Is glyphosate David or Goliath?

13 May 2016

I must admit to getting emotional when Tottenham failed to get the points to challenge Leicester City for the Premier League title. Much has been written about the significance of Leicester’s win and, for me, it has added spice because Leicester and Tottenham have history. Leicester lost to them in the 1961 FA Cup Final and also lost out to them for the League title in 1963.

I am amused by the fact that the odds of a Leicester win were 5,000:1. This is quoted time and time again as if these odds are real. In fact they are just numbers adopted by the bookmakers. Apparently the odds are only 2,000:1 on finding Elvis Presley alive and kicking; well perhaps not kicking too vigorously as he was born in 1935. However you present it, the press and the public see Leicester’s League title as a triumph for the underdog and a real David v Goliath story.

This has got me thinking about the current travails of glyphosate, the biggest selling pesticide in the world. It is for this reason and its association with GM that it has become a target of the green blob. Now they seem to be having some success in making registration authorities think through the extra ‘evidence’ they have presented against it. I have put ‘evidence’ in inverts because of the standards and relevance of some of the ‘science’ being used to question glyphosate’s safety.

The green blob’s breakthrough came when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, which is part of the World Health Organisation) listed glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans. I wrote two blogs on this subject questioning their decision-making: Glyphosate cancer confusion and Roundup causing cancer? The second of these blogs was written after the European Food Standards Agency questioned the IARC decision.

It may be that the IARC decision was heavily influenced by the presence of a member of the green blob on the inside who helped to lead the decision-making process. This is a quote from an article by Matt Ridley in The Times on 23rd April:

Yet the document depends heavily on the work of an activist employed by a pressure group called the Environmental Defense Fund: Christopher Portier, whose conflict of interest the IARC twice omitted to disclose. Portier chaired the committee that proposed a study on glyphosate and then served as technical adviser to the IARC’s glyphosate report team, even though he is not a toxicologist. He has since been campaigning against glyphosate.

The IARC study is surely pseudoscience. It relies on a tiny number of cherry-picked studies, and even these don’t support its conclusion. The evidence that it causes cancer in humans is especially tenuous, based on three epidemiological studies with confounding factors and small sample sizes “linking” it to Non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). The study ignored the US Agricultural Health Study, which has been tracking some 89,000 farmers and their spouses for 23 years.

The study found “no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes we evaluated, including NHL . . .”

The worrying implication is that far-reaching and important decisions made by major international bodies can now be unduly influenced by the green blob. Surely this cannot continue and there has to be a return to objective and independent decision-making.

The pressure on glyphosate continues. A recent article in The Ecologist suggests that glyphosate kills a key soil fungus. However, it seems that the soil fungus used in this study was artificially exposed in the laboratory to concentrations of formulated glyphosate at levels that would not be found in the field soil environment. Previous investigations using standardised tests show that glyphosate formulations have no long-term effects on microorganisms in soil. I now never read The Ecologist after its leader once suggested that the world should eschew conventional and organic agriculture and we should all go back to hunting and gathering. Need I say more?

So is glyphosate David or Goliath in the fight for its future? I suggest that it is David because of the mass ranks mustered by the green blob that regularly use arguments not based on realistic science. It is as well to remember that everyone loves the underdog; just take Leicester City as an example.