner of those materials, seeking to defend panelists’ right to debate evidence openly and critically which does not need to be subject to public scrutiny.
The House of Representatives Science Committee, led by the fossil fuel and chemical industry’s favorite champion Lamar Smith, has sent multiple letters to IARC Director, Christopher Wild, questioning the integrity of glyphosate workgroup to which he has responded (in November 2017and January 2018) and defended both the participating scientists and the institution and its process as upholding the “highest principles of transparency, independence, and scientific integrity.”
This whole campaign is eerily similar to the Sugar Association’s effort to derail a World Health Organization (WHO) report that recommended a 10 percent limit on calorie intake from added sugars back in 2003. The report, produced by the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in consultation with 30 health experts, reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that added sugars “threaten the nutritional quality of diets” and that limiting sugar intake would be “likely to contribute to reducing the risk of unhealthy weight gain.” In a letter to the WHO, the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Sugar Association demanded that the report be removed from WHO websites, arguing that “taxpayer dollars should not be used to support misguided, non-science-based reports.”
The letter also threatened the suspension of U.S. funding to the WHO, warning, “We will exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature of [the report] including asking Congressional appropriators to challenge future funding” to the WHO. In addition to attacking the WHO directly, the Sugar Association, along with six other industry trade associations wrote a letter to the secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson asking for his “personal intervention” in removing the WHO/FAO report from the WHO website and challenging the report’s recommended sugar intake limit. Unfortunately, this effort was effective in limiting the report’s influence on health policy. The World Health Assembly—the WHO’s decisionmaking body and the world’s highest health-policy-setting entity—issued a global health strategy on diet and health the following year, and the strategy contained no reference to the comprehensive WHO/FAO report.